Learning About Entrepreneurs Can Help Break Stereotypes

Stephen DeAngelis

August 01, 2011

Stefan Thiel believes that the world now holds a stereotypical view of an entrepreneur as someone who is “youthful, brash, and brilliant.” [“The Golden Age of Innovation,” Newsweek, 20 August 2010]. People think of a young Bill Gates starting Microsoft, a young Steve Jobs starting Apple, and, more recently, a young Mark Zuckerberg starting Facebook. Thiel claims, however, that the stereotype is wrong. Apparently you can teach an old dog new tricks — or maybe I should say, an old dog can teach others new tricks. Thiel continues:

“It turns out that many of the most common stereotypes about aging are dead wrong. Take the cliché of the youthful entrepreneur. As it turns out, the average founder of a high-tech startup isn’t a whiz-kid graduate, but a mature 40-year-old engineer or business type with a spouse and kids who simply got tired of working for others, says Duke University scholar Vivek Wadhwa, who studied 549 successful technology ventures. What’s more, older entrepreneurs have higher success rates when they start companies. That’s because they have accumulated expertise in their technological fields, have deep knowledge of their customers’ needs, and have years of developing a network of supporters (often including financial backers).”

If those tidbits aren’t enough to convince you that there is no stereotypical entrepreneur, Thiel reports, “According to data from the Kauffman Foundation, the highest rate of entrepreneurship in America has shifted to the 55–64 age group, with people over 55 almost twice as likely to found successful companies than those between 20 and 34.” Although that may be good news for old fogies, this isn’t a post about older entrepreneurs. In the past, I’ve written a couple of posts on that subject and discussed Theil’s article in both of them (Entrepreneurs: Old and Young and Boomer Entrepreneurs). The point I want to make in this post is that the more you learn about successful entrepreneurs the more you will come to realize that stereotypes don’t fit. There is neither a single road to success nor a golden moment in time when one should become a entrepreneur.

What started me thinking about this subject was an email from Kaitlyn Cole in which she referred me an article her company (OnlineUniversities.com) had posted that listed “20 Biographies Every Serious Entrepreneur Should Read.” The list of biographies includes some very interesting people you may never have heard of including:

Dal LaMagna — LaMagna is a businessman who advertises himself as a failed entrepreneur who finally got it right. His story just has to be fascinating. After all, the infamous political activist Tom Hayden once said about him, “Karl Marx could learn from Dal LaMagna why capitalism is irrepressible.” His online biography begins:Lamagna Dal

“Dal LaMagna is known as Tweezerman. He founded the company in 1980 and built it into a multi-national, premier personal-care-tool brand that practices responsible capitalism and corporate social responsibility. Part of the company’s mission is to benefit all stakeholders: including financial partners, employees, customers, vendors, the community and the natural environment. Dal sold Tweezerman U.S.A. in December 2004, to the Zwilling, J.A. Henckels Company, a privately held German company. Dal’s U.S.A. employees kept their jobs and shared $10 million in capital gains because every one of them was a shareholder in the company.”

Timothy Taylor — Taylor is the co-founder and Chairman of Amendia, Inc., a custom medical devices manufacturer and distributor located in Marietta, Georgia. According to his corporate biography:Thomas Timothy E

“He was the former VP of Engineering of Endius, Inc. a Boston, MA based surgical device company. The world’s largest orthopaedic company, Zimmer, acquired Endius in March, 2007 in a cash transaction estimated by Wachovia at $75m-$125m. Before Endius was acquired it was one of the fastest growing spinal device and implant companies in the U.S. and raised more venture capital money in 2003 and 2004 than any other medical device company. Investors included Morgan Stanley Ventures, The Carlyle Group, Polaris Ventures, New England Venture Capital, Hickory Venture Capital and Hillman Medical. After hiring a seasoned CEO, he resigned from Endius in 2000 to move back south to pursue a career as a venture capitalist. IUniverse published Mr. Taylor’s entrepreneurial, non-fiction book, Launch Fever in 2003. He has an engineering degree from Mississippi State University and a Masters Degree in Business from Florida Institute of Technology and 24 issued patents related to medical devices and material coatings.”

Ryan Blair — Blair is a self-made multimillionaire and serial entrepreneur who now serves as the CEO of ViSalus Sciences. His online biography states:Blair Ryan

“Blair has created a total of six enterprises over his career, starting with computer support firm 24/7 Tech, which he established in 1998 at the age of 19. Leading the way to pioneering the wireless broadband industry with his second start-up SkyPipeline, Blair oversaw the merger between SkyPipeline and NextWeb in 2004 in a $25 million transaction.”

Blair has appeared on CNBC, MSNBC, and Fox Business, amongst others, and has been featured in Time, BusinessWeek, Sports Illustrated, the Wall Street Journal, and Forbes.

Stanley A. Dashew — Dashew, according to Wikipedia, is an “American entrepreneur, inventor, philanthropist, and sailor who developed many devices in diverse industries, but remains best known as one of the forefathers and founders of the plastic credit card industry during the 1950s.” The biography continues:

“Working alongside Joseph P. Williams, then Vice President of Bank of America and whoDashew Stanley handled the financial banking systems side, he made revolutionary contributions to accessible credit with his innovations on the mechanical and hardware end, especially with the Databosser. … During the course of his manufacturing career, Dashew has been issued fourteen U.S. patents for his inventions and mechanisms, and has also been responsible for the creation of more than fifty other patents assigned to his many companies. He has created mechanical systems in the business data, banking, shipping, mining, transportation, marine recreation, water purification, and medical-health industries.”

Stuart Skorman — Skorman is an entrepreneur who founded four companies: Empire Video, Reel.com,Skorman Stuart HungryMinds.com, and Elephant Pharmacy. According to Wikipedia:

“[Skorman] is known for pioneering new business models and marketing them to baby boomers, challenging the long-standing companies in the industries he enters. As a result of his work in the dot com industry he was referred to as one of the so-called ‘dotshots’ of the 1990s. Skorman was also an executive at Bread & Circus, the Boston-based natural foods chain bought by Whole Foods in 1992.”

EJ Ourso — Following Ourso’s death, a friend wrote that he was, “a unique character who wasOurso EJ larger than life–a true entrepreneur’s entrepreneur. He came from meager beginnings, and he always loved to tell the story of his selling live chickens by the roadside in the hot Louisiana sun. He would mesmerize his guests as he spun the tale in his thick Cajun accent.” His friend reports that “Ourso started his businesses in 1948 with $10,000 and sold them all in 1996 for a combined $180 million.” Ourso was also known as a generous philanthropist. His friend concluded:

“Ourso believed in what he spoke–and was living proof of the American Dream, a rags-to-riches story he enjoyed telling. He bragged that Harvard University had been reluctant to invite him to speak to their business school students. He said the high and mighty Ivy League school didn’t figure a Cajun from Louisiana who never graduated from college could possibly have anything worth hearing. But he finally got his invitation. Ourso wowed the audience and became one of Harvard’s most popular speakers, receiving numerous repeat invitations.”

Jothy Rosenberg — Rosenberg’s story tells more than a tale of success in the business world. It is a tale about the triumph of the human will over adversity. His Smashwords biography reads:Rosenberg Jothy

“Jothy Rosenberg, north of 50 by a little bit, is an above knee amputee caused by osteosarcoma in 1973. Three years later the cancer metastasized and 2/5 of his lungs had to be removed. A course of chemotherapy — only just out in clinical use in 1976 — is probably why he is still here today. He went on to get a Duke PhD in computer science, be on the faculty of Duke University for five years, to author three technical books, to ride in the Pan-Masscahusetts Challenge bike-a-thon supporting the Dana-Farber cancer institute seven years, and to swim sixteen times from Alcatraz to San Francisco to support Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program. In his entrepreneurial persona, Jothy has founded seven high tech companies where he has been Chief Executive Officer, Chief Operating Officer, Chief Technology Officer, or Vice President. In starting those companies, he raised more than $85 million in venture capital, with two of those companies providing a return of more than $100 million each.”

Some of the entrepreneurs whose biographies made it onto the list are involved in companies that are better known than their founders, they include: Felix Dennis, a British publishing magnate whose magazines have included Maxim, MacUser and Personal Computer World, and Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos.com.

Although the article begins, “Entrepreneurs are often interesting, inspiring people that anyone can learn from, but other innovators can benefit from examining the lives of ambitious businessmen and women,” the list of biographies didn’t include any women. As women increase their numbers among successful entrepreneurs, this will surely change. To read more about some successful female entrepreneurs, read my post entitled Women in Business.

The remaining entrepreneurs whose biographies are included in OnlineUniversity.com list are well known. They include Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Ben Franklin, Bill Gates, Mark Twain, and Sam Walton. Of those, only Mark Twain might be a surprise. About Twain, the post states, “He was a chronic speculator and entrepreneur. He spent most of his life in pursuit of wealth.” Thumbnail sketches never do justice to the full story of a person’s life. If any of these people pique your interest, I recommend that you click on the biographies link and check out the recommended books.