A team of researchers led by Vivek Wadhwa of Duke University, Raj Aggarwal of the University of Akron, Krisztina Holly of the University of Southern California and Alex Salkever of Duke University surveyed 549 company founders of successful businesses in high-growth industries, including aerospace, defense, computing, electronics and health care.
The survey found that more than 90 percent of the entrepreneurs came from middle-class or upper-lower-class backgrounds and were well-educated: 95.1 percent of those surveyed had earned bachelor’s degrees, and 47 percent had more advanced degrees. Those from lower-upper-class backgrounds, however, were more likely to have been extremely interested in starting a business than the average entrepreneur surveyed (25 percent vs. 18.5 percent).
Seventy-five percent of the respondents ranked their academic performance among the top 30 percent of their high school classes, and 52 percent said they ranked among the top 10 percent. In college, 67 percent of the founders ranked among the top 30 percent of their undergraduate classes, and 37 percent ranked their performance among the top 10 percent.
More than half of the company founders surveyed (52 percent) had at least some interest in entrepreneurship while in college. Of those who described themselves as "extremely interested" during college, 47 percent went on to found more than two companies.
Founders tended to be middle-aged—40 years old on average—when they started their first companies. Nearly 70 percent were married when they became entrepreneurs, and nearly 60 percent had at least one child, challenging the stereotype of the entrepreneurial workaholic with no time for a family.
"The commonly held belief that entrepreneurs are young college students working out of their dorms is simply wrong," says author Wadhwa, the associate director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University and a senior research associate at Harvard Law School. "Rather, on average, they tend to be highly experienced, well-educated workers who have families. They have come to a stage in their lives when they are simply tired of working for others and want to build real wealth before they retire." Wadhwa’s research team hopes to uncover not only entrepreneurs' backgrounds, but also "the deeper formative factors that influence this select and incredibly important class of individuals."
The survey also found that:
- Respondents cited "building wealth" as the primary motivation for starting their companies. Other popular motivators included capitalizing on a business idea; the appeal of a startup culture; a desire to own a company; and a lack of interest in working for someone else.
- Very few (4 percent) said that inability to find traditional employment was a factor in starting their own businesses.
- Entrepreneurship did not necessarily run in the family. More than half (51.9 percent) of those surveyed were the first in their families to launch a business.