July 1, 2011

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Jumping Through Hoops



Local Leaders Trace Their Entrepreneurial Roots

Heather Stewart

July 1, 2011

They are the rock stars of the business world—the heroic entrepreneurs who build empires out of the glimmer of an idea. They are the larger-than-life leaders who seem blessed with uncanny judgment and impeccable timing. Local legends like Jon M. Huntsman, Alan Hall and tech pioneer Josh James fit the mold perfectly; in their presence, you can feel their energy, intensity and intelligence.

Do such entrepreneurs have inherent, unique traits that enable their incredible success?

Maybe—and maybe not.

Business Class
The conventional wisdom, based on decades of research, is that entrepreneurs are not a rare breed. Indeed, one in every two people—half the population—will “engage in entrepreneurial activity at some point in their lives,” says Robert Wuebker, faculty advisor for the Foundry, an experience-based entrepreneurial program at the University of Utah.

Much of the academic research on the subject points to the idea that entrepreneurs are made, not born, and that they have no combustible mixture of personality traits that fuel their drive for success.

“Entrepreneurial activity is quite common; we tend to think of it as a rare event, something that only special people do,” says Wuebker. Instead, “there’s no distinct personality trait that’s really distinctive to entrepreneurial activity.”

This viewpoint on entrepreneurialism has generated an entire industry dedicated to helping people learn to become entrepreneurs—coaching programs, self-help books, seminars, university programs—explains Wuebker. If entrepreneurialism can be taught, then anyone can learn it.

The Foundry, which is sponsored by the David Eccles School of Business, is geared toward helping students learn a specific skill: how to identify viable business opportunities. Wuebker calls it “business discovery” and says, “it turns out you can teach almost everyone how to do that.”

Participants in the Foundry aren’t just business school students—they come from every area of the university, from engineering to the arts. “Kooks,” he jokes.

“The Foundry is a giant laboratory in which we discover businesses together,” he says. He points out that, traditionally, seven out of 10 businesses fail. “The Foundry students learn to kill off bad ideas early or radically alter them.”

The first cohort to go through the Foundry developed 15 companies that generated just under $800,000 in revenue within six months. The second cohort, after four months, killed off more of the businesses to end up with eight or nine companies earning well over $1 million in revenues.

Based on this early success it seems clear that some skills—like business discovery—can be acquired. But the skills necessary to develop and build a business “may be much more difficult to impart,” says Wuebker. “It may be that these skills can only be gained through experience or collaboration with team members.”

But are there skills or traits that can’t be taught or even acquired through experience? Can you teach ambition or tenacity? Can you acquire optimism?

Some studies indicate there may be one defining trait of successful entrepreneurs: self-efficacy, which is “your belief that you have the ability to control some of the features of your life, that you’re not being pushed along by time and circumstance, but rather you have some agency,” says Wuebker. Some entrepreneurs seem to have more self-efficacy than the typical person.

And recent research on twins has found that entrepreneurialism may, in fact, be heritable.

Nature or Nurture
If there is any argument to be made that entrepreneurialism is forged in your DNA, Jim Sorenson is the perfect example. His father, James LeVoy Sorenson, was a prolific inventor and the founder of several medical research companies, including Sorenson Genomics.

Now, Jim Sorenson heads the Sorenson Companies, a diverse group of companies ranging from real estate development to information technology—some of them founded by his father and several of his own endeavors.

But did Sorenson inherit his entrepreneurial bent or did he learn it at his father’s knee?

Sorenson himself believes that DNA contributes “60 or 70 percent” to the equation. However, “I certainly feel that being in an entrepreneurial environment, with my father as an example and mentor, was foundational in the way I looked at things and the choices I made,” he says. “An entrepreneurial environment certainly educates you.”

Sorenson is a quiet but authoritative leader, and he has high expectations of those who work with him. But above all, Sorenson is pragmatic. He defines entrepreneurialism as “the ability and interest and motivation for organizing ideas, people and capital into great companies.”

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