After letting go of her long-held dream of becoming a writer, a period of soul-searching led Leanora Horne to her light bulb moment. Having repeatedly worked on other people’s businesses, she wanted to create her own.
But how to go about it? She turned first to Google, tapping in the words, "How do I become an entrepreneur?" The answer shot straight back: take a course.
It’s a question that is often asked, and entrepreneurship education is seeing a significant spike in demand as a result. However, opinions are divided as to whether this is the right route. Some believe in the power of formal education, some believe it’s a process of trial and error, and others believe entrepreneurship is in your blood and, quite simply, cannot be learned.
The Academic Path
Horne took the advice and enrolled in the master’s program at Melbourne’s Wade Institute of Entrepreneurship.
"Within a few hours of being in that classroom, I knew I had chosen the right pathway," she tells The CEO Magazine.
One intense year later, she emerged with a fresh qualification, new knowledge in a range of areas like financial control and practical experience of setting up a business – an important part of the course. She had met numerous experts, had built her own network and now felt confident to put her learnings into action.
"I could have run a baby business without the master’s, but it would have been a trial by fire," Horne reflects. "It would have been learning everything the hard way, and a lot of key decisions I would have made without any knowledge of best practice. The course definitely provided the necessary structure."
Although she didn’t end up establishing her own business, instead choosing to take the path of an intrapreneur, she credits her entrepreneurship studies with equipping her with the skills to help companies innovate and evolve from within.
A Learning Shift
In March 2020, as the magnitude of the COVID-19 global health crisis set in, demand rose 66 percent year over year for online courses, according to Studyportals. But it had already been rising pre-pandemic.
According to AACSB International, the number of undergraduate-level programs increased by 23.75 percent between 2017–2018 and 2019–2020, with schools in northern Europe and North America representing the lion’s share of this growth.
Human-centered design and lean and agile methodologies have helped her in her subsequent work with companies like Camplify, and now as Product Delivery Manager at mining and resources solutions provider Bradken.
"Entrepreneurship and being entrepreneurial can be developed in everyone," says Swinburne University’s Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Chief Academic Officer, Chris Pilgrim.
"I could have run a baby business without the master’s, but it would have been a trial by fire." – Leanora Horne
"Being entrepreneurial requires organizations to react quickly and do so efficiently, which necessitates understanding how to apply lean startup principles. It requires a willingness to take measured risks and relies on knowledge, intuition and applying a collaborative, value-based style of leadership."
But of course, it comes with its challenges. "One of the key challenges of teaching and learning entrepreneurship is to get people to recognize just how creative they can be," he explains. "This requires breaking old cognitive patterns, risk-taking and recognition that we can do things differently."
In the United States, the Wharton School’s approach to the topic is based on the three key phases of the entrepreneurial journey – ideation, evaluation and scaling.
"Financing and advising are also critical functions to support growing ventures," explains Lori Rosenkopf, Vice Dean of Entrepreneurship. "And, of course, building a growth mindset and resilience is very important as well."
Born, Not Made
In the opposite corner, Singapore-based Lance Ng started his first company when he was 25, after a short stint in the corporate world. In addition to his small marketing agency business, he also recently co-founded Scrapp Deals, a waste management startup backed by venture capital.
"I’ve been an entrepreneur for most of my career," he confirms.
He firmly believes entrepreneurs are characterized by certain traits that cannot be learned, such as higher-risk appetites and greater levels of motivation and determination.
"I believe these traits are inborn. You can teach anyone to play the piano or tennis, but you can’t turn anyone off the street into a world-class pianist or tennis pro if they lack the inborn talent that helps them advance quickly and gives them that natural advantage," he says.
"You can teach anyone how to start and run a business, but whether they actually enjoy doing it or succeed at a very high level has a lot to do with innate predisposition." – Lance Ng
"It is the same with being an entrepreneur – you can teach anyone how to start and run a business, but whether they actually enjoy doing it or succeed at a very high level has a lot to do with innate predisposition."
Several studies also support the idea that entrepreneurial traits stem from DNA. Through his research work, Scott A Shane, Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies at Case Western Reserve University, found that the tendency to be an entrepreneur had a genetic component, as did the tendency to identify new business opportunities and generate self-employment income.
Furthermore, a 2006 national survey conducted by Northeastern University’s School of Technological Entrepreneurship showed that 62 percent of entrepreneurs in the United States cited ‘innate drive’ as their number one motivator in starting their own venture, while only one percent selected ‘higher education’. Not only that, 42 percent of survey respondents said they launched their first venture in childhood.
After all, the list of entrepreneurs who never quite finished college is lengthy – Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Melanie Perkins, Michael Dell, Daniel Ek and Evan Williams to name a few. Richard Branson didn’t even finish high school.
An Accessible Approach
Branson believes that everybody is born an entrepreneur; what differs are the opportunities they have access to. He launched his Disruptive Entrepreneurship course with subscription-based learning platform Masterclass last year. The course covers aspects like how to harness the adventurer’s mindset and leading with purpose.
"Throughout my life, I’ve been drawn to the impossible business ventures that spark my curiosity," Branson said upon its launch. "However, I’ve learned that reaching for the stars requires a daring and disruptive mindset, and I’m delighted to share my personal and professional experiences to help guide the next generation of innovators looking to change the world."
In the Shadow of the Unicorn
Having spent years researching the topic, Ethan Mollick, also of Wharton, has devised a ‘scientific approach’ that startups can use to gather data, which will increase their chance of success, making entrepreneurship more accessible across the board.
His 2020 book The Unicorn’s Shadow attempts to dispel misconceptions around the idea of entrepreneurship that can hold back both individuals and society.
Both Branson and Ng believe in the importance of mentorship and also learning from failure to create a path to entrepreneurial success – and Karen Beattie, Founder and CEO of online learning platform The Growth Faculty, also agrees.
"It’s really important to have that educational foundation, but as with everything, experience is really paramount and you learn through your failures even more so," she says. "You become more resilient and as your business grows, your capacity to manage those challenges and bounce back is much greater."
She highlights leadership skills as particularly paramount and has created a business dedicated to making these more accessible for leaders of small-to-medium businesses.
"This learning needs to take place at all stages of the entrepreneurial journey," she explains. "As their needs as an entrepreneur change, their educational need will change as their business grows."
So whether certain entrepreneurial traits are innate or not has become somewhat irrelevant – today’s entrepreneurs are not all cast from the same mold. But now the tools and support are available to help anyone with passion and a great idea forward on their entrepreneurial journey.