Tapping Your Entrepreneurial DNA to Achieve your Business Goals

Is the ability to succeed in business hardwired into our DNA? Are entrepreneurs, like racing thoroughbreds, simply born to win? Startling and groundbreaking, Instinct is the first book to apply the tools and insights of human genome research to the concept of success. Read Chapter 1 of Instinct here.

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The Critical 50 Percent: Doing Your Genetic Inventory

When Kay Koplovitz was three years old, she begged to be allowed to accompany her older sister to kindergarten. “I’d ask my mother, ‘Why can’t I be in kindergarten too? I know my way; I can find it.’ So I went off on my own.” Teachers tried to send her home. It didn’t work, says Koplovitz: “I’d turn around and come right back.”

That same kind of determination later led Koplovitz to be ahead of her time in another way when she founded the USA Network, becoming the first woman to head a television network. Koplovitz didn’t have a traditional background for becoming a corporate leader; like me, she studied science in college. But that led her to spot an opportunity: the idea of delivering broadcast programming via satellite to cable companies instead of over telephone lines, as the three broadcast networks did.

Koplovitz may not have gone to business school, but she had an entrepreneur’s belief in her idea and her ability to make it successful. “I didn’t think it was risky,” Koplovitz says. “You could just see the opportunity. For me it was as though it had already been written, like it was a historical fact, even though it hadn’t occurred yet. I was more certain that it would be successful than I was of a lot of other things. I do think there’s something innate about people’s tolerance for risk.”

Personality is determined by many things, but scientists are beginning to find that a lot more of you is built into you when you’re born than we used to think. Scientists now believe that roughly 50 percent of the differences in our personalities is inherited.1 In working with many entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial thinkers over the years, I’ve come to believe that the inherited combination of personality traits that is unique to each human being is the basis for whether we will eventually become successful.

The DNA of success is really your DNA of success. Understanding it can help you make better career decisions and keep you evolving in a direction that can make you successful, no matter how unconventional your career path may seem. The DNA of success is especially important for anyone who is considering being an entrepreneur. Any venture starts with an opportunity, a person, and an idea. Unless that person has entrepreneurial DNA, the idea probably won’t get very far.


There’s some evidence that entrepreneurial thinking tends to run in families. In some cases, families actually produce whole crops of entrepreneurs. One example is that of John Bogle Sr., and John Bogle Jr. Father and son each launched their own separate businesses in the mutual fund industry. In doing so, they were carrying on a tradition that had started generations earlier. Philander Bannister Armstrong, grandfather of Bogle Senior, created Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance Company. Grandfather Bogle was involved in the formation of a canning company. And there may be yet another generation to come. John Bogle Jr. says he sees a contrarian, risk-taking attitude in his daughter. His son is more cautious, but already displays the analytical orientation that characterizes his father and grandfather.

The Bogles are just one example of a family with an entrepreneurial streak. One Seattle family includes nine entrepreneurs spread over three generations: Larry Mounger, his two sons and two daughters and four third-generation cousins. Twin brothers Ted and Fred Kleisner are another example. Fred is the president and CEO of Wyndham International; he was formerly president and COO of Starwood Hotels and Resorts, which includes the Westin, Sheraton, and St. Regis chains. Ted is president and managing director of the world-famous Greenbrier Resort. Not only are the two men leaders in the same industry, they are also third-generation hoteliers.

I even see it in my own family. Both my sons have already demonstrated entrepreneurial instincts. As college freshmen, they studied to get real estate licenses so they could make some money during their student years, and one has already told me he wants to start a company after he graduates. My daughter has produced a CD of her own music and is selling it. In fact, all of my three children may be born entrepreneurs. They used to sell seashells at the Cape May, New Jersey, seashore. People could walk on the beach and pick them up themselves, but for some reason they bought them from my kids.

Multiple studies have shown that having at least one self-employed parent increases the chances that a person will be self-employed. Are genes at work here? If so, how? Or is it simply a case of learning by example—imprinting, as we trained scientists say? Is the entrepreneurial instinct created before baby’s first breath, or when Mom or Dad helps set up a lemonade stand in the front yard, as Pam and I did for our three children?

Being exposed to an entrepreneurial environment early in life clearly is important; we’ll look at how and why in Chapter 2. And it’s true that some entrepreneurial skills must be learned. No one is born knowing how to put together a good business plan, get financing, or juggle the myriad tasks involved in a start-up.

However, environment doesn’t explain everything. Many of the successful people interviewed for this book said they grew up watching entrepreneurial behavior in their family, but just as many said exactly the opposite. When you deal with a born entrepreneur, you usually know it.

“For those who do it over and over again, I think there’s probably something innate about them,” says Thomas Kinnear, executive director of the University of Michigan’s Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies. “Somewhere down in those chromosomes there’s gotta be something. My brother’s an entrepreneur, my grandfather was an entrepreneur, his father was an entrepreneur. What is it? I’ve been involved in nine start-ups. Even though I’m a teacher, I can’t seem to let go.”

Time and time again I have seen eager people come into my office with what seems like a good idea. They may have a great proposal, they may be a lot smarter than I am, they may even be very personable. But the ones who eventually succeed seem to have something else—something that goes beyond smarts, an idea, and being willing to work hard.

Where does that come from? To begin to get at that question, it helps to think about the difference between entrepreneurial behavior and the entrepreneurial personality. My dad ran a neighborhood grocery store; that’s entrepreneurial behavior. People who exhibit entrepreneurial behavior may or may not be successful, and entrepreneurial behavior isn’t necessarily passed on. The entrepreneurial spirit can be expressed in many ways that have nothing to do with starting a business. “Nobody’s yet found [a specific genetic link], but anecdotally you sort of see it. Even though children of entrepreneurs tend to regress to the average, they probably are more entrepreneurial than the standard average, at least for a few generations,” says Kinnear. “Of course, if they get too rich, then they become Paris Hilton.”

Where biology may play a role is in creating a genetic foundation for personality. Instinctively pouncing on opportunity, being unstoppable in pursuit of a vision, being able to persuade others of the value of your idea—those are some of the marks of thinking like an entrepreneur. They’re also the qualities that help make you successful today, whether you run a grocery store, lead the development and launch of a major product or division, need to revive an ailing corporation, or spearhead a community project.

At this point, no one can provide a definitive answer to the nature-versus-nurture question—certainly not me. But scientific research is beginning to confirm what I’ve suspected for a long time, based on my exposure to hundreds of entrepreneurs and other highly successful people over the years: that it’s not all learned behavior. In the 1950s, many scientists thought we were simply a product of our environments—little rats in boxes being trained to press a lever for rewards. However, there is more and more evidence that some aspects of personality are partly genetic. Even if you didn’t come from a family of entrepreneurs, you may still have basic personality traits that give you a head start in entrepreneurial thinking.

It shouldn’t come as a big surprise that genes play an enormous part in our personalities. After all, the basic genetic code we all share controls everything from eye color to our risk of having certain diseases. It only makes sense that those genetic instructions might also affect how each individual brain absorbs and responds to what’s going on around it.



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Copyright © 2005 by Thomas L. Harrison

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