Stefan Stern: In search of the entrepreneur within

from the “Financial Times”

Where some see only gloom right now, entrepreneurs see opportunity. As the risk averse withdraw, braver business leaders will step forward. An enthusiastic special report in The Economist in March 2009 anticipates a new golden age for entrepreneurship, declaring it an idea whose time has come. Its “triumph” is already assured. But when chief executives and other senior managers look within their organisations, do they see a lot of (frustrated) entrepreneurs waiting eagerly to put ideas forward? Somehow I doubt it. Even if they do, how comfortable are business leaders with the idea of encouraging, still less investing in, new ventures at a time like this?

“Companies tend to view their entrepreneurs with ambivalence,” says MLab’s Julian Birkinshaw. “In principle, there is enormous enthusiasm for them. In practice, there can also be great suspicion. People wonder whether there is empire building going on, or if the suggested ideas are really all a bit self-aggrandising. In the worst case there may be fears that something outright fraudulent is being done.”

Where once business school students might have regarded classes on entrepreneurship as trivial and almost beneath them, today they are among the most heavily subscribed courses of all. Business schools talk proudly of alumni who only a few years after graduating are running their own companies (and, increasingly, social enterprises too).

I got a flavour of this at a breakfast seminar at London Business School. As one attendee, a recent MBA graduate, pointed out, while some of his contemporaries may have headed down the traditional post-B-school route of investment banking or strategy consulting, starting his own company meant putting much more of his business education and training into practice. Marketing,finance, leadership, strategy, organisational behaviour: all the old lecture notes were coming in handy. This wasn’t necessarily the case for his classmates.

How can businesses square the circle, encouraging risk taking but avoiding recklessness? It is indeed by bringing Silicon Valley, or perhaps we might say the disciplines of venture capital, inside. “You would have to meet several VCs before raising funds in the outside world,” says Julian Birkinshaw. “Companies need to have effective fi lters in place to reject the bad ideas and let only the good ones through. Corporate entrepreneurs should succeed almost in spite of the system, not because of it.”

To a true entrepreneur, that will sound like the kind of challenge that is impossible to resist.

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