Who Becomes an Entrepreneur?
What is an entrepreneur? If you ask someone to picture an entrepreneur and describe their background, there’s a good chance you’ll hear a variation on one of two responses—and very probably both offered at once.
First up is the tech wizard, majoring in computer science, who may graduate or might just drop out after getting a billion-dollar idea.
The other is the pedigreed business major who knows everything about the business world. They may or may not have an MBA, and the more prestigious the school, the better.
But don’t let common assumptions affect your own thinking when you’re thinking about taking the leap into starting a business. The truth is that any kind of person can be an entrepreneur—and conversely, no background guarantees entrepreneurship, either. Your mindset and approach matter a lot more than educational level or background. An entrepreneur really can come from anywhere.
One of the enduring entrepreneurial archetypes is the high-tech college dropout. It’s Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg with billion-dollar ideas in their dorm rooms. It’s Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison, geniuses without a diploma. But that archetype implies that it’s a “Techies Only” path—if you don’t have a degree, you better be a prodigy with a computer or you’re out of luck! That’s simply not the case.
People become successful entrepreneurs from all kinds of backgrounds. John Mackey, the founder of Whole Foods, followed the same path as the tech moguls mentioned above. He spent some time in and out of various colleges, but never graduated, and got his start with a health food store in Austin, Texas. A college dropout started a retail grocery store and grew it into a giant.
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Look around the internet and you’ll find lots of lists of famous entrepreneurs who didn’t have a college degree. And they’ll include some famous names from the past. But it’s too easy to see some of those names and dismiss them—people back then weren’t as likely to go to college, right?
But even today, entrepreneurs can come from what our cultural expectations would say are the unlikeliest of places. In 1970, David Green started a business out of his garage—not building computers, but selling miniature picture frames. He had never attended a day of college. Today, that business is Hobby Lobby, one of the country’s largest privately held companies, doing more than $3 billion in revenue annually.
Even more dramatically, Anne Beiler ended her formal educational career after the 8th grade in an Amish Mennonite school in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. In 1988 at the age of 39, she set up a stand in a Pennsylvania’s farmers market selling pretzels. Today, that business is Auntie Anne’s, with thousands of locations all over the globe. When you ask someone to picture a hypothetical entrepreneur, I doubt that a 39 year old with an 8th grade education came to mind, but reality is quite different—and a lot more interesting!—than our imagination.
If you drop by a college campus and you’re told to find the future entrepreneurs, you’ll probably head for the business department. And, sure enough, many business owners do get their start there, in Accounting 101 and Principles of Management. But if that’s the only place you look, you’ll miss out on a whole lot of gifted people—and fascinating entrepreneurial stories.
Drop by the math and science departments, and you’ll find future entrepreneurs. Reed Hastings was a math major at Bowdoin College, and taught math with the Peace Corps in Swaziland for two years. Today you know him better as the founder and CEO of Netflix, an idea he came up with after being maddened by a $40 late fee for Apollo 13 at his local video rental store.
Or go through the much-maligned liberal arts programs. Chad Dickerson is an English major from Duke University. He’s also the CEO of Etsy, one of the world’s largest online marketplaces. And offline, Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, got his start as a journalism major at the University of Oregon.
And don’t overlook the fine arts, either! If you’ve ever used Groupon to get a deal online, you’ve encountered the handiwork of its founder Andrew Mason, a music major. And the next time you watch a video online, you can thank fine art major Chad Hurley, one of YouTube’s co-founders and its first CEO.
What Really Matters
Your background is not the biggest factor when it comes to becoming an entrepreneur. You can learn accounting, marketing, and other business necessities, and build a team that fills in the gaps in your own knowledge and abilities. But nothing will take the place of drive and vision. What matters is having the curiosity to find solutions to problems in people’s lives, and the perseverance to take an idea and translate it into the real world.
Don’t worry about whether you meet some “profile” of a successful entrepreneur in whatever field you’re in. Worry about whether you have found a way to provide value and make a difference. That’s what makes an entrepreneur.
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