Leading the Entrepreneurial Way

Is the US leading the entrepreneurial way
Is the US leading the entrepreneurial way?

As storms brewed over southern England this October I boarded a Virgin Airbus & headed to the US. My destination was Kansas City and the GCEC Conference.

Crossing the Atlantic I was keen to test out Mr Branson’s latest in-seat multi-media technology. The hours passed quickly as I laughed at The Internship and cried with the Guilt Trip. As alcohol and altitude fuelled the emotions I got into the US spirit…

But when you touchdown…

Unable to fly direct to Kansas I had opted to transfer through Washington. Now, previous ventures out west have taught me that breaking into the ‘land of the free’ requires steely resilience and titanic reserves of patience. And as one of 330+ people in that border queue, the art of standing, shuffling and fretting got plenty of practice. Ultimately, you wonder if a face-off with one of the few heartless officials (whose absent-minded superiority & scrutinising skill is unsurpassed) will ever happen. Washington’s ‘Dulles Customs Cowboys’ didn’t disappoint. It took 90+ agonising minutes to make the required 80 yard gain.

But breaking the line and luggage located I charged through the airport, desperate to make my connecting flight. Sadly it was to no avail. The United check-in desk had closed 5 minutes before my leaden legs and breathless, overheating excuse for a body arrived.

But then a spell of heavenly fortune rescued me. A stewardess, with a kindly heart and eyes full of magic, fixed on her monitor. Her nimble fingers played the keyboard and in a flash I had a confirmed reservation on the last available flight which would zigzag me on my way via Cleveland, Ohio. Hours later I fell into my Kansas bed. Drained by events I was too tired to worry that my bags had failed to make the final leg with me.

Leading the entrepreneurial way

Fortunately, my luggage was delivered the next day ahead of the conference evening opening at the prestigious Kauffman Foundation headquarters. As a newcomer I was made to feel most welcome and the audience of 250+ were treated to several slick and informative presentations where speakers claimed with confidence that Kansas was the most entrepreneurial city in the US.

Being British I naturally received such assertions with scepticism but events that followed that evening and over the next 2 days challenged my views. Read on and find out what I discovered since your opinion and feedback on the subject of who leads the entrepreneurial way is important and much appreciated.

Culture with entrepreneurial philanthropic roots

Ewing Marion Kauffman built a highly successful pharmaceutical company out of the basement of his home. After selling his billion dollar empire in 1989 he poured millions into a Foundation to help young people, particularly those who were disadvantaged, get a quality education. In his view ‘enterprise’ was a key to developing individual potential as well the economy.

Importantly, Kauffman’s philanthropic vision is not an isolated case in the US. The Gates Foundation for example is globally renowned. And as you will read later, Ewing Kauffman isn’t the only individual in Kansas who is ploughing money back into the economy in order to help young people.

Focus for social enterprise development

Within the US, the Kauffman Foundation has grown to become the generative hub for developing not-for-profit companies. Stakeholders from individual enterprises to national government are involved and I sensed from listening to speakers that collective efforts are producing pragmatic shared learning as well as edgy research. All of this work is feeding a deeper understanding of new ways of working.

By way of example, Nate Olson shared how he was growing entrepreneurial communities throughout the US using coffee as a catalyst to bring people together. After he spoke I joined a long line to get a few minutes of his time. Bright, witty and highly engaging (he’s not destined for border control) Nate’s ‘1 Million Cups’ weekly program is educating, and accelerating startup communities. Nate now works with Kauffman and together they are growing this simple yet highly innovative coffee-centred enterprise into a national and international program.

Standing ovation for 91 year old presenter

For the next 2 days the GCEC event was held at the Henry W. Bloch Executive Hall for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Recently opened, this dedicated centre within the University of Missouri and Kansas City proved a perfect conference venue. It was also a multi-million dollar gift from Mr Bloch, a 91-year-old entrepreneur and local philanthropist.

As part of proceedings the youthful Mr Bloch co-hosted a Q&A session where he said his only regret was not starting his philanthropic Foundation sooner. Having learned more about Mr Kauffman the night before I started to wonder whether educational philanthropy within the entrepreneurship sector was dominated by the US?

That question should be answered when a £500k research project led by the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship into ‘global entrepreneurial education philanthropy’ is complete. Of course, Sir Tom Hunter (reportedly Scotland’s first home-grown billionaire) created the Foundation that funded the original Hunter Centre.

Innovative research

But it wasn’t just the scale of philanthropy that led me to write this piece. Prior to the Kansas venture I had pored over recent thinking and research into why new businesses fail and what helps them to survive. It was only when I stood back from the evidence that I realised all of the prominent shared sources I had accessed were US-based.

Sources included: Harvard Professor Tom Eisenmann and his research on ‘Ego and Startup Failure’; Steve Hogan and his work on business failure in Silicon Valley; David Skok on ‘Why Startups Fail’; and most prominently perhaps, Paul Graham’s analysis of ‘Why Startup Hubs work’.

For me, each author presented consistent and accurate messages and lessons. However, Paul Graham’s notion that ‘death is the default for start-ups and most towns don’t save them’ stood out as a new way of thinking. Paul contends that “In most places if you are a startup, people treat you as if you’re unemployed. Having people around you who care about what you are doing is an extraordinarily powerful force.”

To what extent do you think Paul Graham’s beliefs are true where you live?

Don’t get institutionalised

Finally, on my last day in Kansas I was fortunate to hear Michael Morris (Professor of Entrepreneurship – University of Florida) address the conference. Quoting George Bernard Shaw he made a powerful case for his colleagues to be transformative in their work, rather than succumb to the processes and powers of their institution.

‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him… The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself… All progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

George Bernard Shaw

Professor Morris’ challenging and some may have thought ‘unreasonable behaviour’ chimed with me. To fully reach and support budding entrepreneurs teachers must be entrepreneurial too, he claimed. And he added, “This means we must discover opportunities, develop innovations, implement a constant stream of innovations, take calculated risks, leverage resources and act as guerrillas – all within our own academic settings.” Powerful and inspiring stuff; and in my opinion exactly what is needed to lead and equip people with the necessary mindset.

The presentation ended as it started. “Don’t get institutionalised.” Mike’s words were soft but the message was strong. The packed lecture theatre responded immediately with long and deserving applause.

And as I sat there in the auditorium I reflected on the trip and how the insular, suspicious behaviour I had first experienced at Dulles airport had been replaced completely by a pervading positive attitude of openness, sharing and a desire to look forward and get stuff done. My travels expose me to many different cultures, but few I have seen match the entrepreneurial spirit I witnessed during my stay in Kansas.

So is the US leading the entrepreneurial way? Whatever your standpoint please let me know your thoughts. I don’t want this to be the end of a Blog post, rather the start of a wider debate.

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