A gene for entrepreneurship?

Mitchell Hartman Mar 3, 2010

A gene for entrepreneurship?

Mitchell Hartman Mar 3, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: This was news to me, but people who study these sorts of things have apparently known for a good, long time that entrepreneurship tends to run in families. Mom starts a software firm. Dad launches maybe an environmental-marketing business, and chances are pretty good that at least some of the kids are going to want to work for themselves when they grow up. The question researchers are now asking is nature or nurture? Could there actually be an entrepreneurial gene that predisposes somebody to the startup lifestyle?

From the non-hereditary Marketplace Entrepreneurship Desk at Oregon Public Broadcasting, Mitchell Hartman reports.

MITCHELL HARTMAN: Meet the Jennings family of Portland. They’re an entrepreneurial geneticist’s dream.

Dad, age 61.

CHARLES JENNINGS: I’m Charles Jennings. I’ve been an entrepreneur since 1970. I’ve started over 20 companies. One has gone public, another was sold for $250 million, and I’ve had my failures.

Mom, age 60.

CHRISTINE JENNINGS: I’m Christine Jennings, my first business was called Honey Treats.

And their two grown daughters.

FAITH: My name is Faith Jennings. I tried several different business models, and finally hit on one that worked a few years ago, Faith Jennings Designs.

NAYANA: I’m Nayana Jennings, and I started my first company on March 4, 2003, and the business is MarchFourth Marching Band.

The sisters are dancers and part-owners in the 40-piece drum-and-brass band. It tours worldwide. Nayana also has a marketing business. Faith designs a line of hats and sweaters.

SCOTT SHANE: One of the things we’ve known for years is that the children of entrepreneurs are much more likely than anybody else to become an entrepreneur.

Scott Shane is a business professor at Case Western Reserve and author of the new book “Born Entrepreneurs, Born Leaders: How Your Genes Affect Your Worklife.” He says until now, most researchers have considered entrepreneurship something that people learn.

SHANE: The parents are putting them in touch with certain kinds of people that have financing and customers and suppliers and so forth. Nobody ever said, “Well, maybe it’s because there’s something innate and that’s being passed on from parents to children.”

Shane argues people who launch businesses tend to share certain inherited traits: like independence, tolerance for risk, ability to recognize opportunity, and leadership. He’s even put a hard number to “nature” versus “nurture.”

SHANE: About a third to 40 percent of the tendency to be an entrepreneur is innate.

Knowing which genes encourage entrepreneurship, and who has them, could help educators design better programs to spur business-creation. It could even help venture capitalists pick whose startup to fund, though there’s no guarantee the genes actually lead to success.

Still, many researchers doubt we’ll ever be able to pinpoint exactly what role environment and genes play in raising up entrepreneurs.

CHARLES: I must have been born with that instinct to change the world, to shake things up.

Charles Jennings launched his first enterprise — a statewide student association in California — at age 16. He’s on year nine of his latest startup. It develops communication systems for first-responders. Jennings’ parents were business owners. His grandfather chased down outlaws with Wyatt Earp.

CHARLES: We’re a family of risk-takers, and we’re willing to try to create something new.

Even when the risk is going broke, says daughter Nayana.

NAYANA: I do remember the occasional strife in the family about how are we going to make ends meet. We’re at the bottom of the barrel. And there was always some new opportunity that came along.

Another entrepreneurial trait the Jennings have in spades? Confidence. Even over-confidence.

NAYANA: There’s a stick-to-it-iveness to go beyond the point where maybe you should have let the business fail. And keep with it long enough for the times to catch up with the idea.

Of course, all of this could be learned from mom and dad, rather than passed on through their genes.

Except, did I mention…Faith and Nayana are identical twins? Who have pursued more or less identical entrepreneurial paths for the past 20 years.

There’s also an older sibling, says mother, Christine.

CHRISTINE: Their brother, who is not in the least bit entrepreneurial. He went to college, he got a job, he got another job. And I doubt that he will ever work for himself.

In a family full of entrepreneurs, that might be the most rebellious act of all.

I’m Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.