Posts Tagged ‘entrepreneur’

An accidental entrepreneur

Sunday, October 11th, 2009

“All human beings are entrepreneurs” Muhammad Yunus, recipient of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize,  likes to say. One of his campaigns involves trying to convince beggars to become door-to-door salesmen by lending them between 10 and 15 US dollars to buy their initial inventory of fruit, vegetables or toys for kids. As he puts it, he tries to get them to phase out their “begging division” and grow their “sales division”.

We should teach entrepreneurship somewhere between writing, reading and arithmetic. Just like the Three Musketeers were in fact four, entrepreneurship could be the fourth of the 3 Rs.

I discovered entrepreneurship much too late in life. I just didn’t know there was such a thing. There were no business people in my family, let alone entrepreneurs. All were teachers or government employees. None of them, as far as I know, had ever thought of starting a company. Growing up, I would‘ve been unable to list the major employers in my home town, nor did I understand that the wealth of my neighbors had anything to do with private companies creating employment opportunities for them.

I did have two small window on the real world, though. My father was a curious man. While grading school papers in front of a window overlooking the street, he analyzed trucks climbing with difficulty the steep hill in front of our house, noticing which companies they belonged to and trying to identify their points of origin and destination. With no frame of reference – there was no Internet then – the speculation was limited to enigmatic questions such as: “I wonder who needs a truckload of steel tubes from Wuppertal, Germany”.

I was also tipped to the relevance of business on prosperity by geography. Growing up as a French baby boomer living close to the German border, I became aware of the fact that the Vosges region where I lived was poorer than the Black Forest region on the other side of the Rhine. Black Forest houses were freshly painted and had flowers at their windows, while most French homes were in blatant need of renovation. I progressively discovered that the midsized companies of the mechanical industry in the Black Forest were growing, while the textile and paper mills of my French region were progressively shutting down.

After the randomness of the French educational system directed me to business studies, I moved to the United States and spent many years working for others, perpetually trying to reassure family members back in France that the financial risk wasn’t too great, the amount of work not excessive and the rewards worth the journey. The further jump into entrepreneurship came in the form of a couple of mentors dragging me into my future by my rear-end. I was operating as a faculty-in-residence inside a midsized consulting firm, when my two mentors kicked me out of the nest and gave me some capital to go out and recruit some people of my own. This marked the beginning of my entrepreneurial career.

I am not exactly Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but I have been able to provide opportunities for many young (or older) people over the years, a fact I find as gratifying as the economic rewards most people associate with entrepreneurship. I often reflect on how lucky I was that my two mentors not only pushed me into it, but also gave me the initial capital to get started.

My only regret is that I started too late. I wish my middle school had told me about entrepreneurship as a natural human state. I wish I had know about Mohammad Yunus then. We’re all entrepreneurs, indeed.

Structuring the healthcare ectoplasms

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

The art of co-creation lies in structuring the right exchange platforms at the outset of the debate. For having forgotten this simple fact, the Obama administration is now in the unenviable position of having to extract  common themes across five different bills generated by five different committees, and trying to cajole enough senators and house representatives into rallying around some kind of consensus bill still to be developed. The administration’s challenge is now to hang five ectoplasms on a common skeleton it still has to anatomically define, and get the ectoplasms not to slime in the process.

Imagine if eBay had had the great insight that there are lots of people with stuff in their attic they want to sell, and buyers who want to buy it, but had somehow forgotten to structure the market in categories such as cars, computers, or– my personal favorite  — “dolls and bears”. Imagine also what would have happened if eBay had forgotten to establish rules for its bidding system, including how long an item is put up for auction, how buyers and sellers establish or judge each other’s credibility through a rating system, how buyers and sellers can communicate and how the commissions get levied by eBay on both buyer and seller. If eBay had just said: “go out and co-create”, we’d have a real mess. That’s the healthcare debate so far.

Co-creation is not a free-for-all. It is an organized way of engaging different parties in a different kind of dialogue by structuring new platforms that create transparency between the various points of view. As a result, the process enables a better optimization than would have been possible under the old, non-transparent system. Absent this structuring, the healthcare debate has naturally reverted back to frozen, partisan characterizations of the other camp,  as either bleeding heart liberals or insensitive capitalists, not to mention absurd slogans such as “not letting anyone come between you and your doctors” – as if insurance companies were not already there!

As Business Week pointed out in its August 6 issue, health insurers have stepped into the breach and structured the debate on behalf of the administration. Not only have they framed the platforms, but they have used their considerable lobbying firepower to present actuarial evidence in favor of their proposed solutions. In a debate between free-form, idealistic regulators wishing for a better world and business legionnaires armed with scores of data, who do we think is going to prevail in the end?

Out of this mess, perhaps a new policy-setting process will arise in Washington, where regulators view themselves not as partisan advocates of a point of view they try to impose on others, but as architects and implementers of a new democratic process where issues are framed along citizen-centric lines. When regulators learn to design debate platforms rather than a priori outcomes, a new form of democracy will emerge.

In the meantime, it’s back to chasing ectoplasms. Whom you gonna call? Ghost busters.

Do the French have a word for “entrepreneur”?

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009


President George W. Bush reputedly told Tony Blair one day that “the French don’t even have a word for entrepreneur.” Not only was he etymologically confused, he may have been downright wrong. The French have created a lot of successful global businesses over the last 40 years, although these businesses do not fit the classic Anglo-Saxon entrepreneurial model. The French believe in the power of government funding to launch and sustain global enterprises. As a French-born, University of Chicago-educated boy, this success has generated a personal schizophrenia between the natural interventionism of my origin and the laissez-faire convictions acquired from my alma mater. As a result, I have slept badly for most of my adult life. 

In the grand, centrally controlled tradition of Napoleon, French political leaders believe state governments can and should play a role in business. In fact, Jacques Attali, an influential advisor to most recent Presidents of France, from the socialist François Mitterand to the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, advocates that France’s competitive advantage over the last 40 years has been its ability to centrally fund major infrastructural developments. Success stories have included Airbus, the French-led, European consortium of aircraft manufacturers taking on Boeing in civil aviation; the French national utility EDF establishing a strong global position in nuclear energy; and the national railroad company SNCF and its supplier Alsthom jointly learning to build and operate TGVs, the French high-speed train. To add insult to injury, Attali contends that the U.S. has begun a gradual decline because of its capitalistic excesses – “similar to the Roman empire in its decadent phase”, he adds for good measure – pointing out that the center of the economic world is now leaving the U.S. to continue its eastward shift toward China. 

It is difficult to argue that the U.S. free market model is thriving, particularly at a time where the U.S. economic policy under the Obama administration has become vastly interventionist to support banks and automotive companies, and is trying to establish a government healthcare mandate. It is equally hard to deny that the stock of China is rising compared to the U.S. So maybe we let the French win this one for now and grant that they indeed have a word for “entrepreneur,” which is “l’état entrepreneur.”

The ultimate economic model, though, remains to be crafted. There is an undeniable global appetite for tightening the social compact between citizens, including in the more traditionally free-for-all U.S. market. At the same time, government organizations still suffer from relative inefficiency, including at Airbus, SNCF and EDF. The future may lie in a new form of technology-enabled, bottom-up democracy where politicians co-create the economic agenda with their citizens. We have seen evidence of co-creation seeping slowly into politics, with the campaigns of Howard Dean and Barack Obama in the U.S. (and some Republicans rapidly catching up), and the presidential campaign of Ségolène Royal in France (and more recently Nicolas Sarkozy). The Hong Kong administration and the government of Andhra Pradesh in India have offered advance glimpses of this future, technology-rich form of government, where the social contract is built piece-by-piece by citizens at the local level, rather than mandated from the top, fostering a more efficient use of resources and preventing the excesses of raw capitalism. We should encourage citizens to build this economic agenda with their local businesses. There is already a powerful local food trend. Why not a strong local business trend? 

Only then – when co-creation of the economic agenda by citizens at the local level becomes the “third way”– will I get to sleep, finally at peace in this Franco-American reconciliation of economic models.

The music of authentic teachers

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

I have a theory about teachers: talented teachers become corrupt over time. They start with a genuine desire to help students discover new things, then fall in love with themselves. Students’ learning yields to the professor’s ego and his or her needs to be admired and complimented. Before long, the class is about the teacher, no longer about the students. It moves from education to show business.

I ought to know. I live surrounded by star business school teachers who wow students every day, gather large crowds at international events, and charge a minimum of $15,000 per appearance, sometimes going up to $50,000 or even $100,000. When they reach that level, most professors are no longer interested in the learning of their adoring crowds but focus instead on lifting their shows to the top of the (earnings) charts. As in show business, authenticity gets replaced by staged performance. Star professors become the Rolling Stones, still incredibly fun after all these years, but you know Mick and Keith don’t give a hoot about you anymore.

My cynicism about business school teachers notwithstanding, I recently signed up for a class at Babson College, my first one as a genuine student in 30-some years. The class was run by Babson President Len Schlesinger (in partnership with Charlie Kiefer). I expected to see Robert Plant, the aging singer of Led Zeppelin, and looked forward to his acoustic rendition of “Stairway to Heaven.” Instead, I discovered a vanguard artist creating a whole movement around him, and reinventing the music business to boot.

I had known Len a long time ago, but had lost track of him until someone recently told me we might have overlapping interests. The class I took (titled “Entrepreneurial Thoughts and Actions,” I think) is best described as a co-created experiment on co-creation. It costs close to nothing by the standards of executive education events involving professors of Schlesinger’s caliber ($275). It has no handouts worth talking about (hence my hesitation about even the name of the class). The other students were an egalitarian mish-mash of idealistic Babson students, experienced entrepreneurs, managers of nonprofit agencies, and business types interested in innovation. The students are meant not only to help debug the material but also become nodes in the co-development of the ideas.

The core of the class is provided by the two teachers, of course. In deference to Len’s and Charlie’s work, I will not divulge the content of the workshop, except to say that it is a gig on entrepreneurship offering powerful melodic lines with a free-form rhythm section. The rest is up to you.

The most daring types are invited to come on stage and riff with the boys (women were particularly good at it). Len has integrated new research that he quotes with the enthusiasm of Sting discovering Indian music (in his case, Saras Sarasvathy at the University of Virginia). The key they play in is so disruptive to what you hear from the traditional literature on entrepreneurship, with its analytical, funding-oriented bias, that you may feel like Glenn Miller at a Phish concert.

Their stuff is about the entrepreneurs themselves, rather than the power of their vision. Entrepreneurs, they claim, are like John and Paul in the early ’60s, figuring out that they like each other (at least at the beginning) and discovering what kind of music they want to play to earn a little money. For the first time, I saw someone describing the entrepreneurs whom I know, happily making up stuff with self-selected partners for the sheer fun of it.

The remarkable thing about Schlesinger is that you still get the rock star in full voice (and humor). He’s hyperkinetic and will get you to air-guitar along his Aerosmith-like riffs (although love is indeed sometimes hard on his knees). But he’ll interrupt his solo any time he sees somebody grappling with something he said. He’ll hum with you till you learn, adding one voice at a time to the already vast chorus of his co-creators, simply because he cares. He also said I could come back to the next workshop and he’d charge me only $25.

At that price, I think I’ll dust off my Fender Stratocaster from the attic and see if I can help him introduce a little more beat into his free jazz.