5 Key Behaviors of Entrepreneurs: An Interview with Yale's Kyle Jensen

Can an entrepreneurial spirit be learned? Maybe. Consider how passion can be contagious - once it catches on, there's no telling how big a flame can grow.

While I'm a firm believer that one is typically, fundamentally wired as an entrepreneur, I would also add that you can teach people to be better entrepreneurs (or at least what it takes to be an entrepreneur). If this wasn't the case, then Kyle Jensen, Director of Entrepreneurial Programs at Yale's School of Management, jokes: "Well, I'd be out of a job."

He contends: "Most literature points to the fact that you can learn how to be an entrepreneur. Other data support this too. As people move on to 3rd and 4th venture, they are more likely to succeed."

Before joining Yale's SOM faculty, Jensen co-founded several companies spanning industries from biotech to software. He's worked with numerous Yale startups and before his current role he held the honor of entrepreneur-in-residence at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute.

He believes that the approach to teaching entrepreneurship has changed greatly since the '90s. The old method was quite procedural, somewhat rote, and revolved around attracting students with certain traits. The ideal entrepreneurial student was an extroverted, risk-seeking idea hub with a whole lot of courage. But today's custom-centric world requires a new approach. Teaching entrepreneurship has since shifted to the ingraining of particular behaviors that if adopted increase the likelihood of entrepreneurial success.

"I teach students how to think, not what to think," says Jensen. So whether you're well into your career and wonder if you have what it takes to start your own business or you're a prospective student weighing out the benefits of business school, take notes on Jensen's approach to entrepreneurial education which pivots upon teaching these 5 key behaviors.

1. Risk-Seeking

"There are multiple ways to think about being risk-seeking, experimental, or possessing related behaviors exhibited by entrepreneurs. There are many data points that suggest entrepreneurs are risk-seeking in the sense that they choose endeavors that have statistically risky outcomes: endeavors that are likely to pay them less than they could make working a wage job, but which have a slightly higher probability of making one extremely rich. In some sense, this is a lottery ticket," says Jensen.

Here in lies fear. Some of us are stalled by it while others thrive on the excitement of intelligent risk-taking. Entrepreneurship students who are most likely to succeed embrace the gamble.

2. Experimental Nature

"Being risk-seeking is different from the experimental behavior of entrepreneurs. This is the tendency to try new things, to fail fast, and move on quickly from those failures," adds Jensen.

Studies have shown that we as humans are more afraid of the unknown than we are of unfavorable outcomes. We're more stressed by fear than we are of the actual danger. Not being afraid of experimenting (and potentially failing) is extremely necessary for entrepreneurs.

3. Empathy

"Many startup gurus will tell you that making something people want is absolutely and strictly necessary (but not sufficient) for startup success. Understanding what your target customers want, without being one of them, requires empathy: the ability to understand their lives, hopes, dreams, desires, fears, pains, and needs," says Jensen. "Empathy can be learned. In many ways, learning to be empathetic is learning to be a 'customer anthropologist'. The entrepreneurs at our school learn to study and understand their customer by immersing themselves in the customers' lives, speaking with them, and cultivating a sense of curiosity for their customers," says Jensen.

Creating a customer-centric culture at a company that's pre-established is more difficult than baking the mindset into the DNA of a business from the beginning. It's the classic tale of teaching an old dog new tricks. Empathetic entrepreneurship students get the luxury of starting out on the right foot.

4. Innovative Mindset

Creative problem solving and the ability to introduce new approaches to old problems requires a kind of curiosity that's essential for budding entrepreneurs. "Where students are innovative, it manifests in myriad ways: some are innovative leaders, others technologists or problem solvers. There are many ways to be innovative," says Jensen.

It's not cookie cutter, but it is necessary.

5. Astute Observation Skills

"Astute observation is the act of studying customers so intensely as to know what the customer does not know and to see what they cannot see. Henry Ford is often cited for saying 'If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.' That is to say, customers have problems they themselves cannot perceive. It is the responsibility of the astute entrepreneur observer to see those problems and to craft solutions that improve the customers' lives," says Jensen.

In other words, In the entrepreneur's case, you can teach them to be astute observers of the behavior of the customer in addition to being good listeners.

If you're lucky, several of these five behaviors are already a part of how you think. If they're not, they can be learned through study and good-old-fashioned experience. For more on this topic, Jensen recommends Babson College Professor of Entrepreneurship Studies Heidi Neck's new book Teaching Entrepreneurship: A Practice-Based Approach. If you understand how teaching entrepreneurship works you'll learn the ropes with more ease, plus we hear that this area of academia is just plain fun.

Jensen adds, "Teaching entrepreneurship is actually the most exciting thing because you get to see ideas in their earliest stages. People often think the VCs have the best seats, but I think it's when you're teaching."