The entrepreneurial muscle: why business pioneers start young

Children in Dallas operate a charity lemonade stand.

Entrepreneurs can be made, especially if you start in childhood. Image: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Bozhanka Vitanova
Alumni, Global Shapers Community, Brandeis Innovation Center
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Successful entrepreneurs often have an early career accomplishment in the late childhood or teenage years.
  • Young entrepreneurs can start acquiring one of seven core skills.
  • It's never too early or too late to start building your entrepreneurship muscle.

“When I was 12, I wanted to get ballet lessons. My parents could not afford it. However, my mom did not say no. She told me that if I made some money, I could do it. So I started my ’babysitting business’. I put around flyers and started being a hustler the way many immigrants are. I got my ballet classes and maybe one of my most important life lessons.” – Leila Janah, founder of SamaSource and LXMI

What makes successful entrepreneurs the way they are? Are they born or made? The answer seems to be closer to the latter, but that “making” may need to start early on in life.

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A common point among pioneering entrepreneurs is a core formative experience of accomplishment that took place between the ages of 10 and 16. An age where inhibiting factors have not yet come into play provides a clean slate for future entrepreneurs to undergo a process comparable to the way athletes build muscle memory. Before the doubt and insecurities of adulthood settle in, most children believe their dreams are completely feasible. Some evidence of success during a person’s formative years plays an immensely important role throughout one’s life.

An early experience of accomplishment can be the first twitching of the entrepreneurial muscle.
An early experience of accomplishment can be the first twitching of the entrepreneurial muscle.

Experiencing success in the face of uncertainty helps mould the so-called entrepreneurial muscle. Continuing to overcome challenges throughout life builds entrepreneurial muscle memory, or one’s personal database of achievements. The process is stiff and slow at the beginning, but becomes progressively easier with every iteration. Eventually, activities linked to an entrepreneurial skill can be performed without significant conscious effort. That is why entrepreneurs do not even recognize that they have unique entrepreneurial skills; it feels very natural.

What are the different entrepreneurial muscles?

A tennis player needs strong shoulders and obliques to execute on a backhand swing. Similarly, an entrepreneur needs a certain set of entrepreneurial muscles that allow them to put their business knowledge and product insights into practice.

The seven core entrepreneurial skills
The seven core entrepreneurial skills

Here are seven core skills entrepreneurs share.

1. Agency: closely linked to self-efficacy; tendency to take action, initiate and execute.

Abby Falik, Founder & CEO of Global Citizen Year, had important formative experiences that taught her about goal-setting and execution. At a very young age, she sold her father’s neckties door to door. Abby explains, “Once I experienced successfully going from idea to reality, I had the confidence that I can figure anything out. Once a young person knows their power, there is no going back.”

2. Awareness: the ability to spot opportunities worth pursuing, with a capacity to focus and eliminate the noise from the signal.

Costa Michailidis, Co-Founder of Innovation Bound, grew up in a family construction company, doing renovations of luxury apartments in New York under his father's watchful gaze. His father made certain to turn every mistake into a learning opportunity. "Think!" he'd say sternly. "Why are you doing that, and what is supposed to happen next that you're forgetting?" Costa learned how to anticipate people's needs, and the complex relationships and dependencies of individual tasks in the larger context of a project.

3. Communication: the ability to get ideas out of one’s mind and into the minds of others with as little loss as possible.

Nancy Lublin, CEO and Co-Founder of Crisis Text Line, experienced a sense of accomplishment through honing her communication skills growing up. She explains, “I did high school debates and developed the most important skill an entrepreneur can have. If you are too wordy and unclear, you cannot convince other people. Especially when it is a new idea.”

4. Networking: the ability to build and maintain authentic, mutually enabling relationships.

John Harthorne, Founder of MassChallenge, finds his experience of running a school project to be the best skill-building exercise. As he puts it, “I had to learn how to motivate a team of 30 volunteers. I understood that people are not inherently transactional; we are all trying to believe in and create something. The experience helped me understand how to motivate a team through a mission rather than solely payment.”

5. Problem-solving: application of creative and analytical skills to address complex, multifaceted problems.

Ohad Elhelo, Co-Founder of Delegate and Founder of Our Generation Speaks, had to overcome multiple roadblocks before reaching adulthood. “My formative experiences helped me understand that you cannot see the obstacle overshadowing a solution when you are so emotionally invested in it. I learnt how to create some distance and get to the root cause of what is really intimidating me when facing a complex issue. That helps objectively assess a situation and tackle the relevant factors causing the problem at hand.”

6. Resilience: the ability to delink rejection with failure.

Tracey Durning, a systems entrepreneur and founder of numerous social enterprises including Aligned Intermediary, practiced resilience growing up. “I have always gone after things with a lot of conviction and passion. So early on, even though I did not know what I was doing or how I would accomplish something, I would get started, mess up, and just keep on trying. It taught me that for the 99 times I miss, I will eventually get it right.”

7. Resourcefulness: the capacity to breed imaginative solutions in an environment infused with constraints.

Brenden Millstein, Founder of Carbon Lighthouse, started flexing his entrepreneurial muscle when he had to practice creativity arranging gigs for his jazz ensemble when 15. He continued using his resourcefulness muscle as he went into college:

“I was breakdancing in college and wanted to open for a Busta Rhymes concert in Boston. Raphael, my co-founder at Carbon Lighthouse, helped me find the person managing the show, and I shared that I ran the best breakdancing crew in Boston. Jack, who was running the show gave us a 10-minute audition. Then I called the actual best breakdancers in Boston and told them they should join my crew since we had an audition with Busta Rhymes. They did join. And we opened the show.”

Your entrepreneurial muscle memory

Star entrepreneurs experienced a personally important accomplishment early on. However, in the same way you do not need to be a star athlete to run your first 5K, even as an adult, you can start flexing your entrepreneurial muscles by starting small.

Get yourself out of your comfort zone and start building the muscle memory that will make it easier to take the leap when needed.

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