Are Entrepreneurs Born or Made?

What does it take to be a successful entrepreneur? We investigate whether experience or innate ability matters more. Read on for interviews from entrepreneurs on how they achieved success.

Connor Campbell Published on 19 November 2021.
Are Entrepreneurs Born or Made?

Throughout history, great entrepreneurial minds have left a lasting stamp on the world. From Thomas Edison and Henry Ford to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, these innovators helped build the future.

But what are the foundations for becoming an entrepreneur? Is it education? Experience? An innate drive?

In a recent series of interviews, NerdWallet’s Connor Campbell explores these questions by quizzing entrepreneurs on their paths to success. With our interviewees highlighting factors such as disposition, enthusiasm, determination, experience and education, it seems that the answer is far from black and white.

A ‘default setting'

  • Richard Murray launched his business after going to university and then working as an accountant in London.
  • He credits university for helping him get established in a career, but couldn’t resist the pull of entrepreneurship.
  • Life experiences helped him along the way, but entrepreneurship was always his ‘default setting’.

Retail entrepreneur Richard Murray launched his business, Murray’s Fresh Fish, after spells working at city firms PwC and Morgan Stanley. A history graduate, Richard credits university with providing some of the starting impetus that set him on the path to launching a business: “A degree is useful because it gives you the momentum, the confidence, to take those risks or to make a decision.” He goes on to emphasise the value of forming a network (and learning how to network) as key benefits from going to university.

There was also a more fundamental influence driving Richard towards starting his own business. “I grew up with a father who started his own company,” he explains. "So I think I had it both in my blood and my personal experience."

No surprise that after a few years working as an employee, he came to understand that “he didn’t enjoy that world”. Launching a business felt like returning to a “default setting” that he had been neglecting.

This would suggest a nuanced narrative of how some entrepreneurs come to their calling – one of natural tendencies being enabled by education and experience.

The power of passion

  • Morgan Lewis decided against university, instead launching her baking business at just 17.
  • Despite initial resistance from friends and family, her determination pulled her through.
  • Morgan’s Plan A was a career in musical theatre, but it wasn’t meant to be.

Norfolk-based business owner Morgan Lewis is a shining example of an entrepreneur who took a more direct path. After completing her first year of college, Morgan decided that academia wasn’t for her, and instead chose to focus on her passion for baking. She christened her new business BakeaholicsUK and began the slow process of building a following at local markets.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, it at first seemed as if everything Morgan had worked for would be taken away: but this setback, in fact, laid the groundwork for major growth. Morgan pivoted to a delivery model, and in a few months the initial trickle of orders turned into a flood.

The exceptional thing about Morgan’s story is the sheer determination she showed to get her business up and running.

“At the time, my Mum and Dad were saying, ‘You’re doing the wrong thing,’” she recalls. “But I was really stubborn. I knew what I wanted.”

The fact she was following a lifelong dream strengthened her conviction. “I have always baked, since I was a child,” she says, before describing attempts to get sent away for the summer on cooking courses and episodes turning the house upside down making cakes.

With that said, it’s not necessarily the case that Morgan was irresistibly drawn to entrepreneurship. Before pursuing baking full-time, she sought a career in musical theatre.

“My goal when I was younger was to do performing arts,” she explains. Unfortunately, she was rejected from all the schools she applied to, ultimately putting a stop to her ambitions.

Had those auditions gone differently, perhaps Morgan would be fronting a West End show rather than honing her baking skills. (Of course, Bakeaholics’ 26.5k Instagram followers will be glad her career went the way it did.) This forking path draws attention to the ways entrepreneurs must be alive to opportunity, but also how they should scrutinise what it is they really want to do.

Follow your own path

  • Career coach Andy Bourne emphasises the differences between individuals.
  • He understands that grit is important, but it needs to go hand in hand with passion and aptitude.
  • Whether or not to take the leap into business should be a product of self-reflection.

Alongside these two audio interviews, career coach Andy Bourne spoke to NerdWallet to discuss the extent to which a university degree contributes to business success. Coming from the vantage point as an experienced mentor of business owners and senior executives alike, and a business owner himself, Andy offers a valuable perspective on the variety of ways people can become entrepreneurs.

Speaking frankly about whether he could have launched a business before hitting 20, Andy says: “I certainly wasn’t sufficiently mature. I had a year off before going to university. I would not have known how to start up a new business. I didn’t have that self-confidence to go into the world and start selling products and services. I needed to go and find myself a bit more – I needed to go away and be an independent young adult.”

However, in other domains Andy has shown grit and determination in spades. Not only has he swum for Great Britain, he is also currently ranked as one of the top triathletes in the country. One story from the early days of his swimming career exemplifies his determined attitude.

“My childhood coach told me that I was a ‘nice boy’, but I’d never make it,” he explains. Many would have taken that as a cue to give up, but Andy persevered.

“What happens is, if you hang in there you continue to develop. People who may have been more talented than you, they fall by the wayside because they failed to apply themselves like you did.”

Here, a clear analogy can be drawn with entrepreneurship.

“Certainly, as an entrepreneur you do have to work hard, and you do need to believe in yourself,” he says. “You could say it’s more about perspiration than inspiration!”

And, though Andy acknowledges that there could well be an entrepreneurial ‘type’, he is at pains to stress how people change throughout their lives. Risk aversion is one example of a trait that waxes and wanes over the years – peaks in entrepreneurial activity occur in young adulthood and then again later in life, when a person’s children might have just left home.

Always keen to avoid oversimplification, Andy emphasises: “When something is presented as ‘Do I do this? Or do I do that?’, the answer is often to take a step back and establish what the right questions to ask yourself really are. Questions like ‘What’s your passion? What are you like as a person? What are your biggest needs? Who influences you?’ Different people will have different answers, and that’s why they’ll end up on different paths in life.”

This gets to the heart of the matter. The more important question than asking whether an entrepreneur is born or made is: do you want to be an entrepreneur? If your answer is no, ask yourself again another time – for some people, including our interviewees, the right career and the right time is not always easy to predict.

If you can answer yes, then congratulations – you've taken the first step towards launching your own business.

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Image source: Getty Images

About the author:

Connor is a writer and spokesperson for NerdWallet. Previously at Spreadex, his market commentary has been quoted in the likes of the BBC, The Guardian, Evening Standard, Reuters and The Independent. Read more

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