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Rice University research finds certain cognitive factors appear in the minds of entrepreneurs

Does your brain have the right components to be an entrepreneur? Getty Images

The entrepreneur strides into a room of potential backers. Swathed in understated grey, she walks with assurance and chats in the cool, easy-going cadences of the leaders she plans to woo. But will an approach like this really affect the fate of her startup? And if not, what will?

A literature review by Rice Business professor Robert E. Hoskisson and colleagues Jeffry Covin of Indiana University, Henk W. Volberda of Erasmus University and Richard A. Johnson of Arnold & Porter offers clues to a vast range of questions about the entrepreneurs' trade. It also outlines where research still falls short. What, for example, most influences a startup founder's success? Is entrepreneurial triumph driven by innate ability or acquired skill? What's the role of factors such as regulatory structures or an entrepreneur's own work environment?

Traditional research, Hoskisson and his associates note, makes it clear that certain cognitive factors really do differentiate people who start new ventures from their more staid counterparts. And recent scholarship has traced how individual entrepreneurs decide to launch their startups and how they spot entrepreneurial opportunities. Still unclear, though, is whether entrepreneurs think differently overall, possess innate qualities that lend themselves to entrepreneurship or somehow become catalyzed by the entrepreneurial role itself.

More research could help answer those questions. Research is also needed to pinpoint exactly how the best entrepreneurs express their plans in order to sound legitimate enough to earn funding and support, Hoskisson's group says. What the scholarship does show is that that the grey-clad entrepreneur with the easygoing patter knows what she's doing: symbolic language, gestures and visual symbols all help create professional identity, emphasize control and regulate the emotions of a viewer. Setting, props, style of dress and expressiveness all count, and the more experienced the entrepreneur the more props she uses.

At the same time, no unified model fully explains how successful entrepreneurs gain their funding. Models range from the hyper-rational analysis offered by game theory to a stimulus-response model in which people react as if they're marionettes. Other mysteries include how the entrepreneurship impulse arises, how it shapes innovation and competitive advantage and how it is translated in individual actions and interactions. More research in these areas, says Hoskisson, would help not only entrepreneurs in the eternal quest for funding, but also the understanding of how to nurture human potential.

Examining institutional differences among countries and how that affects entrepreneurship is also ripe for study. So far, entrepreneurship research has focused on individual attributes. But there's a need, Hoskisson and his colleagues say, for scholars to connect the dots between startup success and political environments, rule of law, regulation and entrepreneurship.

The same goes for work on diverse contexts in emerging economies. In transition economies, China being one example, networks create political and social capital that allows special access and legitimacy. On the other hand, in those same countries ponderous bureaucracies and basic resource limitations can hamper entrepreneurial projects. Detailed understanding of such cultures will only get more urgent as ventures in emerging economies increase and companies that are "born global" proliferate.

Also on the research to-do list about entrepreneurs: the chances of securing funding in given emerging economies and the power — or frailty — of their intellectual property laws. Regulation, especially, plays a pivotal role in these countries, Hoskisson writes. The lighter the regulation, the more entrepreneurship flourishes, according to one study of 54 countries. On the other hand, countries blessed with a strong rule of law offer entrepreneurs more opportunities for strategic entry.

Understanding the entrepreneurial mind, and its interaction with the material world, isn't simple. Consider the late Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot's plan to send gifts to all POWs in Vietnam during the height of the Vietnam War. Unsurprisingly, the Vietnamese government announced that a gift delivery was impossible while Americans were bombing the country. Undeterred, Perot offered to rebuild anything the Americans had bombed. Rebuffed again, Perot chartered a plane to Moscow, instructing aides to deposit the Christmas presents, one by one, at Moscow post offices, addressed to Hanoi.

Amusing as it can be to hear about such entrepreneurial gumption, it may be even more useful to study entrepreneurship systematically. Not everyone can have an entrepreneur's brain, Hoskisson's review of research suggests, but good scholarship might be able to teach people how to walk the walk.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Robert E. Hoskisson is the George R. Brown Emeritus Professor of Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

Rice University and the University of Houston top lists for best graduate and undergraduate entrepreneurship programs. Photo by skynesher/Getty Images

In Houston, a little bit of friendly competition between two universities goes a long way, but each gets a win according to a recent ranking.

The University of Houston's Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship within the C. T. Bauer College of Business claimed the top spot on the 2020 Princeton Review's top 15 programs for undergraduate entrepreneurship studies. Meanwhile, Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business claimed the top spot on the graduate schools list.

Both schools have appeared on the list before, but it's the first time either has topped their categories.

"Entrepreneurship and the creation of new businesses and industries are critical to Houston and Texas' future prosperity and quality of life," says Rice Business Dean Peter Rodriguez, in a news release. "Today's ranking and our decades-long leadership in entrepreneurship education and outreach is a testament to our visionary and world-class faculty, the enormous success of the Rice Business Plan Competition and of our commitment to our students and the community we serve."

The Rice program, which in 1978, has appeared on the top-10 list for 11 years in a row, and it's the fourth time for the program to make it into the top three. According to the Princeton Review release, Rice grads have started 537 companies that went on to raise over $7 billion in funding.

A UH news release also calls out the fact that UH has seen more than 1,200 alumni-founded businesses, which have amassed over $268 million in funding over the past decade. UH's program, which began in 1991, has appeared in the top 10 list since 2007, and rose from the No. 2 position last year.

"The Wolff Center is the catalyst, but entrepreneurship goes beyond that to the entire Bauer College, including RED Labs, social entrepreneurship, energy, health care, arts and sports entrepreneurship, among many other programs," says Bauer Dean Paul Pavlou. "We're an entrepreneurial university, and innovation and the startup ecosystem we want to promote for the city of Houston starts with the Wolff Center and Bauer."

The ranking considered more than 300 schools with entrepreneurship studies programs and factored in over 40 data points. Some of the factors considered include: the percentage of students enrolled in entrepreneurship courses, mentorship programs, the number of startups founded and investments received by alumni, and the cash prizes at university-backed business plan competitions. The rankings will be published in the December issue of Entrepreneur magazine.