Entrepreneur is a Verb

The following post is actually the transcript from my Pechakucha talk from spring, 2016. It highlights my perspectives on common misconceptions of success in entrepreneurship and ties them together with my personal journey to become an entrepreneur. The talk concludes with how I believe we can intentionally educate students today to break stereotypes and encourage them to pursue career paths in entrepreneurship:

At its most fundamental level, the word “entrepreneur” is derived from a word that means to “undertake”. I find this interesting, especially because of the ongoing debate as to whether or not entrepreneurship is something that can be taught, or if it is a quality we are born with.

Since I consider myself to be an entrepreneur, this is a topic I’m very passionate about. So I decided to conduct an investigation...to see if I could uncover the answer to this question, because I believe we have an incredible opportunity to intentionally education the next generation of entrepreneurs if we understand this.

I began my investigation by looking at the great success stories in entrepreneurship: the Steve Jobs and Bill Gates of society. And what I quickly realized is that as a society, we tend to fall into one of two schools of thought when it comes to observing success in entrepreneurship. The first is that we assume great success must be accompanied by extraordinary talent. As-if Steve Jobs carried with him a shield of risk tolerance and wielded a sword of creativity and innovation. And in doing so, we are separating ourselves from these people, making what they do seem un-obtainable to the average person. The second school of thought is the ever-popular “quick-fix solution”: the idea that perhaps successful entrepreneurs get there by taking the secret “entrepreneur pill”, reading the best “10 steps to success in business book” or attending the best business school.

But we know better than this. We know that success in entrepreneurship is defined by a word called GRIT – a word that represents sustained effort over a period of time. The idea that success is the result of a marathon more so than a sprint. So the question becomes – how do we teach grit?

At this point, I decided to reflect on my personal journey to entrepreneurship to see what I could uncover there. Where you need to know about me is that I was born as an only child in a relatively average family. Neither of my parents had college degrees, and neither of them owned their own business, so you couldn’t say I was influenced by being brought-up in an entrepreneurial environment. I also wasn’t a straight-A student, but arguably, I was at the top of my class….since I was homeschooled.

When I took a moment to reflect on my homeschooled years, I realized something profound: that being homeschooled was just about the closest thing to being brought-up in a startup company I could think of. Allow me to explain: my day-to-day life was vastly different from the norm. It didn’t matter how or when I got my schoolwork done, only that it was done. It didn’t matter if this was in the kitchen, in the backyard, in a park, on a plane, on a train, or in the backseat of a car driving to one of 30 or 50 different field trips and group activities. I realized that I experienced my education rather than having been subjected to an educational system. And this had a profound effect on the way I perceived education for the rest of my career.

When I decided to attend the University of Akron to study Electrical Engineering, I went into shock when I was confronted with the 4 walls of a classroom. So I sought to create my own unique learning experiences through robotics and research projects. One of these projects eventually lead me to start a company as an undergraduate student…simply because nobody every told me I couldn't do that without being a business student.

When I graduated I tried my best to the “right thing” and get a “normal” job. I arguably had one of the coolest jobs a new grad could have asked for, working at NASA as a power systems engineer. But day in and day out, I hated my job. I realized that at this point, I was unemployable – not because I was a bad employee, but because I had been trained to be an entrepreneur.

Seeking to connect-the-dots, I was reading about one of my favorite entrepreneurs, Elon Musk. In an intriguing article by author Tim Urban, I saw a unique analogy used to describe the mindset of the successful entrepreneur. This writer describes Elon using the analogy of the cook and the chef. It goes something like this: the cook, you see, follows a recipe for their creation – a pre-prescribed plan for success. And while what they create might be “ok”, it’s certainly nothing extraordinary. The chef, to the contrary, takes their collective experience to create something truly magnificent.

The take away is this: true success in entrepreneurship seems to be more closely tied to experience than anything else. The successful entrepreneurs of our time got there by being entrepreneurial – not by reading a book, getting a degree, or waiting around for somebody to tell them they were qualified to do it. They just went out and did it.

So why is this such a hard concept to grasp?

Today we see plenty of fingers being pointed at our education system. In an iconic TED talk with over 38 million views, Sir Ken Robinson so eloquently states that as a society, we are actually born to be creative, but that we are educated OUT of our creativity as a result of antiquated structure and color-in-the-lines mindset enforced throughout our education system. I would take this a step further to say that we are actually born to be entrepreneurial. If this doesn’t make sense quite yet, just take a moment to think back to yourself as a child: were you not incredibly creative, innovative, and imaginative; running to risks, falling down, skinning your knee, only to get back up again? I believe this is the very definition of the entrepreneurial mindset.

So what happens to this mindset, and what can we do?

I understand that not every family has the opportunity to homeschool their child, and I’m certainly not suggesting that is the only answer. What I would endeavor to say is that we do have an opportunity to take advantage of this mindset early-on in our children’s lives by creating and allowing for entrepreneurial experiences in parallel with the traditional education system...and that in doing so, we can encapsulate that mindset and carry through a pipeline, so that we can in fact intentionally educate our children to be entrepreneurs.

I understand that entrepreneurship might seem about as frightening as jumping out of a plane, to most of us. But to a friend of mine who calls himself a professional skydiver , the 100th time he jumps out of a plane certainly isn’t as frightening as the first. And odds are, he’s learned a thing or two about what to do and what not to do.

So I leave you with this challenge: I believe we have members of our community that have jumped out of planes before – people that have started companies. And if these people can come together as a community, then we have an incredible opportunity to intentionally create entrepreneurial experiences for our youth, and make entrepreneur a verb in our community.