Last week was EntrepreneurshipWeek USA across the nation and beyond, sponsored by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the New York Times, and Inc Magazine. Over 350 participating universities host their own events to bring together the best entrepreneurial thinkers and leaders–events like Brown University’s 60-second Elevator Pitch competition, Purdue’s Idea-to-Product (I2P) competition, and the Idea Bounce contest at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
I’ve been meaning to share my travels to Stanford for a few days, so I’ll start from the beginning. Last weekend, February 24th, was the national opening ceremony for E-Week at Stanford University. I travelled down to Palo Alto with my roommate Steve, where we stayed with our buddy Patrick Briggs (the Zazzler).
At the E-Week kickoff, Jonathan Ortmans (National Executive Director of EntrepreneurshipWeek USA) stressed the value of entrepreneurs to the US and world economy, citing that entrepreneurs especially reflect the pioneering spirit of the early American colonizers. An entrepreneurial career definitely highlights the difference between merely taking a job that someone else provides for you and making a job for yourself! It is a move back toward the self-made legacy of great American heroes like Ben Franklin, for one.
Next we heard from John Hennessey, president of Stanford University. Hennessey is one academic who has an entrepreneurial legacy himself, as he transferred his important research in microprocessor technology to actual industry application by co-founding MIPS Technologies (he also sits on the boards of Google and Cisco). President Hennessey explained that fostering an entrepreneurial atmosphere does five important things: it 1) increases people’s creativity and willingness to think outside the box, 2) encourages individuals to follow their passion and therefore excel at what they do, 3) creates a community that embraces and leads change, 4) encourages people to have a “glass half full” approach to problems and see them as potential opportunities, and 5) increases people’s willingness to take on and overcome challenges by building excellent teams. This entrepreneurial atmosphere is definitely prevalent throughout Silicon Valley–which is why I feel myself drawn there. It is one community of people who do not let fear of failure prevent them from giving their BIG ideas a shot! And they are great at assembling quality teams to tackle problems-as-opportunities.
Carl Schramm (President and CEO, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation) surprised some of the audience when he said that 70% of college students will start a business at some point in their lives. He referenced the common statistic that while our grandparents may have had on average four jobs over their career, we will have something like 13! And who is responsible for creating all those new jobs? Entrepreneurs, of course! Schramm is author of The Entrepreneurial Imperative and calls entrepreneurship the US’ “competitive secret,” which allows us to stay ahead of developing nations economically (who knows for how long?). He says that startups “birth the new” and give security to others by creating jobs, and they posses the only key to creating wealth! This presents an interesting new way to look at economic models that I hadn’t really approached before: without the for-profit businessman to virtually create capital, governments could not operate (no one to tax), and the non-profit foundations would not have any money to give to their causes. So without individuals to start up businesses, there can be no government, no philanthropy, no charity…
Finally Steve Jurvetson (Partner in the VC firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson) shared some insight into what ties philanthropy, raising families, creating art and literature, and entrepreneurship together–people’s desire to create some kind of a legacy that will last beyond our short time here on earth. He recommends students pay close attention for uniqueness, persistence, and infectious enthusiasm in their classmates (his peer Jim Yang went on to start up Yahoo!) because successful entrepreneurs are rarely lone rangers, but more often come in dynamic duos as he says. Most importantly, he says to look for ways you can harness what you’ve learned from past experiences in new and perhaps unfamiliar territory. That is why I try not to let job descriptions discourage me when I am looking for something new–I feel that my accumulated experience across many different job types will lend itself to being a flexible team-worker in different settings even if I haven’t worked in that field before. And I hope that my experience leading teams successfully in my academic career, recruiting and assembling student teams, and creating my own leadership projects in a position where I’m not officially given a lot of seniority, will translate well into being a fair and effective leader in business. You take the lessons you learn, and just apply them in a new setting.
In the end, I really felt like these guys opened my eyes to a few new ways of looking at entrepreneurship and how it benefits society. In a capitalist community, it really spurs all progress, and is responsible for all wealth- and job-creation. Carl Schramm says that all entrepreneurs are social entrepreneurs for these reasons.