Entrepreneurs are made, not born. While some would argue that there are people who simply have it “in their blood,” entrepreneurial drive is not limited to certain genetically pre-disposed people. Entrepreneurs exist in all walks of life, but they often go unnoticed and/or undervalued in a system where creativity and trailblazing are not always encouraged.

Lichtenstein and Lyons (2001) posit three key beliefs about entrepreneurship: (1) entrepreneurs are successful to the extent that they have necessary skills, (2) entrepreneurs come to entrepreneurship at different levels of skill, and (3) these skills can be developed. What is necessary is a system to develop or “manufacture” such entrepreneurs.


Entrepreneurial communities are distinguished by certain kinds of behaviors or activities. First, they possess a critical mass of entrepreneurs who are actively engaged in capturing new market opportunities.

Second, there is a group of entrepreneurs that constitute a distinct and recognizable segment within the community. This group – characterized by a network of relationships that serves as a conduit for support, resources, know-how, and business – provides its peers the conditions necessary to grow their firms. The observation that it takes a village to raise a child applies in this situation as well; it takes a community to develop entrepreneurs and their ventures (Lyons, 2002).

Third, the community as a whole is entrepreneurial, not just a few of its parts. The community is open to change and invests in the conditions necessary to encourage entrepreneurship. Sometimes referred to as entrepreneurial spirit or entrepreneurial culture (labels that tend to confuse or mystify), this characteristic is specifically reflected in the actions taken by various members of the community to support the entrepreneurial process, such as making bank loans to startups, passing favorable legislation, welcoming new members and including new members in social and economic networks. If an area is going to successfully encourage entrepreneurship, the entire community must support it.


The Entrepreneurial League System® (ELS®) is an innovative approach to methodically developing entrepreneurial talent, creating successful companies, and building entrepreneurial communities. Modeled on one of the most successful processes in the world for systematically developing talent – the farm system of professional sports – the mission of ELS® is to create a supply of highly-skilled entrepreneurs capable of building successful companies and to do so in sufficient numbers to transform a region·s economy and to create individual and community wealth. Far more than just a set of ideas, ELS® is a powerful operational system and a set of well-organized business activities. Every element of the system has been implemented successfully in different communities (e.g., high-tech, urban, and rural) in various parts of the world.

The critical determinant of a community’s economic vitality is the quantity and quality of its entrepreneurs and how well they are matched to the market opportunities they pursue (Lichtenstein & Lyons, 2001). Communities can and must do something to improve their supply of entrepreneurs. We methodically cultivate many other kinds of talent, why not entrepreneurs? ELS® creates a breeding ground for entrepreneurs and helps them build the skills necessary for success as they work their way up the various league levels, just as athletes do in baseball.

Current programs in enterprise development deal with only half of the equation for economic success; they address the needs firms have for technical and financial assistance but do nothing to build a pipeline of highly-skilled entrepreneurs capable of using that assistance to build companies.

In the ELS® system, entrepreneurs are assigned to a league level (i.e., Rookie, Single-A, Double-A, Triple-A, and Major League) according to skills specific to starting and operating a new enterprise. Entrepreneurs are recruited by Talent Scouts who use a variety of methods to find or encourage individuals with the potential and drive to become an entrepreneur.

Led by a Performance Coach, entrepreneurs at the same league level are organized into Success Teams to develop the skills necessary to be successful entrepreneurs and to support each other in the tasks needed to build their businesses. With the help of their coach, entrepreneurs establish individualized Game Plans that help them focus their energies. Consulting services, technical assistance, and financial assistance are customized to the entrepreneurs· level of development and their precise needs. These processes facilitate the entrepreneurs’ progress to the major leagues – not necessarily in terms of size but in terms of performance and profitability.

Participating service providers are organized into a coordinated and disciplined system to improve entrepreneurs· ability to get the right kind of help at the right time and the right price. This is achieved by adopting a common yet inter-disciplinary diagnostic framework that was uniquely designed for this purpose.

ELS® also includes an innovative market development service led by individuals known as Opportunity Scouts, whose function is to actively identify new market opportunities and link them to existing and prospective entrepreneurs.

The final operational components – local stewardship and performance monitoring of processes and outcomes – result in a system capable of improving its results. All of these elements are designed to be mutually reinforcing so system results are greater than the sum of its parts.

ELS® is a new approach to economic development that helps communities develop entrepreneurial talent and builds successful companies effectively, efficiently, and equitably on a large-scale, sustainable basis. It provides entrepreneurs with a clear ladder to success and access to resources, support, and opportunities to develop new skills that make it less costly to start a business, more likely to succeed, less time-consuming to achieve success, and more capable of generating a greater return on investment. For service providers, ELS® provides more qualified, prescreened clients. It also enables them to take preventive rather than corrective action on problems entrepreneurs are experiencing.


ELS® was introduced to the West Virginia community by Dr. Thomas S. Lyons at the first West Virginia Conference on Entrepreneurship in 2002. Dr. Lyons and Dr. Gregg Lichtenstein are the designers of ELS® as it is being implemented in the Advantage Valley region.

Following the presentation in 2002, a small group of community leaders comprised of entrepreneurs, service providers, and civic leaders recognized the potential of the system and decided to pursue it further. The Advantage Valley Board of Directors embraced the concept and became the sponsor of the initiative. The Advantage Valley Entrepreneurial Task Force determined the resources that would be needed to implement ELS®, and, based on recommendations from the community, Advantage Valley sought and was awarded start-up funds from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.

In preparation to compete for funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, those initial funds were leveraged to form the Advantage Valley Entrepreneurial Development System Collaborative, a partnership among Advantage Valley and seven other agencies: Advantage Valley Community College Network, Ashland Area Innovation Center, A Vision Shared – Increasing Entrepreneurship Task Force, Capital Area Development Corp. Foundation, Center for Economic Options, WV Department of Education’s Office of Program Services, and WV Small Business Development Center.

The collaborative is honored to be one of six programs out of 183 competitors across the United States receiving funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (view press release).

At this time, Advantage Valley ELS® boasts four Success Teams, including two teams that have been meeting for more than eight months. Each team is comprised of peer groups of entrepreneurs who are focused on skill development and support. They attend a monthly meeting during which they report on progress on their Game Plans and discuss ways to develop skills and overcome obstacles. These meetings are facilitated by a skilled Performance Coach and are the foundation for sharing and strengthening entrepreneurial thinking, behaviors, and beliefs.

Entrepreneurs are challenged to develop personal maturity skills including self-awareness, accountability, and emotional balance.


While Advantage Valley ELS® takes great pride in the 48 entrepreneurs participating in the four existing Success Teams, there are plans for five additional teams – 60 entrepreneurs – in the coming year. Those who meet the following criteria could be considered for participation in ELS®:

  1. Launched venture in an Advantage Valley county a. In West Virginia: Boone, Cabell, Clay, Kanawha, Lincoln, Mason, Putnam, or Wayne b. In Kentucky: Boyd or Greenup c. In Ohio: Lawrence
  2. Involved in entrepreneurship (i.e., growing a business) versus self-employment
  3. Driven to succeed and highly motivated to use Advantage Valley services and investments to benefi t entrepreneurs and community
  4. Demonstrated commitment to being coached and at-tending Success Team meetings

Interested entrepreneurs should contact Advantage Valley ELS® at 304-760-0950 or mark@advantagevalleyels.com. (Author’s Note: Phone number and email address no longer work. If you are interested in learning more about the Entrepreneurial League System® please contact me for more information.


Advantage Valley ELS® is making strides in creating a culture that fosters an entrepreneurial community in the Advantage Valley region. The focus on acknowledging varying levels of existing skill among entrepreneurs and providing the system to develop the skills necessary for success is already yielding positive results. So far, the salient outcome is the feedback from participating entrepreneurs who say their team has helped them focus on growing their business. One might say ELS® is not just making entrepreneurs, but making entrepreneurs better.

Authored By: Mark D. Burdette, General Manager of the Advantage Valley Entrepreneurial League System®ELS® from 2004-2008

Hard to believe it’s been almost 16 years since my article “Manufacturing Entrepreneurs: Entrepreneurs Are Made, Not Born” was originally published in the Fall 2005 issue of Capacity Magazine by RCBI – Robert C. Byrd Institute.

View the original published article here.