Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, August 10, 2020
I recently “Zoomed” into an evening event with 14 older Jewish men from my synagogue. It was a chance for us “alta kockers” to commiserate, and what I heard was the deep sadness of stress and loneliness because of COVID. This cohort is the most vulnerable and their lives are very compressed and constrained. One gentleman says he visits his children and grandchildren only through the window.
Many from this cohort are immigrants from Russia and countries in the Middle East, including Israel. What fascinated me (and others have written about this) was their resilience. They had all traveled hard roads over great distances. They had achieved in their work lives, became professors, entrepreneurs, owners, they built families and held firm in their religious lives. I wondered how the next generation of “travelers” from foreign lands would overcome and triumph.
To that end, I read a study by Ethan Mollick, a professor at Wharton Interactive, that attempts to dissect the hurdles a founder faces and the myths that hold him back. One of the most virulent myths is reinforced by the media — “successful past founders tend to look very similar to each other.” And so, people who might otherwise think about the road of entrepreneurship are dismayed because “they don’t resemble these people.”
This single issue has the most impact on women and minorities. Mollick has studied reams of data and research to support this premise. He explodes the myth that “entrepreneurs are born not made.” In fact, he argues persuasively that learning to think like an entrepreneur can be taught. I agree. I have taught entrepreneurship at both San Diego State and UC San Diego. But I am not convinced that the “teaching or the thinking” occurs only in the hallowed MBA halls of the top 25 schools.
Mollick says that one of the outliers that supports the non-traditional startup is the advent of crowdfunding. He says the data proves that “when large groups of people get together to make decisions, they are often pretty rational.” And the crowd will frequently fund ideas that the classic venture capitalist would not even look at.
Mollick discounts the myth of the “lone genius” in favor of learning to manage a team and to understand finance. I am a big fan of math, not necessarily algorithmic artificial intelligence, but just really solid math, as in the ability to look at a company financial statement and understand income and expense. It astounds me when a founder/CEO comes into my office and I ask a simple finance question and they give me a blank look — suggesting that is someone else’s job in the company.
To Mollick’s credit, he has developed a teaching model that is unique. His students run “a fake business” complete with Gmail, Slack etc. It is called the “Looking Glass Simulation.” He gamifies the process. What is important here is that all studies show that “new ventures are the key to both economic growth and to individuals raising their socioeconomic status.”
But not every entrepreneur/founder gets to go to Wharton or Stanford. So, the puzzle for me is where does one get the “street smarts” to match up with the book learning. I never got an MBA; I was never going to work on Wall Street or for Booz Allen. I took some night school classes and just sort of figured it out.
What Mollick says is that “opportunity is not well distributed.” Coming from a top school and the culture it promotes gives an outsized benefit to the first-time founder. But for those without those resources, and especially if they don’t look like the Zuck, will they take the gamble, and if they do, is there a support system to give them a fighting chance?
Mollick says, “there is a huge gap in the truth of the startup, because people tell stories that are not necessarily related to what actually happened.” We entrepreneurs have selective memories, and the stories we tell are based on individual “wisdom.” The key is to make both the wisdom more available and less manipulated. And never forget to acknowledge the role of luck, one of my most favorite and beloved associates. The problem of course is I never know exactly when or if she will show up.
Rule No. 671
I love those old guys.