What does it take to become the next great entrepreneur in the ranks of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Mark Zuckerberg, or Michael Dell?
Social scientists have debated this question ad nauseam, but speaking pragmatically, I believe that the ingredients for success as an entrepreneur are as follows: the first 1/3 is DNA––our genetic disposition and naturally endowed entrepreneurial spirit; the second 1/3 is environmental––the childhood and adolescent social interactions within our families, barrios, and other social organizations absolutely inform our desires, creative impulses, and life narratives; and finally, the last 1/3 is our formal education, which can be invaluable if approached intelligently.
While creating an entrepreneurial environment is the subject of prior and future posts, this particular post attempts to deal with the following question: what opportunities do we have to change our entrepreneurship curricula to seriously unleash the entrepreneurial energy of our children and youth? Answering this question requires that we eradicate three, pervasive myths:
(a) You have to go to college to become a successful innovator or entrepreneur.
(b) The quality of innovators and entrepreneurs depends on their rigorous theoretical training and to master complex theories and concepts.
(c) The success of innovators and entrepreneurs highly correlates with their GPAs or test scores.
The first myth goes away easily when we look at the life narratives of Steve, Bill, Larry, Mark or Michael, all of whom were college “drop-outs”!
There is something unique in the DNA and development environments of all of these persons, which provided the requisite courage and energy to create great companies. Researching their biographies, I learned that they all had formative experiences in elementary, middle or high school that compelled them to seriously think about entrepreneurship, innovation and economic reward. These experiences were the sparks that encouraged them to take unique risks, eventually contravening against social expectations to pursue the “unreasonable”.
In response to the second myth, I do not believe that we require rigorous theoretical training to be successful. Innovation and entrepreneurship is about doing––testing, trying, and learning experientially as you proceed. There is nothing wrong with theory, or being able to keep up with discourse at the highest levels of abstraction. That is absolutely an intellectual achievement in its own right. However, it’s not a prerequisite to becoming a successful entrepreneur. There is a unique type of learning that only happens when we are able to see the implications of a theory in a real world context. We learn even more when we attempt to solve unmet human needs and, perhaps more importantly, test the willingness of markets to pay for our solutions to those needs. However, many of us have to be re-programmed to understand that receiving fair economic reward in exchange for the scientific discoveries or technological innovations that we bring to the marketplace is not intellectual betrayal, but rather a noble and positive expression of market economics.
Finally, while the last myth is tempting to believe, top grades can have a perverse side effect of “killing” the entrepreneurial seeds of youth, as a lot of us will seek the safety and security of learning what will warrant a top grade. In fact, our passions must be directed always towards learning in its truest sense: risk-taking, and unapologetically challenging a social orthodoxy that in many ways has gone awry. Students can happily digress from the secure confines of a linear textbook into awesome non-linear experiences, allowing them to discern new patterns, squeezing their brains to see the unseen. It is true that most teachers will not lovingly guide us into such “unsafe territory”, and hence most students will never have these transcendent intellectual experiences.
What Steve, Bill, Larry, Mark and Michael have in common is their ability to take risks, be unafraid of failure, and in the process have FUN! All of them saw unseen market opportunities, and understood that those opportunities were too compelling to not pursue them. Following the great entrepreneurs before them, they abandoned their academic pursuits — and even personal lives — to find entrepreneurial success.
It’s important to note that these entrepreneurs took risks that fall into one of two categories: (a) the risks of innovators, who, like Thomas Edison, are not afraid to fail 10,000 times in their endeavor to find the correct filament for their own incandescent light bulbs; and (b) the risks of entrepreneurs, who have a rare ability to organize and manage the innovators’ ideas into replicable, profitable, fundable and scalable products and services as they gain market traction. No matter these distinctions, though, what both archetypes have in common is that they are highly (i) creative (they seek to solve yet unmet human needs) and (ii) risk-taking (they are prepared to tell society that it is wrong). In other words, both are not afraid to be unreasonable about their visions, their expectations of themselves and others, or their abilities to affect change.
George Bernard Shaw aptly characterized the Steves, Bills, Larrys, Marks, and Michaels of the world when he said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself…Therefore, all progress depends upon the unreasonable man.”
In this new millennium, Latin America is migrating millions of people out of poverty in Chile, Brazil, Colombia and Peru. The real question is, what are the aspirations of the children born within these nouveau riche families? Will they become members of the Xbox generation that uses its free time to gossip on Facebook? Or have they retained that figurative (and sometimes literal) hunger, risk-taking mentality, and street smarts of prior generations, all the while leveraging the benefits of better health and education to lead an entrepreneurial revolution in Latin America?
Until my next post — Carlos B.
 Thomas Alva Edison said, “I have not failed, I have found 10,000 ways that did not work.”  George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925.  This trend is also occurring in smaller countries like Uruguay and Panama, and hopefully the trend will expand to the other very populous Latin American country, Mexico.