Beyond "No": The Need for Entrepreneurial Thinking, Part I

Laura Hollis

3/3/2009 2:40:37 PM - Laura Hollis

Last week’s CPAC conference was apparently brimming with new conservative energy – and further admonitions that Republicans have to be more than just “the party of ‘NO.’”  What this constant harangue ignores is the fact that sometimes, saying ‘no,’ IS taking a position.  There are plenty of principled reasons to say ‘NO’ to the anschluss of Obama and his goosestepping goons in Congress.  And as the swelling numbers in the Santelli Tea Party Brigade demonstrate, millions of Americans would WELCOME politicians who can actually say ‘no’ to the prospect of more spending and more government encroachment on our liberty.

Even so, this ‘party of NO’ nonsense still belies a party with NO vision, NO message, and NO ability to make meaningful distinctions.

Taking the last point first, what we’re asking our conservative politicians to say depends upon who they are talking to.  If it is their Democrat colleagues in Congress, then hell yes, say ‘NO’:  NO to more spending, NO to higher taxes, NO to any restraints on political speech anywhere in any media whatsoever, NO to any laws that attempt to force medical schools, medical students or health care providers to perform abortions against their will, NO to billions of dollars being sent overseas when we are bankrupt here at home, NO to government takeover of our health care system.  Conservatives’ rallying cry should be, if Pelosi and Reid want it, we’re against it. 

But it is admittedly a different matter when the question turns to what Republicans and other conservative leaders say to the American public.  As I’ve suggested elsewhere, Republicans have lost their way because they want to talk about themselves.  For Republicans, the key to successful elections – and successful public policy – is to talk to Americans about Americans.  More specifically, to reflect and remind and inspire and uplift by talking about the attributes of Americans that have made this country so successful – attributes that everyone can understand, relate to, aspire to, and emulate

From my vantage point after nearly a decade in entrepreneurship education, the most glaring omission in the national conversation surrounding the current economic crisis is the complete failure of our political leaders to talk about the role of entrepreneurial thinking in American history. It’s not a shock that Democrats aren’t talking about it.  But it’s inexplicable that Republicans aren’t.

Oh, you get the occasional reference to “entrepreneurs and small business.” And in fact when you say the word “entrepreneur,” most people think “business.”  But that’s not what I am talking about.  There is a difference between being an entrepreneur, and thinking like one.  And in my opinion, widespread entrepreneurial thinking is exactly what the country needs.  Not only do I think that it would pull us out of the current economic malaise, I believe it is the ONLY thing that will.

Why?  What does it mean to think “entrepreneurially”?

When you study entrepreneurs of all stripes, you discover that they have a number of things in common.  Further study reveals that these same attributes, characteristics and experiences not only contribute to successful business – they make people more successful at everything they undertake.  Here’s my list of the attributes that make for successful entrepreneurs:

1.        Specific expertise – in something.  Studies have shown that upwards of 80% of ideas for new businesses come from an entrepreneur’s earlier employment.  This makes sense; the aspiring entrepreneur will know the market, the consumers, and the needs that are not being met.  This is one of the best ways to identify new opportunities.  But it is not the only way.  And this brings me to #2.

2.       The ability to see a problem as an opportunity. This, more than anything else, is the aspect of “entrepreneurial thinking” that is most transformative – and most desperately needed today.  Engineers see problems and begin devising technical solutions.  Entrepreneurs see problems and start thinking of products or services to meet those needs.  Every successful company you can think of solved a problem or met a need – from faster transportation to cleaner clothes to eradicated diseases, to larger operating systems.  Americans take it for granted that businesses think this way, but it rarely occurs to them that individuals and other organizations can – and must - think this way.

3.       An internal locus of control.  This is sometimes referred to in the literature as “self-efficacy.”  Entrepreneurs have a strong belief in their own ability to get things done.  Rather than look at a problem and say, “Somebody needs to do something,” an entrepreneur will tend to say, “What can I do to fix this?”  (When I speak to people – especially underrepresented groups – about entrepreneurship, my standard line is that, “Entrepreneurship is about empowerment, not entitlement.”  They get it.)  The good news is, self-efficacy can be learned.  In other words, entrepreneurs are made, not born.

4.       Willingness to risk creating a solution.  One of the most common misperceptions about entrepreneurs is that they are “risk-takers.”  Not exactly.  What entrepreneurs do is take calculated risks.  The willingness to create a solution (a product, a service, a company) is born of a confidence that in many cases comes from long experience (see #1, above).  That makes it seem far less risky to the entrepreneur than it might otherwise be to a complete outsider.

5.       A tolerance for failure.  This is tied with #2 as the most significant attribute of entrepreneurial thinking.  No one likes to fail.  But not only do successful entrepreneurs fail, most will tell you that they learned more from their failures than their successes.  Working as I do with engineers, I see how critical the scientific method is to successful entrepreneurship: hypothesize, test, (fail), adapt … repeat.  Failure is more than a necessary evil - - it is vital to the development of an individual, the growth of a company, and the health of a robust economy.  It is the consummate irony: a society that cannot tolerate failure, will have nothing but failure.

You are probably wondering at this point what this has to do with Republicans’ ability to craft a message that will resonate with American voters.  Bear with me.  There is a powerful message in all of this that Republicans and other conservatives can use when speaking to the American public.  And in my next column, I’ll explain what that is…