The Non-Cognitive Traits of Entrepreneurs

Over at The Atlantic, Jordan Weissman looks at an economic study that uses longitudinal data to discern distinctive factors in the adolescent backgrounds of current entrepreneurs (defined as self-employed adults with incorporated businesses). The study finds that a current entrepreneur is more likely than the average full-time worker to be white, male, well-educated, and come from relatively wealthy, two parent families. For educators, this is regrettable but perhaps expected data. However, what caught Weissman’s attention were the non-cognitive youthful traits of these entrepreneurs. From the working paper:

…As teenagers, the incorporated tend to have higher learning aptitude and self-esteem scores and engage in more aggressive/risky behaviors than salaried employees. But, apparently it takes more to be a successful entrepreneur than having these strong labor market skills: the incorporated self-employed also tend to engage in more illicit activities as youths than other people who succeed as salaried  workers. It is a particular mixture of traits that seems to matter for both becoming an entrepreneur and succeeding as an entrepreneur. It is the high ability (as measured by learning aptitude and success as a salaried worker) person who tends to “break-the-rules” (as measured by the degree to which the person engaged in illicit activities before the age of 22) who is especially likely to become a successful entrepreneur. (41-42)

What do we mean by illicit? Again, from the study:

The [illicit activity] index is based on 23 questions, covering themes associated with skipping school, use of alcohol and marijuana, vandalism, shoplifting, drug dealing, robbery, assault, and gambling. (19)

Interesting. Weissman takes the conversation in a counterfactual direction by asking whether future entrepreneurs of color might be derailed from their promising futures by the greater likelihood that they will be arrested and punished as teens for their illicit activity. It is an argument that is almost impossible to prove, partly due to the number of variables predisposing adolescents toward future entrepreneurship, but it is certainly thought-provoking. Hundreds have commented on the article at The Atlantic‘s website.

Here’s another question: what kinds of schools did these budding entrepreneurs attend?

Let me dig deeper. Did these schools support their out-of-the-box thinking? Did the faculty cultivate positive mindsets and develop students’ self-esteem? Did administrators engage in positive and deep learning when their creative youth occasionally broke the rules?

Alternatively, did these future entrepreneurs become successful irrespective of, or in spite of, their formal education?  Did they sometimes break rules because they found little meaning at school?

I do not know if we will ever have the aggregate data to answer these questions. However, after reading the study I am newly energized as an administrator to reach out to my creative rabble-rousers. Can we create positive educational environments for them? Absolutely.


  • classrooms where future entrepreneurs are leading student-driven, project-based learning.
  • schools where these students are given the license to create, innovate, fail, and try again.
  • moments when the formal consequences for rule-breaking are outweighed by the personal growth that emerges from the disciplinary process.
  • communities where future entrepreneurs demonstrate the value of grit and resilience to their peers.

Many of us work in these schools already. Many more of us should foster these kinds of learning environments for all our entrepreneurs-in-training.

School starts shortly!