Americans Less Aware of Top US Entrepreneurs Than of Celebrities Politicians and Athletes

Raising awareness of influential entrepreneur "role models" could inspire more individuals to pursue an entrepreneurial path, contributing to U.S. economic vitality

(KANSAS CITY, Mo.), Nov. 12, 2013 – Americans know their celebrities, living or dead: a full 96 percent recognize the name Marilyn Monroe.

But say "Steve Jobs" to a U.S. resident, and the odds are barely better than 50/50 that you'll get a nod of recognition for the founder of Apple.

Even entrepreneurs who have made extraordinary contributions to the U.S. economy – and to daily life for millions – have relatively low public awareness, according to a study released today by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

"Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, and Steve Jobs: Who is an Entrepreneurial Role Model?" examines the results of a survey of 1,000 Americans ages 18 or older regarding their awareness of five prominent current and historical entrepreneurs.

The findings reveal not only moderate to low awareness of entrepreneurial figures, but in some cases differing perceptions of who is an entrepreneur to begin with.

Among survey respondents, Steve Jobs was the most recognized, with 52.8 percent overall awareness; Oprah Winfrey was next at 38.9 percent, followed by Walmart founder Sam Walton (38.1 percent) and Thomas Edison (33.3 percent).

Elon Musk, CEO of growth companies SpaceX and Tesla Motors, was recognized by only 12.9 percent of respondents – less than the 24.7 percent who had heard of "none of the above."

While awareness varied only slightly by respondents' geographic regions, the survey revealed notable differences by gender regarding Winfrey and Musk: 48.1 percent of women recognized Winfrey as an entrepreneur but only 34.3 percent of men, while 17 percent of men recognized Musk compared to 10.8 percent of women.

These differences may have somewhat superficial causes, says study author Paul Kedrosky, Kauffman Foundation senior fellow.

"Men may perceive Oprah Winfrey first as a TV personality rather than an entrepreneur, and women may be less familiar with Elon Musk because his successes have been in automobiles and space flight, which stereotypically are more interesting to men," Kedrosky said. "Because entrepreneurs in general, and particularly 'growth' entrepreneurs whose ventures create the most jobs, are so important to the economy, these findings point to a need for role models that encourage entrepreneurship among both genders."

The data also showed variations in awareness by income level.

While Jobs was recognized evenly across all income levels, likely based on Apple's well-publicized success, Winfrey was better known among low- and high-income respondents, and Walton was most recognized among high-income respondents.

Awareness of Winfrey may be greater among low-income responders as an aspirational figure, Kedrosky said, while awareness of both Winfrey and Walton may be high among high-income responders because their entrepreneurial successes has been featured in business industry publications, whose audience skews to higher incomes.

This study, along with an October 2013 Kauffman paper examining the powerful role of awareness, imitation and role models in inspiring new entrepreneurs, points to opportunities for programs and organizations seeking to support U.S. entrepreneurship.