03.11.16

Entrepreneurs are Entrepreneurs

By: Karl R. LaPan, President & CEO, Northeast Indiana Innovation Center

Special Global Edition—As I conclude my trip in China with my colleague and the Steel Dynamics Distinguished Professor Dr. Max Yen of IPFW and CEO of our Global Alliance on Tech Transfer and Entrepreneurship (GAT2E), I wanted to comment on the two dynamic, smart Asian women entrepreneurs I met on this trip. I apologize in advance. This blog is longer than normal, but I did want to capture and tell their stories.

Both of these women were impressive in breaking barriers in China. However, neither saw themselves as breaking barriers yet they did. In recent years, China has created many favorable policies to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship. Both asked that I not share their names in my blog since it would lead to animosity and jealousy with their colleagues if I did.

Both of these women shared some common characteristics:

  1. Both launched innovative, technology-oriented companies with substantial intellectual property and copyrights (fourteen patents in one case, thirty something in the other case)
  2. Both grew companies to 40 or more employees (and one of the companies grew its employment to over 150 employees).
  3. Both believed being female was an advantage in starting their company in China (it is not an acceptable cultural norm for men to compete against women in China so they felt men were vested in their success while their male counterparts focused on building BIGGER businesses they focused on building BETTER businesses).
  4. Both had a passion to make a difference, to change the way things were done and to address a pain or problem in the world. Both started with customers and made pivots when they tested their assumptions. In one case, the business had over 1,000 customers and was committed to making “valuable contributions to the Internet life” – a compelling and unifying vision.
  5. Both believed their employees were their teachers, and that they had a lot to learn from their employees. One of the companies has hired no one over the age of 30 and is on track for revenues exceeding 7 Million RMB (>US$1MM—an accomplishment in the US achieved by around 4% of all businesses). The other made the sale of the company conditional on specifically how the employees would be treated after the sale.
  6. Both were motivated by opportunity and the ability to be rewarded for the upside they would create.
  7. One of the women shared with me failure was never an option nor was it a concern for her because she had so meticulously planned and executed her business model. She also came from a family of entrepreneurs with over a hundred years of owning and operating businesses (none however were in the high tech space she occupied.)

Next, I wanted to make a few observations about them and reflect on what I learned. These lessons are applicable anywhere in the world since entrepreneurship is one of the greatest vehicles for ‘leveling the playing field’.

  • We need to celebrate and tell stories about entrepreneurs. China needs to lift up and celebrate its entrepreneurs. Next generation entrepreneurs need role models, mentors, and examples of successful entrepreneurs – not to be boastful but to be instructive. The US needs to engage in broader entrepreneurial storytelling to inspire next generation talent to aspire to starting their own business.
  • Entrepreneurial talent knows no geographic, socio-economic or gender boundaries. Entrepreneurship talent is global. The same rare entrepreneurial talents found in successful entrepreneurs in the United States are equally applicable to other parts of the world. The two women I met are high tech, well-educated women who are tenacious, market smart, and focused. They possessed the entrepreneurial talents Gallup found makes a difference in successful operators of successful big businesses.
  • Entrepreneurs are restless, change agents making the world a better place. Entrepreneurs are community leaders. Both of the women I met started their company to make a difference. While profits were important to them, people were more important to them in starting their business. In one case, one of the women sold their business but had a clause in the sale of the company stipulating how the new company would treat the employees over time (this was more important to this one female founder than the price an acquirer was willing to pay. In this case, there were at least 6 different companies wishing to acquire the company she created and build 20 years.) She also shared that not one employee left the company. This says a lot considering most acquisitions and mergers are disastrous from a people and culture perspective. Typically, more employees leave than stay when the illusion of “merger of equals” cultural promises fade into the background.
  • Entrepreneurs create a culture of inquisitiveness (“fearless inquiry”), leverage intellectual curiosity, engage in self-exploration and discovery. Both started with customers and made pivots when they tested their assumptions. In one instance, a realization of scalability came to her when she saw what a major United States company was doing. Changing her business model lead to wide scale customer adoption and market traction. In the other situation, she determined she wanted to make her e-commerce more popular and address the pain for small businesses of funding their advertising costs, so she expanded the segments served by her technology platform.

This is why the Innovation Center committed to the creation of a Women’s Entrepreneurial Opportunity Center (WEOC) and is funded in partnership with a grant from the US SBA. Entrepreneurial support organizations like incubators and accelerators are at the crossroads of putting innovation to work for community success everyday. However, our role has expanded from matchmakers and conveners to “trusted advisors” enabling and reducing barriers to uncommon people realizing their entrepreneurial dreams.

More stories like these need to be told to inspire our talented change agents and market disrupters to make entrepreneurship a career opportunity. By providing intensive and targeted services to reduce and eliminate real barriers faced by women and immigrants in starting, launching, growing and scaling their business, we will address part of a big problem we have in the United States –new startup deaths > new startup births by as many as 70,000 a year. Inclusive entrepreneurship is a team sport and we need all the creativity, brains and brawn we can muster up to make it happen.

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