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 Entrepreneurs may be born, but can be taught how to thrive

 

 Like so many entrepreneurship experts all over the world, Business Partners regional general manager Byron Jeacocks is unsure to what extent entrepreneurship can be taught, but he is clear about one absolute certainty – South Africa has to get better at it if we are to develop beyond our pressing economic and social problems.

​“There is no research that says ‘this is the entrepreneurship gene’,” says Jeacocks. Entrepreneurial prowess is a complex combination of a wide-ranging set of talents and skills, and with each of them, one can see an inherited talent at work, as well as a taught component.

Besides, says Jeacocks, while a certain degree of inborn talent is necessary to start and grow a business, it is certainly not sufficient. To illustrate, he refers to his own experience as a youthful athlete who was so used to winning at school simply by relying on his innate speed, that he was later beaten by naturally slower athletes who, because of their lack of talent, had acquired a habit of hard work to compensate. “I simply gave up too soon because I had never learned that level of discipline,” he says.

Similarly, in any cohort of school leavers it is not necessarily the high achievers who become entrepreneurs. In fact, it is very often those who were pushed into acquiring practical “doing skills” because they were struggling academically who go into business for themselves. And they often benefit from having learned better work habits than those for whom school work was easy.

What can South Africa do to produce more and better entrepreneurs? For Jeacocks, the answer lies in dissecting the attributes of a successful entrepreneur, recognising that a certain part of each attribute cannot be taught, but that others can indeed.

The ability to spot an opportunity is one such attribute. Some are born with more innate ability to think creatively and to envision a different way of doing things. But Jeacocks believes that this talent can be nurtured and stimulated. By encouraging a child to make and sell pencil cases out of old cooldrink bottles, for example, is more educational than simply sending them off with a bag of sweets to sell at their market day.

Good basic education has a major influence, if not on the actual spotting of entrepreneurial opportunities, then on the ability of someone to act on it and implement. Fluent numeracy and literacy helps someone who has spotted an opportunity to calculate the viability quickly and assess the risks involved.

Risk taking is another attribute of entrepreneurs that seems to be innate. Yet what makes a successful entrepreneur is not the ease with which they take blind, crazy risks, but their ability to calculate levels of risk and to act accordingly. Again, good basic education can give a naturally talented entrepreneur the tools to calculate risk more accurately, and so bring their risk-taking prowess to the fore.

Furthermore, just by presenting business start-up as a valid career option can steer more natural risk-takers into the direction of entrepreneurship instead of having them confined to corporate career paths because that was what their parents and the educational system emphasised.

Entrepreneurs tend to be optimistic by nature. Surely a broad personality trait like optimism cannot possibly be taught? Perhaps not, says Jeacocks, but it can be enhanced. Confidence is the practical manifestation of optimism, and there are few things that enhance confidence as much as a good skills set and a solid general knowledge of how the world works. Once again, good basic education is key.

Another way of enhancing entrepreneurial optimism is to celebrate successful entrepreneurs and hold them up as role models. If they could do it, the natural optimist is bound to think, so can I.

The same goes for leadership. Entrepreneurs all have to be leaders to a certain extent, because for extended periods during the growth of their ventures they must lead teams of people whom they have to recruit and inspire to pull in one direction. You can argue convincingly that leadership is largely innate, but the force, quality and effectiveness of that leadership can be shaped through nurturing.

Looking at the entrepreneurship patterns in South Africa, Jeacocks points out that the vast majority of local business owners are what the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor calls necessity entrepreneurs – those who try to run businesses because they cannot find work. They eke out a living and seldom grow and employ others.

Yet they show that there are enough South Africans who do not shy away from getting up and making a plan. Given the right skills and education, more South Africans will become opportunity entrepreneurs – those who start businesses not because they have to, but because the natural entrepreneur in them has been allowed to emerge. They are the ones who create jobs and make the economy grow.

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