Nature and Nurture Make Innovators and Entrepreneurs

By Karen Utgoff

I am always perplexed by discussions of whether innovators and entrepreneurs are born to the roles (nature) or can be taught (nurture). Most complex capabilities are a mix of talent and learning the tools of the trade, and there is no particular reason to think innovation and entrepreneurship are exceptions. Some individuals with enormous potential never progress and others — seemingly less talented — get ahead by relentlessly pursuing goals and learning from experience. It’s a bit like learning a musical instrument; it’s great to have a good ear and nimble fingers but dedication and practice are essential.

The assumption that one either is or isn’t an innovator or entrepreneur from birth — you’ve either got it or you don’t — is dangerous in two ways. Those with an abundance of confidence in their innate abilities may believe that little or nothing need be done to improve, which can result in unnecessary risk and wasted effort. Those with great ideas, but little confidence, may forgo important opportunities.

This is especially unfortunate at a time when there is a refreshing expansion of programs and resources that support innovators and entrepreneurs in building upon their natural talents, often while developing a new venture.  Some of these are aimed at individuals who are considering starting an innovation-driven venture while others help teams already in the process of starting up or accelerating a new business.

It is easier than ever before for individuals with a great idea, substantial subject matter expertise and minimal business experience to learn the basics. In addition to local resources, intensive introductory courses are available through the Stanford Venture Lab or MIT Open Courseware for free. If you prefer a completely self-guided approach, here is a wonderful list of books (the Startup Nuts & Bolts section is a good starting point), many of which are also useful references for individuals and teams already in the trenches.

For hands-on programs, consider local and national accelerators and incubators that work with pre-venture and new venture teams. The iterative learning and doing that takes place in some of these is remarkable.  Here are three programs with which I have firsthand experience:

  • The National Science Foundation I-Corps program provides an intensive experience through which university-based teams learn new skills while exploring commercialization opportunities for a promising technology. As a mentor on one such team it was inspiring to share the experience with similar groups, all committed to improving their abilities as innovators and entrepreneurs.
  • The MassChallenge is an industry-agnostic accelerator program that draws new ventures to Boston (MA) for four intense months. The program includes exceptional office space, a wide array of seminars, ongoing mentoring, access to experts, and facilitated exposure to the Boston/Route 128 innovation ecosystem. I help out as a volunteer mentor.
  • The CleanTech Open is a sector-focused accelerator with regional programs together scale to a national program. I mentor for the Northeast CTO. Its decentralized structure allows it to serve the needs of innovators and entrepreneurs regardless of location while giving them access to specialized information and resources.

Of course, there are many other programs throughout the US and globally. Look for one that fits well with your situation and needs. Beyond such programs, seek out informal opportunities to learn as you make progress and build your network.

Innovation-driven entrepreneurs who are able to be constructively self-critical about their progress and skill sets relative to an objective framework are at a big advantage over the long-term. Having such a perspective allows for continuous improvement of themselves, their team, and their businesses. I will write more about this in a future post.

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