By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.
Oddly this question came to me while I was attending a conference on entrepreneurship and small business in San Antonio in February. The reason this is odd is that there were few entrepreneurs in the audience. Instead the attendees were professors of business schools from across the country. These are the professors at prestigious business schools such as Harvard, the University of Michigan, Stanford, and UCLA that teach courses on business, marketing and management. They even teach courses on entrepreneurship, but most of these professors don’t own their own enterprise. They study entrepreneurs. They develop theory about entrepreneurs. They even teach courses for entrepreneurs, but they don’t “walk the talk.”
Until fairly recently entrepreneurship has not even been a topic of conversation in the nation’s top business schools, for the simple reason that business schools are primarily about training professional managers and future professors. The graduate students from these schools go on to work in corporate America, working their way up the career ladder, hoping to reach the presidency some day, or at least earn a key to the executive washroom. It’s not that these professional managers are not talented, nor that they lack leadership qualities. They are creative and innovative too. However, they are not entrepreneurs.
If you are an entrepreneur, or are married to one, or know one personally, chances are the entrepreneur did not go to business school. Or if they did, they dropped out (i.e. Bill Gates) when they learned that business school was not going to open the doors of opportunity. A few entrepreneurs managed to stay to graduation, but they were probably bored out of their minds, just biding their time until they could do what they really wanted to do. My brother-in-law Rick is like this. To please his father, he went to law school, even joined a law firm after graduation. However, soon he realized that he was too restless to work for anyone else. Before he turned 30, he was heading up his own firm and well close to achieving his dream of being a multi-millionaire.
True entrepreneurs don’t come from business schools. They come from engineering, medicine, anthropology, the arts (all of them), psychology, computer sciences. They are liberal arts majors, history majors, athletes, general studies majors, high school graduates, even high school dropouts. They come from all walks of life and have as varied life experiences as is humanly possible. This is why the entrepreneur has been so hard to define. You just can’t fit them into a category. Psychologists have been trying to do this for years, but there is no reliable personality test for the traits of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs aren’t a type of person. They are people who are entrepreneurial.
The closest I can come to defining the entrepreneur is that this person has vision. They are able to see the big picture like no one else. And they are determined to accomplish their vision. In other words they are extremely hardworking and tenacious. They are no more intelligent than others; no more creative either. But this vision is a special gift that puts the entrepreneur light years ahead of the ordinary person. With vision the entrepreneur is able to see opportunity before others.
Even more important than vision is purpose. The vision is a like a bright beacon that guides the entrepreneur toward his or her goals. However, to determine those goals in the first place, the entrepreneur has to have purpose. Most entrepreneurs will tell you that they “just had to do it.” They have known what they were about since they were children. Their purpose is not always clearly defined in a business plan, but they have been pursuing it nevertheless. The successful entrepreneur is true to his or her purpose for a lifetime, regardless of the enterprise they engage in.
One local entrepreneur loved to build things as a little boy. He went on to get a degree in engineering and eventually started a manufacturing plant. But his purpose is deeper than that. He doesn’t just like to build things; he has to. And he doesn’t just like to build things; he has to contribute to the community. Although this man is an engineer by education and training, he is really a builder of ideas.
Not all entrepreneurs are millionaires either. Another local entrepreneur is a minister and artist. Since she was a little girl she loved to draw and paint and sculpt. She never really fit into the mainstream, but she always blamed it on her dysfunctional family. Now she realizes that she was preparing herself to carry out an important purpose in life. Through art (her own and that of those she counsels) she helps people discover their spiritual mission.
The saving grace of the conference was the noon keynote speaker on Friday, Marjorie Alfus. I was so inspired by Marjorie’s speech, that I jumped to my feet after her talk and started a standing ovation. At 78 years of age, Marjorie epitomizes the American Entrepreneur. Although she has made her wealth and could retire, she can’t stand being bored. She is taking her twentieth century entrepreneurial experiences and translating them into the twenty-first century, by creating a web business. Marjorie made her wealth by outsourcing and just-in-time inventory, when other twentieth century entrepreneurs were putting their money into brick and mortar. Now she can use that good common sense to succeed at her new venture, www.golfgizmos.com. With a modem, fax and world wide merchandising contacts, Marjorie will probably clean up.
If you don’t have a knack for vision or you are not sure of your purpose, take heart. You may still be an entrepreneur who is holding back. It takes a lot of courage to follow your heart and create a dream that no one else can see or support. All entrepreneurs have one more thing in common. Before they are successful, no one really understands them, but with success they are much appreciated.
Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S., Licensed Psychologist and Family/Business Consultant is the author of ENTREPRENEURIAL COUPLES: Making It Work at Work and at Home (1998, Davies-Black). She can be reached at (360) 256-0448 or www.kmarshack.com.