ROSS STASZAK AND Aksel Güngör have just graduated from Drexel University. Both want to start companies, and both are wondering whether to study entrepreneurship in grad school. But perhaps the question they should be asking is this: Do they have the right DNA?
We’ve always had a hunch that entrepreneurs are a different breed, but some academics are taking that idea quite literally. Turns out, part of being an entrepreneur may be innate, and researchers are getting close to identifying genes associated with start-up savvy. According to Case Western Reserve University economics professor Scott Shane, author of Born Entrepreneurs, Born Leaders, 40 percent of the variation in the tendency to be an entrepreneur is inherited. His work puts a new spin on an age-old question: Can classroom learning really teach you how to succeed?
It’s an issue that’s likely to cause heartburn for educators. Entrepreneurial education is a fast-growing business: In 1999, there were fewer than 100 undergraduate and graduate entrepreneurial programs, but today there are at least 700, according to the Princeton Review. And the tuition of a grad-level entrepreneur program averages nearly $40,000 a year—quite a bit to pay if Mom and Dad have already given you what it takes.
There’s no such thing as a start-up gene, alas, but researchers think they’ve found a group of personality traits that successful entrepreneurs share, including higher-than-average extroversion, openness to experience and even the capacity to be disagreeable—a useful predisposition for someone who drives hard bargains. And other research suggests that many of these qualities may be related to people’s genetic makeup.
To Shane’s thinking, it’s not a big leap from this notion to the idea of DNA-based education. People who are genetically inclined to be risk takers, for example, might be trained to evaluate opportunities differently from people predisposed to be conservative. And instructors could customize entrepreneurship education for the people who can best benefit from it. “Instead of assuming everyone is equal and will respond to education the same way,” Shane says, “we will be able to look at genetic predispositions and figure out what fits.”
To many, the heredity-is-destiny idea is disturbingly undemocratic. Others find it intriguing. “Most people, over a beer, would admit there’s probably some truth in the nature-over-nurture argument,” says Josh Lerner, a professor at Harvard Business School. But, he adds, educators shouldn’t restrict education to only the people deemed to have personality traits that offer the most potential. Fair enough, says Shane. But if you’re a basketball coach, and one of your players is under 6 feet while another is over 7 feet, should you train them to play the positions that suit their bodies best, or should you “just ignore the genetic differences”?
For students like Staszak and Güngör, a lot of money and time ride on this debate. Staszak, an engineering major, wants to study general business first. Güngör, a business major, thinks you learn entrepreneurship “from just doing it.” And the two have done it: Two years ago they launched a beverage-delivery service called Drexel Drinks. They didn’t make much money, but both learned a lot about network building and hard work. So does this mean they have the right genes, if such exist? They pause, then decide to sidestep the question. “I like wearing jeans!” quips Staszak.
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