In part two of the Herald's series Jane Phare looks at whether entrepreneurial skills can be taught and meets a teenager who launched a successful gift-wrap business with the help of mentors.
Everyone is born with entrepreneurial traits as far as Professor Nathan Berg is concerned.
"We proactively search our environment for opportunities," he says.
Added to that, there's strong evidence to show that good entrepreneurial programmes and training can significantly boost those skills. Starting early is a significant advantage but it's never too late, says Berg.
"I think there is a widespread belief that you are either born with it (entrepreneurial traits) or you're not."
But data he and his team at the University of Otago's business school are accumulating repeatedly shows that a well-designed programme can measurably boost entrepreneurial skills. Berg, a behavioural economist who teaches and researches entrepreneurship, is behind the development of the Entrepreneurial Capital Assessment Tool (Ecat) which measures outcomes before and after entrepreneurial programmes.
By surveying 28 dimensional profiles the team can accurately measure the difference that mentoring, coaching and skill development makes to the outcome, data Berg says has never before been collected. Those who have been surveyed using the Ecat can also be matched with the type of entrepreneurial endeavour to which they are best suited.
Young entrepreneur learned from mentors
Fourteen-year-old Takaimaania Ngata-Henare is one who acknowledges the benefits of the mentoring she received to help her launch and run Mau Designz, her mini start-up that sells te reo Maori-inspired gift wrap.
Her business was a needs-must project in order to fund national and overseas travel for table tennis championships. Three years ago her mother signed up Takaimaania for table tennis at an after-school programme in Whangarei because the fee was only $2, cheaper than the netball option.
Her mum, Moana-Aroha Henry, teaches at a school in Kaikohe and needed her daughter to be occupied while she commuted the hour back to Whangārei each day. Takaimaania turned out to be a natural, with highly developed hand-eye co-ordination.
After dinner each night the family dining table was transformed into a table tennis table. As Takaimaania's skills improved, helped by after-school coaching and club nights, she began winning matches and then championships.
Pre-Covid, the Huanui College student represented New Zealand in tournaments in Australia, Poland and Tonga. More often than not, she and her mother would catch a flight at weekends to compete at championships throughout the country.
The $2 fee soon swelled to thousands of dollars for flights, bats that cost between $800 and $1500, plus $120 each for the rubber sides, table tennis tables, and trips overseas.
Early on Henry, a solo mother, told her daughter that she would need to come up with a way to finance the table tennis herself. Takaimaania, raised speaking only te reo Māori until she was 8 years old, decided to design te reo Maori-inspired gift paper and gift bags.
She designed nine different "wrapped in the language" options in birthday, appreciation and Christmas ranges, had them printed and now has a thriving business that more than helps the family budget.
Mau Designz was launched on Waitangi Day last year after nearly two years of planning and mentoring. Business consultant Moana Tamaariki-Pohe schooled her in the startup process, a friend helped teach her to develop and run a website, and she read books on business and investing.
Now she's joined the Young Enterprise Scheme at school and is working to expand the Mau Designz range. Henry says the experience has been invaluable, teaching her daughter how to run a business from the start, time management, the discipline of being your own boss and how hard she has to work to earn money.
Takaimaania gets an allowance from the business and has learned about banking, managing her income and investing. Knowing how hard she's had to work to earn it, it makes her think twice about wasting money on a pair of must-have fashion sneakers, her mother says.
During the country's first lockdown Takaimaania promoted Mau Designz on social media and orders - three gift-wrap rolls for $20 - took off. As Christmas approached she found herself swamped with more than 500 orders and learned that customers won't wait, even during holidays or when she's feeling tired.
Takaimaania is not too sure how much money she's made from her gift wrap. She giggles. "Thousands. We get that number at markets quite a lot."
Right now table tennis championships are on hold because of Covid-19 so Takaimaania is playing netball. But she'll be back when it's safe to travel and in the meantime she's looking to expand the Mau Designz range.
To other budding entrepreneurs she says seize every opportunity.
"Sometimes we regret the chances we don't take. At the start it's very scary but when you get into it and you create a routine it helps you create new skills and it's given me a lot more confidence than I used to have."
Stickability an asset for entrepreneurs
Berg thinks entrepreneurial skills, which include keeping going in the face of failure help develop what he calls "stick-tuitiveness," which is an asset that can be taught. Using tech startups as an example, he says most don't succeed initially.
"You'll find that nearly all of the success stories are not succeeding with what was on their plan at the beginning. They all had to hit brick walls and adapt."
That helps develop grit or "stick-tuitiveness". Berg thinks the way we view failure can be changed by teaching children it can be a good thing. He points to a 2019 Turkish study, published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, which showed that "grit" is malleable in childhood and can be fostered in the school environment.
The study involved Year 4 children in a series of schools, half who were taught "grit intervention" techniques - accepting failure without embarrassment, not giving up, trying again – and half that were taught maths using the traditional approach.
The experiment showed the students exposed to the grit-boosting intervention had significantly higher maths scores up to two and a half years later compared to the other students, and that the benefits continued during adolescence and early adulthood.
"That would be considered one of the most important pieces of evidence that entrepreneurial capability is not something that you're born with, it's something that is trainable," Berg says.
Growing the entrepreneurial team of 5 million
He'd like to see primary schools introduce before-and-after assessment while teaching entrepreneurship skills. Those skills don't necessarily need a degree or another year at school, Berg says.
"Some can be short programmes, like a weekend workshop on launching a startup, which can significantly boost capability by large percentages."
Not everyone will start a business but those who want to should be given the opportunity and training, he says. That in turn will help grow businesses and create new jobs.
Ecat was trialled in 16 schools late last year involving Year 11 students taking part in the Young Enterprise bp business challenge. They learned about planning, starting and running a business, developing a product or business idea, and creating and pitching a business plan. Nearly 130 of those students took part in the before-and-after Ecat survey, the results of which will be published later this year.
Ultimately Berg and his team want to answer a question that no one else in the world has answered: when you boost those capabilities, what is the return on that investment in terms of revenue, export, job creation and productivity?
"We want to grow a team of 5 million entrepreneurially capable people and then turn them loose to apply those creative problem-solving skills in whatever domain they see value in."
Although entrepreneurship is a "hard world" and failure is more common than success, the skills learned will not be wasted, he says.
"Those people will take the human skills, the entrepreneurial capital nurtured in that programme and they'll try a new undertaking or work for somebody else and create a big value-add innovation for another organisation that leads to job growth and export growth."
The junior-preneurs series
• Saturday: Why youngsters are natural entrepreneurs
• Monday: Why children can be taught entrepreneurship
• Tuesday: Teenage contractor employed his first staff at the age of 12
• Wednesday: Young jeweller started at 8, now the PM wears her earrings
• Why social enterprise is important: we look at some of the community projects young entrepreneurs have got behind.