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Are entrepreneurs born or made?

One of the most fascinating and provocative insights gleaned from the 2014 Amway Global Entrepreneurship Report (AGER) is that most people – 63 percent of respondents in 37 countries Amway studied – believe that entrepreneurial ability can be developed. That given the right environment, with the right incentive or cause, the right opportunity and appropriate teaching and coaching, anyone who so desires can learn to be a successful entrepreneur.

The belief is even stronger among those age 35 and under (70 percent).

Japanese AGER respondents respectfully disagree: 58 percent believe people either are born entrepreneurs, or they’re not. And only 15 percent said they could see themselves starting a business, compared to 42 percent globally.

For deeper insights on why people responded as they did on this point, we turned to Amway Chief Sales Officer John Parker. Parker has led global sales at Amway since 2012, after four years as managing director of Amway Japan and more than 20 total years at Amway.

Years of building close relationships with Amway Business Owners – and a personal passion for developing the entrepreneurial spirit around the world – give him a unique perspective on the deep cultural influences that may lie at the heart of why some believe people must be born to the role.

“Entrepreneurship is very much an individual pursuit,” Parker said. “In Western and many similar cultures, from the day we first begin learning in school, we are all about the individual – individual rights, individual freedoms, individual achievement. Individuality is ingrained in who we are, it’s what we celebrate and recognize and what we define as successful.”

In these cultures, Parker said, entrepreneurship is fairly mainstream – whether it’s a kid’s lemonade stand or a technology startup run by a guru who dropped out of a prestigious university, and almost anything in between.

“Entrepreneurs are motivated by challenging the status quo, the existing nature of things, and by rebelling against the slow bureaucratic nature of organizations. They’re pushing for something new and different. There are a lot of flavors of doing that in entrepreneurship, which makes it an attractive option for a great many people.”

In Japan, however, the mindset is more about the group and societal harmony. Individualism is to be overcome to build a harmonious society, so people are taught to fit in with the crowd – to not stand out. Schools prize a high student-to-teacher class ratio, because it helps students learn to assimilate into the group. In business, the priority is team achievement.

On a shelf in Parker’s office sits the photo of a husband-and-wife ABO team in Fukushima, Japan, achieving Diamond pin level (one of the most significant sales and leadership achievements in Amway) in the autumn of 2011. The couple is surrounded on stage by the six ABO groups that enabled them to qualify as Diamonds.

Tanji-san and his wife began their Diamond qualification in March 2011 in Fukushima – in spite of the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.  Remarkably, they completed that achievement six months later, in spite of the disaster that struck their community and group.

“They are ordinary, humble people and the reason they pushed on to achieve Diamond was not for themselves,” Parker said. “They felt they needed to do it for their group – and to show the rest of Japan, ‘We can overcome this by our group achieving this level of success together.’” And they celebrated what typically is an individual recognition by having their groups join them on stage.

Further, when one fails at something in Japan, the failure reflects on the family and community. Little wonder, then, that most people find satisfaction in life by going with the grain so as not to cause trouble for others.

“That’s the opposite of what entrepreneurs are,” Parker said. “Most entrepreneurs are motivated by standing out, challenging the existing way things are done and pushing the group for something new and different. Western entrepreneurs wear failure almost like a badge of honor.

“That runs really counter to how Japan has built its society. So to be an entrepreneur in Japan, you must swim much more against the current than in probably any other society. Standing out and challenging are not rewarded or positively recognized. It takes a strong drive and an atypical personality to choose that true entrepreneurial role.

“I believe that is at the heart of the stronger belief in Japan that people must be born to entrepreneurship.”

Hiro Higashide, Professor of Entrepreneurship at Japan’s WASEDA Business School, a consultant on the AGER study and contributor to the report, also weighed in on the findings.

“A typical and recent image of Japanese entrepreneurs as the role model…[in] the mainstream media is that guys with top-notch university degrees have been educated in foreign countries, challenged and succeeded, given some support by generic network that they build on their education,” Higashide said.

“On the other hand, the story where an ordinary person has identified a niche opportunity and successfully capitalized on it has not prevailed yet. Thus most of the respondents are likely to believe that the entrepreneur is born, not made.”

How, then, is the direct selling model thriving in Japan, which, until 2014, was the world’s second largest direct selling market according to the World Federation of Direct Selling Associations?

Parker said Amway’s success in Japan spans generations by delivering on their very unique desires.  Generally speaking, the generation over age 35 looks for that group identity and conforming to make society better, while the under-35 generation seeks more individualism and freedom to break the “salaryman” and housewife model of their parents.  Successful ABOs in Japan include both those looking for conformity and those seeking individualism.  That is the power of direct selling as an entrepreneurial option – it can allow individualism inside of a community.

“There’s a huge social dynamic to our business in Japan that gets at the idea of unique communities and lifestyles where everyone can add value and attract more people,” he said.

Parker also sees direct selling hitting another sweet spot in Japan: young, energetic men enjoying success by attracting others like themselves to building a lifestyle, and their businesses, around group adventure – travel, exciting sports like surfing and snowboarding, and the idea of shared entrepreneurism itself.

“They’re demonstrating how our business can make a society better – it feels like they’re not challenging social norms, because they’re working with others who have similar values,” Parker said. “They’re proof that Amway can and does work within those societal norms.”

That’s a place where Amway sees potential for taking its business globally – unique lifestyles and communities to which the business can add value for like-minded people, through causes such as achieving optimal health and social responsibility movements like Amway One by One™ and Nutrilite™ Power of 5. Parker says Amway puts a lot of effort into fine-tuning its value to fit different cultural norms.

“I think that’s what the Amway™ business is all about,” Parker said. “It’s not about entrepreneurship in Ada, Michigan – it’s about entrepreneurship for people wherever they are.”

And Parker’s own personal take on whether entrepreneurs are born or made?

Some people are made for it, Parker said, and once they understand the difference between working for someone else and working for themselves they go all in on working for themselves.

But others come to it because they have a product or service they are passionate about, and over time and experiences, they are led to direct selling. They see entrepreneurism, then, as a vehicle to accomplish bringing that passion to others – and with coaching or teaching, they’re just as successful at it as the natural-born entrepreneurs, he said.

“I believe entrepreneurs are developed. I really do fundamentally believe anyone can become an entrepreneur, you don’t have to be born to it,” he said. “Like many things in life, given the right environment with the right motivation, the right opportunity at the right moment, and being really connected to something you believe in – whether that’s a cause or a particular product or an experience you share with other people – the skill or passion can be revealed in any of us.

“Entrepreneurship can grow in people.”

At the core, though, he said it is our values and commitment to helping others succeed in a business of their own that makes Amway special.

“At Amway, we feel a personal commitment to help every ABO achieve their goals by providing great products, training and support,” Parker said.” That commitment is shared by the DeVos and Van Andel families, the employees and ABO leaders.”

It doesn’t have to big entrepreneurship. It can be small entrepreneurship. Over time, Amway sees opportunity to invest more and more in that.

“We believe in fostering the communities – they’re the glue that holds our business together,” Parker said. “We sell a business opportunity, but we advocate for entrepreneurship. We sell vitamins, but we advocate for optimal health, and there’s a lot of teaching and things involved in that that doesn’t involve us selling products and making money.”

Amway leaders recognize that having all those things in careful balance is the value proposition that helps people believe in themselves in a bigger way than they did before. Getting to those more significant values and ideas is very powerful.

For Parker, the success of direct selling, the success of Amway, is the proof point that entrepreneurs can be taught and developed.

“If we have learned anything in our 55-year history, it is that there is entrepreneurial spirit in all of us. Helping people discover that and realize their potential is what we do at Amway.”