Are You Born an Entrepreneur or Do You Become One? The Answer is Complex

Business history seems to indicate that entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes.

They come from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and industries and decide to start businesses of various sizes.

Some remain small family businesses, and others grow into Fortune 500 companies.

There have been many articles written on entrepreneurship, many exploring the age-old question of whether people become entrepreneurs due to their environment or whether becoming an entrepreneur is in their DNA.

One interesting article theorizes that entrepreneurs possess some “mystical gene” that guarantees them success in life.

Since this is National Small Business Week, as celebrated for more than 50 years by the US Business Administration, it’s appropriate that I weigh in on the question or help you ascertain your own conclusions on the topic.

I will forgo vast research or a new study but instead draw on my personal experience from my favorite entrepreneur: Pat Armentano, my dad. He exemplifies many entrepreneurs of his generation; he was someone who created something from having nothing.

Pat was born in Mount Vernon, New York, at the beginning of The Great Depression in 1929. As parents of Italian immigrants, he was the youngest of ten children, his father a formal coal miner.

Pat’s first encounter with entrepreneurship was not a matter of choice but one of family survival. The bank had foreclosed on the family home for non-payment of the mortgage. These were desperate times.

At the age of eight years old, Pat knew he needed to help his family. He came up with an idea to make money.

He enlisted his older brother to walk three miles to the nearest train station in the Bronx with him every day after school to shine the shoes of men returning from work from Manhattan. Amazingly, within one year, he earned enough money to buy their mother a $175 refrigerator (in today’s world, a value of over $3,000).

Was it his charismatic personality, entrepreneurial instincts, or largely his environment that started him on the road to be an entrepreneur?

Pat’s next encounter with a form of entrepreneurship occurred when he somehow managed to enter into the Marines at the age of sixteen, at the end of WWII in 1946. He was stationed in China, and because he was such a people person, the officers enlisted him to procure food, wine, and whatever else was necessary for their lavish parties.

His environment in the military taught him a great deal more about people and life.

Upon Pat’s discharge from the service, after various jobs, he worked for a company called Forney Industries based in Fort Collins, Colorado. He was a salesman in the New York area, working strictly on a commission basis, selling welding machines.

He worked as a sales manager at Forney for 15 years, hiring at one time over 50 salespeople but always earning his living on commissions. As he would often say to me, “Joe, If I didn’t sell, I didn’t eat.”

What made Pat a success? Was he really working for Forney Industries, or had he already become an entrepreneur working for himself?

Then came a time when the lines of entrepreneurship were no longer blurred.

He was doing financially well at Forney Industries, earning himself and the company a good deal of money. Then, unexpectedly, he faced a life-changing choice due to his largest customer experiencing problems with the Forney welding machines that they had purchased from Pat.

The machines were not working as advertised, and after months of working to solve the problem, he found himself on the phone with the founder, JD Forney. Pat respected JD, as he was a self-made man, a true entrepreneur.

JD was conservative and quiet in nature, a polar opposite of Pat. As the conversation continued, Pat found himself in a one-way argument, with no resolution to his problem. Pat continued to be frustrated, but JD calmly told him, “If you want to make up your own rules, you need to own your own company.”

For Pat, it was like a light bulb went off in his head. He knew JD was right. That phone called gave Pat the spark needed to start his own company.

There are so many questions raised. Did Pat start his own business because he was a maverick and had an independent personality?

Was it, again, the environment driving his path to entrepreneurship?

Was entrepreneurship inevitable for Pat?

Over the next 50 years, Pat’s company grew rapidly and transitioned to a second-generation family business. As Pat’s roles changed, he became my mentor and a mentor to many of my friends.

Pat, by nature, was very self-reflective and would fall back on his own experiences when discussing his path to entrepreneurship. He firmly believed that everyone can control their own destiny, always encouraging young people to become entrepreneurs.

On one memorable occasion, a friend of mine was struggling with the idea of starting his own business. Pat could see that he was afraid, so Pat asked him one simple question. “If your new business fails , can you go back to getting a job?”

Obviously, the answer came back yes, and Pat made his point.

To Pat, entrepreneurship was gaining the life and business experiences necessary to develop your self-confidence. It enabled you to take the risk needed to start your own business. He never looked at himself or any of the many other entrepreneurs he knew many as being special.

Instead, he believed that if he could start his own business, then anybody else could, too.

In today’s more complex world, Pat’s theory of entrepreneurship may seem simple.

I am not so sure I totally agree with my Pat. If there was anyone born to be an entrepreneur, it was my dad. However, like most things, what makes people entrepreneurs is never clearly seen in black and white. There is always grey.

So, for me, the question remains unanswered. It appears a combination of both environment and genetics. Which one is more important? That is still a mystery to me.

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