Top 3 Traits of the World’s Best Entrepreneurs

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Published January 04, 2012

| Business on Main

The World Entrepreneurship Forum brings together some of the top entrepreneurs from around the world. Find out what traits they have in common — and what that means for you.

There’s no doubt that small business and entrepreneurship are taking over the planet. Whether we’re talking about India, China, Russia or the Internet, there is today a surge of capitalism across the globe that is impossible to ignore.

It’s against this backdrop that the World Entrepreneurship Forum (WEF) was born. Once a year for the past four years, this think tank, headquartered in Lyon, France, has brought together some of the top entrepreneurs from all over the planet for a four-day conference. It’s an amazing event where businesspeople from Europe mix with social entrepreneurs from Asia, women entrepreneurs from Africa, and so on to share ideas and strategies. What do we have in common, what’s different, and what can we learn from one another?

I’ve been privileged to attend this event from the start and just returned from this year’s edition in Singapore. I was last in Singapore 30 years ago, and it’s a far different place than the small, quaint (albeit quite clean) city I visited as a student. Today, Singapore is more Hong Kong than Des Moines — all gleaming high rises, shopping malls, restaurants and condos. Why the change? Entrepreneurship. Since the ’80s, the city-state has actively encouraged and supported new businesses — and the result is one of the strongest economies in the world.

Entrepreneurship works.

It creates vibrant economies, fosters innovation, rewards hard work, creates community, builds a tax base and promotes wealth creation. This is true no matter the country or continent. Indeed, in examining the various entrepreneurs I’ve met at the WEF, it’s clear we have more in common than not, although exactly what we have in common may surprise you.

Here, then, are the top three unexpected traits of the world’s best entrepreneurs:

1. They are idealistic

More than a few people think that entrepreneurs are essentially like Gordon Gekko, who famously opined “greed is good” in the movie “Wall Street.” While making money is necessarily a basic motivation in any business endeavor, among great global entrepreneurs I’ve noticed a characteristic quite different than greediness: They tend to be visionary idealists. Indeed, the very tagline of the World Entrepreneurship Forum indicates as much: “The worldwide think tank devoted to the entrepreneur, creator of wealth and social justice.”

Social justice? You bet:

- When a company hires poor farmers in India to grow an otherwise useless weed (the jatropha plant) on otherwise unusable land, then turns it into gasoline at half the prevailing cost per barrel, you have a business that’s making money and making a difference.

- Or consider the gentleman who was named one of the “Entrepreneurs for the World” last year, Sir Fazle Abed. Abed created the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) as a relief organization in 1972, but soon realized there was a huge market at what people at the WEF call “the base of the pyramid” — the 4 billion people who are the poorest on the planet. By catering and lending to them, BRAC now has 7 million customers and lends more than $1 billion a year.

Yes, these sorts of companies make a lot of money, but they make money because they have a vision.

2. They are great teammates

Especially in the West, particularly in the United States, people tend to view an entrepreneur as a strong individual with a dream and a plan. Steve Jobs, for instance. In actuality, the best entrepreneurs are team players, not one-man (or -woman) shows. They understand that they cannot do it alone and need to build a superior team if they are to create a superior business.

Take Steve Jobs.

Sure, he was a genius, but part of that genius was the ability to surround himself with a team of people who shared his vision and passion and were fiercely loyal to him. Apple is Apple because Jobs was smart enough to know that yes, a great team requires a leader — but also great teammates.

3. They are characters with character

There are all sorts of traits required to be a successful entrepreneur: the willingness to take a smart calculated risk, being able to live with uncertainty, etc. That said, my experience at the WEF has led me to add two more traits to the standard list:

- The best entrepreneurs are not afraid to be themselves. They are “characters,” whether that means they are funny or loud or shy or gay or whatever. They are who they are and are not afraid to be who they are.

- They have character. Values are important to them. Integrity counts.

So, while the world often looks chaotic and even depressing these days, the folks at the WEF remind me that no matter their nationality, character usually wins out in the end.

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