Illustration: Graham Roumieu

In 2013, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Paul Graham let slip a secret. “I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg,” he told New York Times Magazine. “There was a guy once who we funded who was terrible. I said, ‘How could he be bad? He looks like Zuckerberg!’”

It turns out even an experienced investor like Graham can be influenced by the notion that entrepreneurial success is genetically predetermined—inherit the right combination of money-making DNA, and you’ll wind up the founder of the next billion-dollar-valued startup.

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That is, of course, nonsense. Entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes, and they do not enter this world fully formed. Like the rest of us, entrepreneurs come into being through a combination of innate characteristics, education and environment—and the skills necessary to be an entrepreneur can indeed by taught. (MBA schools agree: Witness the growing number of entrepreneur streams in B-school curricula.)

“It’s not rocket science,” says Jacquelyn Cyr, a Toronto-based serial entrepreneur whose latest venture, R3VOLVED, produces home and office supplies from recycled materials. “If anyone has the inclination and is willing to put in the time and effort, for sure these are skills that can be learned.”

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When research began into what makes an entrepreneur, the theory was that they were essentially born with a certain shared personality type. But by the 1980s, the thinking began to change. Entrepreneurs are not more extroverted than anyone else, for instance, nor are they less neurotic. They don’t even have a higher tolerance for risk. But entrepreneurs do think about and perceive things differently than the rest of us.

Let’s start with risk. While entrepreneurs aren’t any more comfortable with risk, they might perceive a business scenario as less risky than a non-entrepreneur. “For educated and serial entrepreneurs, you can attribute that to them knowing how to handle the situation,” says Charlene Zietsma, director of entrepreneurial studies at Schulich School of Business. “That’s something we can teach students by giving them the knowledge of how to manage risks.”

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Dave Valliere, founding director of the Entrepreneurship Research Institute at Ryerson University, even recommends that students put off founding a company after they graduate. “Work for somebody else first, and learn the inside of an industry,” he says. “You’ll see opportunities that are not as risky as everybody on the outside thinks they are.”

Plenty of entrepreneurs were somebody else’s employee before becoming their own boss. Howard Schultz worked for Xerox and a Swedish coffee equipment firm before launching Starbucks to international success. Vikram Vij did time as a hired chef before his own food empire landed him on Dragons’ Den. And Clay Riddell was a geologist at Chevron for a decade before founding Paramount Resources.

When it comes to the basics of entrepreneurialism—spotting an opportunity and deploying the skills necessary to act on it—anybody can learn to do that. We might not be as successful as Zuckerberg, but we can get pretty far.

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This article is from the Business B.S. Special Report in the March 2015 issue of Canadian BusinessSubscribe now!

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