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The Reducing Half-Life of First EMoment over the Generations: Insights from UNC’s Entrepreneurship Genome Project

Posted April 26, 2019 by Lisa Armstrong

We have embarked on an ambitious and I hope innovative project at UNC Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler Business School’s Entrepreneurship Center, a longitudinal study on how to support the transition to entrepreneurship over their lifetime.  You may have observed that there are a number of entrepreneurial programs being developed to encourage entrepreneurship at all phases of a career, from primary and high school, to our community college and university programs and even programs for “boomerang” entrepreneurs for post-professionals.  These programs are responding to a market that is largely not well understood due to the paucity of methods and models to study generational change in entrepreneurship over the span of one’s life.

I recently had Norm Brodsky, celebrated Boomer entrepreneur and author of “The Knack” in my Entrepreneurs Lab Class – a class for the “all in” entrepreneurs at Carolina – who shared that in his generation (the Boomers), entrepreneurs were not legitimate, rather seen as the “quick buck artist” or the “hustler.”  I then asked the students how entrepreneurs are perceived now and they used descriptors such as champions, pioneers, innovators, change-agents, and so on.  So we have come a long way over two generations.

So as entrepreneurship educators embedded in higher education, we are happily in an emerging growth market.  But I have often found myself increasingly uncomfortable encouraging my students to found new ventures immediately after graduation.  While certainly there are a small number of students –perhaps 5% at UNC — who are “natural” founders, and their best path is to start their ventures immediately, especially when there are competitive first-mover pressures.  But in most cases, my students are best served by continuing their training working for high-growth firms or enterprises and completing their training, learn a market domain, and perhaps even “apprentice” with a leading entrepreneur.

My curiosity led me to start a longitudinal study on the lifecycle of an entrepreneurial life, specifically trying to better understand specifically WHEN a person transitions into entrepreneurship.  This would yield several benefits to the learners and to entrepreneurship educators, namely:

  • Better insight on what nascent entrepreneurial leaders need to learn;
  • When best to provide educational supports to encourage their transition;
  • How to discover disparate paths for building an entrepreneurial life, including unconventional paths that might engage more diverse, and more specialized higher-impact entrepreneurial careers, among others.

This study – which we coined the “Entrepreneurs Genome” – has yielded an amazing set of insights that are now informing how we are architecting a compelling entrepreneurship program at Carolina.  One finding I’d like to share is that:

The “half-life” of the first entrepreneurial transition in one’s career is getting shorter over the generations.

My students in Entrepreneurs Lab have interviewed over 250 entrepreneurs whose careers have spanned the generations from the Boomers, Gens X and Y, and we’ve learned that while most do not make the transition to entrepreneurship at graduation at the Baccaulaureate level, the transition to entrepreneurship is sooner as the generations progress.  Here is what we’ve learned on the average years of transition to entrepreneurship following baccalaureate attainment:

Boomers transition on average                                                  12.66 years after graduation
Gen X transitions on average                                                       6.26 years after graduation
Gen Y (millennials) on average                                                   5 years after graduation

This suggests that perhaps Gen Z may make the transition much earlier, perhaps at graduation!  So this may encourage the university start-up champions.  But in the main, we miss this transition as it occurs on average after the four year baccalaureate period.  But we must be mindful to provide support for the transition to entrepreneurship on average when our learners are prepared to make this transition.  While certainly a startup experience is intrinsically valuable as a learning process, when a startup is undertaken, a much more comprehensive level of support and engagement is required.

This finding has substantial implications for us as educators.  Should we be offering programs to support entrepreneurship after graduation to our alumni?   Should we do lifelong learning for entrepreneurship to support entrepreneurs at different stages of their career, at different moments in their life, and of course, at major transitions throughout their life?  This will be a new frontier for us to consider as we build the next generation of entrepreneurship programs on our campuses.