-- "Entrepreneur." When Steve Jobs' death certificate was released this week, that's what the family chose to list as his occupation.
Jobs was one of the greatest entrepreneurs of all time and clearly, he wore that title proudly. What enabled Steve Jobs to become Steve Jobs, Entrepreneur? What in his environment nurtured, enabled and sustained the kind of entrepreneur we so desperately need in this country?
I live in the same environment as did Jobs. His home is within easy walking distance of my house and like most people living in Palo Alto, Calif., I'd seen Steve around town when he was healthier. My office was a few doors down from Steve's little-used, secret private office, and on a few occasions, I'd find myself next to him in the sandwich or checkout line at the Whole Foods across the street. It was pretty cool to have a multibillionaire and one of the most admired men in the world walking around and occasionally bumping into him.
I also live in the same entrepreneurial environment. My friend and mentor, Eugene Kleiner, one of the founders of Silicon Valley, was an active venture capitalist at the time that Steve was growing his businesses, and Eugene gave me great insight into the thinking of investors at the time.
So what enabled a Steve Jobs, Entrepreneur, to be created and thrive?
Emphasis on vision. I often say that there are basically two types of entrepreneurs -- builders or traders. Builders create — products, knowledge, jobs, wealth. Traders move — money, stuff. Traders are vital, but it's builders who are the foundation of an economy. Unfortunately, our country has disproportionately rewarded and incentivized traders — particularly money traders -- over creators. Hedge fund managers pay lower taxes than do manufacturing workers. Steve Jobs wanted to change the world, not just get rich.
Great public schools. Apple's seeds were planted in an electronics program at Homestead High School in Cupertino, Calif., where both founders —Steve Wozniak and Jobs — met. It's conceivable that none of it — not Apple, not iPods, perhaps not even personal computers — would have come about if the people of California had not supported excellent public schools. (Steve graduated in 1972 — six years before California passed Proposition 13, undermining public school financing.)
Liberal arts education. Yes, yes. I know Jobs was a college dropout. But he was also a college drop-in. Jobs spoke of the importance of taking classes that interested him without regard to what they'd later lead to. In particular, he talked of the impact a calligraphy class (calligraphy in college!) had on him and how, later, he made sure that computers could create different, beautiful type.
Investors who wanted to build businesses not just make a quick buck. In 1976, when Mike Markkula financed the fledgling Apple, venture capitalists in Silicon Valley typically expected not to see any return on their money for at least seven years. In the height of the dotcom era, some expected returns in seven months. The best investors in entrepreneurial ventures are partners in building sustainable companies, not speculators.
Investors that allowed entrepreneurs to keep most of the equity. Although rarely commented on, Silicon Valley innovated a major shift in business — founders, not investors, got to keep most of the equity.
Acceptance of failure. One of the greatest attributes of Silicon Valley is that failure is not only tolerated, it's expected and accepted. Investors look at entrepreneurs who've had failed startups as experienced, not inept. Steve Jobs failed — repeatedly. Great entrepreneurs fail. A society that embraces failures enables successes.
Here's one thing that didn't matter in creating Steve Jobs — low taxes. The top personal income tax rate in the year Apple was founded? A whopping 70% (now it's half at 35%). His investors, too, were not discouraged — when Jobs received his first funding, the top capital gains rate was at an all-time high of nearly 50% (15% now).
Let's be clear. There was only one Steve Jobs. He was magic. But there are plenty of other great budding entrepreneurs , and it takes the right environment to enable talents and skills like those of Jobs to flower.
For America, for the world, we should do all we can to sustain an environment that will create more entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs.
Rhonda Abrams is president of The Planning Shop and publisher of books for entrepreneurs. Her newest is the 5th edition of The Successful Business Plan: Secrets and Strategies. Register for Rhonda's free newsletter at www.PlanningShop.com and "like" The Planning Shop on Facebook for updates. For an index of her columns, go to smallbiz.usatoday.com. Twitter: twitter.com/RhondaAbrams. Copyright Rhonda Abrams 2011.