Can Indonesia's Ciputra Prove that Great Entrepreneurs Are Made, not Born?

I’ve long argued that great entrepreneurs are born not made. I emphasize the word “great” for a reason. A hot market can convince someone to become an entrepreneur but such fortune-seekers are rarely the ones who build lasting, billion-dollar companies.

What about those who say they never intended to start a company but circumstances lead them to success? I’d argue that they may not have always realized they were entrepreneurs, but if you asked their friends, parents and siblings, they would describe them as having always been the kid with the lemonade stand, the kid working an angle, the kid creating something where there was nothing. Like a cylon, something just switched it on later. Seeing an idea through to become something huge is too hard. You simply have it or you don’t.

One person has made me question this—a bit. I met him in Indonesia and like Madonna, he’s mostly known by one name—Ciputra. That name is on universities and city subdivisions the country over. (That’s him to the right in front of a large painting from his impressive modern art collection.) If Ciputra is the Indonesian Donald Trump, Jakarta is his New York—a city that quite literally has his fingerprints all over it. Now in his late 70s, Ciputra has lived every painful chapter of Indonesian history from colonial times to Sukarno to Suharto and finally to what the country hopes is a stable democracy. And that ride has taken him from obscurity to success to bankruptcy and back to success again.

Ciputra is an architect who describes his aesthetic as “grand.” Most of his properties have huge statues of horses, caught mid-air in granite galloping wildly with all their might, nostrils flaring. That, or statues of buxom women who look a bit like the painting at the beginning of “Good Times.” He started his first company—a development consultancy—in architecture school but he was frustrated not controlling a project from start-to-finish. Soon after he started developing buildings himself, he grew weary of that as well, moving onto developing whole streets. But that still wasn’t enough. He started developing cities within cities. Now,he has 50 under his belt, spanning several continents and some 25,000 hectares.

Since his 70th birthday, Ciputra has been thinking even bigger. He wants to redesign the country. And he wants to do it by creating thousands and thousands of entrepreneurs. Right now, his team has estimated that Indonesia—a country of nearly 250 million people—has just 400,000 entrepreneurs who build scalable, innovative companies. That’s less than 1% of the population. Compare that to 13% for the United States and 7% for nearby Singapore. Ciputra isn’t greedy; he figures his plan could change the country if he could help encourage, create and mentor 4 million entrepreneurs or 2% of the country’s population. How do you do that? Not with venture capital, but by changing the country’s mindset, Ciputra says.

Here’s where the born v. made debate comes in: Ciputra says in Indonesia universities don’t train entrepreneurs—they train people to be employees. He wants to train people to create jobs, not apply for them. He thinks a change in a university’s mindset can change who comes out of it. He started by opening up a university for entrepreneurship in Surabaya called Universitas Ciputra. The university follows the national accreditation guidelines, but every Wednesday the curriculum is all about how to start high-growth, innovative companies. It was a $10 million dollar investment, and he says he’s already ready to open a second one. He calls this the best kind of philanthropy for a country like Indonesia that was held down under colonial rule for a whopping 350 years.

The University has some nods to Silicon Valley, with role models like Google, Amazon and Yahoo splayed on the walls of the IT department. And its student housing is in a building called Berkeley, so kids can tongue-and-cheek say they’re at UC (as in Universitas Ciputra) Berkeley. But like other Ciputra developments, this is a huge project that includes not only a school but housing, a hotel, a golf course and one day, a waterpark just behind the school– to beat that brutal Surabaya heat I suppose. (The picture at the top is part of the complex’s model in the lobby.)

The school can influence several hundred new students a year, but that’s not enough for Mr. C. That’s why he partnered with the Kansas City-based Kauffman Foundation to help train the people who train entrepreneurs. (More on the collaboration here. Disclosure: Kauffman also partially funded the book I’m writing.) Those trainers train other trainers and suddenly the country has thousands of people teaching kids how to be Western-style, high-growth entrepreneurs. This year, he convinced the government of Indonesia to send about a dozen university teachers from colleges outside his purview to Kauffman’s six-month training course that entails trips to Boston, Silicon Valley and other American entrepreneurial hot spots.

I visited the university in Surabaya during my trip to Indonesia a week ago, and was impressed at the students’ enthusiasm. I got peppered with questions about monetization and motivation not only in Silicon Valley but around the world, and afterward one kid told me confidently I’d be writing a book about him one day. The university is about to graduate its first class and out of 166 kids, more than 100 have started companies. More surprising: Nearly 50% of the students are women. “We select people with passion,” Ciputra says. “Don’t come here if you don’t want to be an entrepreneur. I told them at my first lecture to get up and leave if they wanted to be an employee.”

But back to this question of whether entrepreneurs are born or made. As Ciputra told me about his grandkids and his friends’ kids who started mango stands and cake stands in Indonesia, I asked him whether he thought most kids were naturally entrepreneurial and whether a societal fear of failure—which is more pronounced in some places than others—somehow beats it out of us. He nodded. But he added that if that were true, kids need either a parent, a society or a school to encourage that feeling. Because all universities in Indonesia require government accreditation, school is the one of the three that can be centrally fixed, by fixing the curriculum and the teachers.

“Ah ha!” I said, having read that Ciputra grew up in a poor, remote Indonesian village. “If that’s true, what explains your success?” Ciputra says his father—a shopkeeper—instilled the entrepreneurial spirit in him when he was young before he was captured by the Japanese during the country’s occupation of Indonesia. But he adds he wished he’d had more encouragement. “Who knows? If I’d gotten it from school, I might be 10 times bigger today,” he says. “The richest Indonesians have maybe $5 billion. Bill Gates has $50 billion.”

In a country of 17,000 islands and 240 million people this is hardly a small job. But Ciputra clearly feels this is his legacy. He’s got the money, determination and influence that few others in the country have—or would be willing to spend– on this vision. It’s a project only a man bored with building cities could dream up.