Debunking the Entrepreneurship Myth

08/09/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Recently, it has become more widely acknowledged that long-term economic recovery and growth in this country isn't going to come in the form of bailouts or stimulus packages, but instead in our ability to innovate and create new high-growth businesses. As Tom Friedman wrote in a recent column, "We might be able to stimulate our way back to stability, but we can only invent our way back to prosperity." (New York Times, June 28, 2009)

So if we're looking to support that economic savior, The Entrepreneur, what are we looking for? One common legend implies that most tech entrepreneurs are young, college drop-outs. So my colleagues Vivek Wadhwa from Duke University and Raj Aggarwal from University of Akron and I decided to investigate the folklore, and ended up debunking some of the more pervasive myths surrounding entrepreneurship.

In our newly released study supported by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, titled, "The Anatomy of an Entrepreneur," we offer insights into high-growth founders' motivations and their socio-economic, educational, and familial backgrounds.

Turns out, most high growth entrepreneurs do not fit the stereotype of young kids working out of their dorm rooms, but instead tend to be middle-aged and married, have significant industry experience, and are at a later stage in their lives trying to build wealth or to advance an idea that they think has potential. In fact, nearly 60 percent of entrepreneurs have at least one child, turning the stereotype of the workaholic entrepreneur with no family on its ear.

A full 80% of entrepreneurs said that inability to find traditional employment was not at all a factor in their deciding to start a business. So what that means, as the country looks to develop policies supporting entrepreneurship, we need to start looking at the situation from the perspective of those currently working and supporting families and weighing the risks and benefits of striking out on their own. This has implications in issues such as healthcare, availability of small business loans, and small business tax policy.

We also learned that, although only about half of entrepreneurs had an interest in entrepreneurship while they were in college, those that did are more likely to become serial entrepreneurs.

This means that universities aren't off the hook, either. The findings reinforce USC's philosophy that although the most successful startups aren't necessarily created while students are still in school, the learning experiences that students have in college might determine whether they become lifelong entrepreneurs.

This is one way universities can make great impact. The full report can be found here.