The popular image of American tech entrepreneurs is that they come from elite universities: Some graduate and start companies in their garages; others drop out of college to start their business careers. The dot-com boom reinforced the image of technology CEOs being young and brash. But, even though Bill Gates and Steve Jobs founded two of the world's most successful companies, they are not representative of technology and engineering company founders. Indeed, a larger proportion of tech founders are middle-aged, well-educated in business or technical disciplines, with degrees from a wide assortment of schools. Twice as many U.S.-born tech entrepreneurs start ventures in their fifties as do those in their early twenties, as this paper will show.
Our earlier research on technology and engineering entrepreneurship revealed that skilled immigrants were a driving force in recent U.S. economic growth. From 1995 through 2005, skilled immigrant founders established 25.6 percent of all the startups nationwide, and 52.3 percent of those in Silicon Valley. This group tended to be highly educated in science-, technology-, and engineering-related disciplines. The majority came to the United States to study and decided to stay. These immigrant tech founders typically established a company thirteen years after coming to the United States and tended to gravitate to technology centers across the country.
What about U.S.-born tech entrepreneurs? Were they young college dropouts or well-educated? Were they graduates of elite schools or a diverse set of schools like the immigrant company founders? Where did they locate their companies? To answer these questions, we surveyed 652 U.S.-born chief executive officers and heads of product development in 502 engineering and technology companies established from 1995 through 2005. These companies, identified from an existing dataset of corporate records in Dun & Bradstreet's Million Dollar Database, have more than $1 million in sales, twenty or more employees, and company branches with fifty or more employees.
We observed that, like immigrant tech founders, U.S.-born engineering and technology company founders tend to be well-educated. There are, however, significant differences in the types of degrees these entrepreneurs obtain and the time they take to start a company after they graduate. They also tend to be more mobile and are much older than is commonly believed.