May 30, 2014 at 1:00 am

MACKINAC POLICY CONFERENCE

America leaves entrepreneur development to chance

Our schools are adept at developing academic and athletic talent, but not entrepreneurs. (Bryan Mitchell / Special to The Detroit News)

If you have a high IQ, America’s massive testing systems will find you. We’re probably the best in the world at high-level intellectual development. There is no chance a really smart student will be overlooked in America.

If you have the rare, innate talent to play basketball or football, our massive youth-to-college-to-pro sports systems will find you. We’re probably the best in the world at early identification and development of star athletes. There is no chance a sports star will be missed in America.

However, if you have the rare, innate ability to create a customer, to build a company — if you have the talent for entrepreneurship — your early identification and subsequent development is left to chance. If you possess star “business builder” brilliance, you will likely be overlooked in America.

The U.S. has no peer at developing students with high IQs. Our country is home to most of the best universities in the world. And the best of America’s top private and public K-12 schools do a world-class job at accelerating smart kids.

Right now, a student in fifth through 12th grade who is blessed with an unusually high IQ will be spotted. Whether you live in Philadelphia or Tacoma, on a poor farm in a desolate area of Texas or in Nebraska, if you have a genius-level aptitude for learning, our testing system will sort you out, and your life will start changing and developing quickly.

My dad, Don Clifton, was born on a sheep ranch in northern Nebraska. It was there that county-level tests discovered that he was an unusual learner and thinker. He was offered a scholarship to the University of Nebraska, and he stayed there, teaching educational psychology and researching what he called “strengths theory.” That theory became the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment, and it changed the world.

So the system worked for dad. It found him in the middle of nowhere raising sheep and reading and learning like crazy, and that was 90 years ago. The system still works. If you were blessed with an unusual gift to learn, we will find you. And we will teach you and support you and wait anxiously for your book smarts to grow and develop.

But if you were born with the very rare talent, born with a unique neuron configuration for entrepreneurship, born with the genius to create customers, you’re pretty much on your own.

We certainly won’t find you in Compton or Queens or Amarillo. You might have access to a random special class for entrepreneurs, but there is no formal early identification system, no colleges bidding for you, no national benchmarks for ranking rare individuals like you. Colleges and universities place tremendous weight on SAT or ACT scores, but nobody asks about the applicant’s entrepreneurial aptitude to start a company, build an organization, or create millions of customers. We don’t know how someone like that works at all.

However, Gallup research strongly suggests that entrepreneurs have innate traits that make them successful. Let me make this really clear: Nature trumps nurture as far as entrepreneurship goes. Entrepreneurs are born, they learn to use their innate talents, and then they succeed. The ones who become superstars — Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg, and Sara Blakely, to name a few — are the ones who had innate talent and were able to make the most of that talent.

But millions more entrepreneurs don’t know what to do with the talent God gave them. They may not even know they have entrepreneurial talent at all, because there is no formal system for identifying them.

All talents, of any kind, explode with early identification and intentional development. But the talent for entrepreneurship doesn’t receive the close attention that we routinely offer, even to middle school cheerleaders.

The single most important factor for America’s economic survival remains as mysterious as life on Mars. But maybe that’s because it’s so unusual. Gallup discovered that high entrepreneurial talent is rare. Only 5% of entrepreneurs have the ability to build big businesses.

Imagine how the world would change if we recorded and reported aptitude scores for entrepreneurial talent https://www.gallupstrengthscenter.com/ESF/en-US/Index — if the U.S. could identify those with the right talent and get them into accelerated development programs in the best schools. The day when there is a list of “blue chip” potential entrepreneurs coming out of your local high schools and colleges is the day when America, and subsequently the world, will change forever. Conversations will change. Leadership will change. City and national strategies will change. Billions of dollars’ worth of investments will change. A very specific human talent will have new value and respect, because we can intentionally direct and control economic energy and subsequently the future of cities and nations.

Jim Clifton is chairman and CEO of Gallup and author of The Coming Jobs War. This is adapted from his next book, “Entrepreneurial StrengthsFinder,” coming in September.