A British news correspondent recently emailed me to ask for any research that helps answer the question of whether there really is a dirty secret that high-growth companies are usually led by founders from privileged families.
My answer was that I had not come across data concluding exactly that, but qualitative research always points to the importance of personal networks to entrepreneurial success. This is why both in developed and developing countries, parents make an effort to get their children into elite schools. Parents know that their offspring will not only benefit from a higher quality of education, but also from a network that can open many doors. I also told him that there is extensive anecdotal evidence that the venture capital industry relies heavily relies on connections for investment decisions.
(Read more: The world's hot start-ups)
Now, Paul Kedrosky, a venture capitalist and senior fellow at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, offers us some hard data on these instinctive and anecdotal observations about the importance of connections for an entrepreneur. Based on a recent survey of 2,000 Americans from across the country, Kedrosky shows that personal associations are in fact a variable in the rise of entrepreneurship.
His 'Getting the Bug: Is (Growth) Entrepreneurship Contagious?' report released by the Kauffman Foundation presents the results from the survey, which asked participants whether they were entrepreneurs, and if they knew other entrepreneurs. The resulting data offer insights into the importance of having such a peer connection across groups by age, gender, geographic region and income level, such as:
•37.8 percent of respondents who knew a "growth" entrepreneur—founders of companies with more than $1 million in sales growing more than 20 percent a year—were entrepreneurs themselves, as were 35.5 percent of respondents who knew entrepreneurs overall.
•The higher the level of an individual's income, the higher the chances he or she knew a "growth" entrepreneur whose venture has a high-impact on the economy.
•24.8 percent of men claimed to know a growth entrepreneur, compared with 12.1 percent of women.
•Younger respondents (ages 25-34) had an edge over other age groups in knowing growth entrepreneurs (20.2 percent), while respondents ages 45-54 were most likely to know an entrepreneur in general (48.6 percent).
Although more data is necessary to show causality, there is now no doubt that the entrepreneurship bug is a behavior learned in part through imitation.
The intuition behind this new data set encouraged the Kauffman Foundation to start the Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW) movement in 2008. Results since then have shown us that entrepreneurship is indeed going viral, with entire new start-up ecosystems forming, even in unexpected corners of the world. More importantly, GEW has led to a much more level playing field for any team of individuals in the world with a good idea, patient co-founders, the wisdom to test and adapt a formula to scale it.
This week millions of people will again have a chance to catch the entrepreneurship bug, while participating in this year's Global Entrepreneurship Week (Nov. 18 – 24) events, activities and competitions in 140 countries. New friendship and partnerships will form at the events. For example, 283 people applied to pitch at the "Get in the Ring: The American Startup Clash" on Nov. 18 to an esteemed panel of judges: global fashion mogul Marc Ecko; serial entrepreneur Jeff Hoffman; entrepreneur, investor and author of "The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing" Lisa Gansky; consumer brand "turnaround" CEO Matthew Rubel; and broadcast and digital media guru Denmark West.
Many policymakers around the world have taken notice through GEW of the benefits of the infectious social phenomenon of new start-ups trying to solve challenges across sectors and industries and now are exploring ways to support entrepreneurs. That is why we need more research building on Kedrosky's study. This is the type of data that can help bring discipline to the field of entrepreneurship as more nations turn their attention to helping entrepreneurs deliver for society.
—By Jonathan Ortmans, special to CNBC.com. Ortmans is president of Global Entrepreneurship Week.