“We’re living in a global world. See, the education system in America must compete with education systems in China and India. If we fail to give our students the skills necessary to compete in the world of the 21st century, the jobs will go elsewhere.” -George W. Bush, October 2006
No one ever talks about bosses. Everyone talks about jobs. Usually, they talk about how much more math and science our kids need to know in order for them to compete for the good ones (a dubious position, but one ardently advocated by those who would benefit if the federal government infused more money into science- and technology-related organizations). The discussion about jobs and competitiveness assumes that we’re all going to work for a Bill Gates or a Sergey Brin, not be a Bill Gates or a Sergey Brin. How do you make a culture that welcomes entrepreneurs? Do we?
According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, or GEM, the answer is yes. It’s not clear how, but somehow the United States, in comparison with many other nations, makes failure an acceptable option. More people here will suck in their gut and give up the security of a job and strike out on their own, either trying to make more money or trying to become independent. The United States seems to have made the old lyric from the band Chumbawamba its work anthem: “I get knocked down, but I get up again.”
Not all countries offer such a benign view of failure. According to the Web site CNNMoney.com, “In places such as Sweden—and even in England—a business failure is regarded as a family disgrace. In Germany, a bankrupt business owner may wind up paying creditors for 30 years, making it nearly impossible to start over. If a second act is an impossibility, ambitious entrepreneurs may never attempt the first.”
Earlier, CNN had noted that many successful entrepreneurs first endured two or three failed companies before getting one to work (“I get knocked down ...”). Vivek Wadhwa and a research team at Harvard and Duke universities found another characteristic that runs against the stereotype that entrepreneurs are people who drop out of school and create, as mere youths, a company in their parents’ garage. In a study of 652 native-born entrepreneurs who established tech companies between 1995 and 2005, Wadhwa’s team found the average age at successful startup was 39. Twice as many of these innovators were over 50 as were under 25. “Most tech entrepreneurs have gray hair and experience,” he said in a recent BusinessWeek article. A lot of that experience was as a worker, and some was as a failed entrepreneur.
Policies to encourage entrepreneurial activities should focus as much on people already in the workforce as on those still in college or graduate school, says Wadhwa.
Can countries grow entrepreneurs? Yes, David Birch, a pioneer in the field, said in a 2004 interview. But, he added, we’re teaching all the wrong things. “Basically, business schools teach you to work for somebody. ... Being a good servant is what business school teaches the student.”
An entrepreneur needs to master selling, managing people, and creating a new product or service, according to Birch. “Selling” means convincing venture capitalists or other providers of resources, and selling your idea to potential customers or employees or partners. Birch says he’s never, ever, come across an M.B.A. program with a course in sales. (He and others say you can predict a business’ success only after it’s successful. Otherwise, we’d all be playing venture capitalist.)
Finally, a lot depends on how successful entrepreneurs are treated. In many countries, they’re rather déclassé. Even the most successful wouldn’t get the opportunities to address Congress, the National Governors Association, and the World Economic Forum, as Bill Gates has. (“If Bill Gates were German, he’d be a middle-level technician at Siemens,” said the commentator Gunther Ederer on National Public Radio’s “Marketplace” in 1997. “If Bill Gates were German,” said Joschka Fischer, then Germany’s foreign minister, “there would be no Microsoft.”) One survey found that 76 percent of French youths were attracted to government employment, while another found that 70 percent of American teenagers wanted to start their own business. Little wonder that France, a nation where it is very easy to start and run a business, has one of the lowest entrepreneurial rates among high-income nations.
Meanwhile, the Swiss-based World Economic Forum ranks the United States as the most competitive economy in the world in its comparison of 131 industrialized nations. The CNN financial Web site combined data from the GEM study on high-growth entrepreneurship and the World Bank’s “Doing Business” report and concluded that the United States was the second-best place in the world for entrepreneurs, just behind New Zealand. The International Institute for Management Development, another Swiss operation, ranked 55 countries in its annual World Competitiveness Yearbook and we came in No. 1 in 2008 for the 15th consecutive year.
So, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Roy Romer, Craig Barrett, and Bob Wise, can we lay off the math-science-good-jobs fear-mongering for a while?
A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 2008 edition of Education Week as The Entrepreneurial Thing—We’re Only No. 2