Born or bred, UAlbany eyes entrepreneurs

Thursday, September 19, 2013
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Some years ago, according to my recollection, my late uncle gave up corporate sales and became an entrepreneur.

I was too young to grasp the details, but in my mind’s eye he did well enough that my cousins enjoyed kid-sized perks — snowmobiles and dirt bikes — of which my brothers and I were envious.

These days, at holiday dinners, I listen to those now-grown cousins trade stories about their businesses, one carrying on my uncle’s company and the others heading enterprises of their own.

I always wondered where they got their yen for business, as he had before them: Was it a trait they were born with, or was it a learned characteristic?

After all, my brothers and I also were children of a salesman — one who stayed with the same company his entire career — but none of us became an entrepreneur.

As in many fields, the question of nature vs. nurture is debated in business. On one side are proponents who argue passionately that entrepreneurs are born; on the other are supporters just as ardent that entrepreneurs are bred.

Oft-cited academic studies do the same. In 2006, Northeastern University (assisted by Entrepreneur magazine) took the nature side, reporting that two-thirds of surveyed U.S. entrepreneurs cited innate talent as driving them into business. In 2009, entrepreneur-turned-academic Vivek Wadhwa (underwritten by the Kauffman Foundation) took the nurture side, reporting that half of surveyed entrepreneurs were the first in their family to start a business and that most did so after years spent out in the workforce.

When I asked Donald Siegel, dean of the School of Business at the University at Albany, where he stood in the nature vs. nurture debate, he chuckled and told me I could probably guess.

Last month, Siegel helped cut the ribbon on a new $64 million, state-of-the-art School of Business building that is located adjacent to the college’s Collins Circle entry plaza off Washington Avenue.

The 96,000-square-foot structure includes classroom, office and meeting space; collaborative research centers focused on technical and social entrepreneurship, cyber security and institutional investment management; and a first-floor “trading room” complete with the Bloomberg terminals used at Wall Street firms.

In prepared remarks, Siegel said the new building would enable UAlbany “to attract the best students by providing them with a premier business education built on innovation, entrepreneurship and excellence in research.” The building also will allow the School of Business to extend local initiatives that encourage entrepreneurship in middle and high school students (the Young Entrepreneurs Academy) and, in partnership with SEFCU and the state, provide training and microloans to small-business owners (the Small Enterprise Economic Development, or SEED, program).

“A lot of space is allocated to promote entrepreneurship,” he said of the building this week.

Siegel, who studies technology transfer and entrepreneurship and teaches a capstone undergraduate course in entrepreneurship, commissioned a campus-wide survey a few years ago that found 75 percent of students wanted a course or program on entrepreneurship and 50 percent were thinking of starting their own business.

“More and more, students come to me and say ‘I want to start my own company,’ ” he said.

“We’ve always had entrepreneurial talent, but we didn’t have the right set of programs to stimulate entrepreneurship,” he added.

And on nature vs. nurture?

“[Would-be entrepreneurs] have an orientation … and we nurture them,” Siegel said.

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at marlenejkennedy@gmail.com.

 

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