Entrepreneurship: Acquired or Inherited?

G ermany needs more entrepreneurs. But while recent surveys agree that 25% to 30% of young scientists have good chances for creating a start-up, only 5% currently dare to take this step. In our ongoing series, Next Wave Germany and the Berlin Institute of Entrepreneurship have invited leading experts to discuss ways in which the culture of entrepreneurship can be fostered at German universities. This week, Jörn-Axel Meyer, who teaches economics at the University of Flensburg, Germany, writes about the interplay of motivation and selection in the education of young entrepreneurs.

The attributes of and requirements for entrepreneurs and company owners have been described and discussed for centuries. From Castillion and Schumpeter to Casson many characteristics have been brought together, which can be classified into the generic terms of "ability" (e.g., intelligence, intuition, persistence) and "ambition" (e.g., enthusiasm, thinking of investments, willingness, and readiness for privation). Given that, it is still by no means clear whether and which of these attributes/requirements can be acquired or inherited.

These features make the education of an entrepreneur more difficult. In many other disciplines diligence can make up for missing talents. That is not necessarily true in entrepreneurship. Many crucial skills are innate. In this sense it is important for the entrepreneurial education to motivate the students, to find the talented ones among them, and to communicate the necessary implements. If the attributes can be acquired, it would be fatal to select and support only a few and not give the rest a chance to develop. Therefore a conflict exists within the education system between teaching and selection, where a reasonable balance has to be found.

In this situation, entrepreneurial education at the universities encounters a very diverse body of students, because they are differently motivated ("ambition"), pre-educated, and capable ("ability"). In an entrepreneurial education as a course of studies the students are expected to have thought about their motives for their future work, and therefore the focus is on giving them the "ability."

Offers for such studies rarely exist. The entrepreneurial subjects rather represent only one of many main subjects within the general study of business administration and compete with the classical disciplines in business administration. To study entrepreneurship is therefore only one motivation among several for the students.

The motives of these students in choosing entrepreneurship as a main subject within a general course of studies are supposedly very different: They range from the compulsory attendance of the subject and the expectation to select a supposedly easy subject to an honest interest and enthusiasm for the issue (therefore the "ambition" is noticeable).

But also the noticeable "ambition" cannot cover up the fact that among these students there are also some who want to found a company because of fashion or because they see themselves as a competent entrepreneur in a form of self-overestimation. A lack of "ability" could be seen here. The idolisation of founders in the news during the past few years could have led to this questionable motivation.

All the more difficult a task in entrepreneurial education is to identify competent candidates for a company ownership ("ambition" and "ability") from all students and then support them.

But of all considerations regarding entrepreneurial competence, it is most difficult to find out whether a bad qualification results from a lack of (learnable) pre-education or from heredity. On the other side it is questionable which of the entrepreneurial competences can be acquired at all. Moreover, with the identification of a promising combination of "ambition" and "ability," only the potential of these students can be recognised. This is obviously not a guarantee for a later success as a company founder.

So entrepreneurial education can be seen as an almost impossible task. It is an education that on one hand motivates and forms masses of students, but on the other hand has to identify and support students who are especially competent to work as a founder. This demands for a selection on a high level and an intensive assistance of the students. A high attractiveness of the education and at the same time very high demands on the students will naturally discover students who a priori have no "ambition." An intensive assistance of the remaining motivated students will allow a basic assessment of the demands on entrepreneurs and company owners (the necessary "ability") and therefore a safe selection and support of the "high potentials."

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