I have a gripe with all this buzz on entrepreneurship.
Don't get me wrong - I love it. As a closet wannabe social entrepreneur, I follow the blogs, read the articles and attend the conferences when I can find an excuse. The latest was today’s IFMR entrepreneurship summit, Strides (shameless plug), which featured panels on starting up and sustaining enterprises, plus a rousing presentation by Manish Tripathi of the Mumbai Dabbawalas. What I’ve noticed in these forums is that, in a commendable effort to be inspiring, the stories of successful entrepreneurs tend to glaze over the challenges and obstacles associated with starting a venture. The profiles present such a glowing picture: all you have to do is be walking along minding your own business, have a defining moment where you discover some great gap in society, put your mind to filling the gap, develop an innovative solution, and voila: you’re showered with capital, partnerships, technical support and awards. Sure, there’s the requisite list of ways to avoid the pitfalls: believe in yourself, think outside the box, take risks, persevere through the rough spots, and the ubiquitous 'every failure is a stepping stone to success.' But beyond these vague conceptual insights, it is very difficult to discern what exactly makes Steve Jobs or Ratan Tata succeed while thousands of others try and fail.
These stories get everyone pumped up, but my hunch is that they gloss over some components of what it really takes to be successful as a start-up. How much of it involves natural networking capability and charisma, or extraordinarily hard work, or simply being in the right place at the right time? Are the examples replicable, or unique to the person and situation? This line of thinking leads to the question business schools have been trying to answer for decades: can entrepreneurship be taught?
One potential consequence of these inspiring but potentially oversimplified examples is the kind of message they send to aspiring entrepreneurs. Bill Gates didn’t graduate from high school – does that encourage people to drop out in the hopes of following in his footsteps? The Mumbai Dabbawalas built an empire despite being largely illiterate, and their founder wasn’t educated past class 2 – great, but does that mean they didn’t have some other innate ability that enabled them to succeed? On the one hand these images say 'it's possible to do it even without education,' but on the other they say 'don’t bother with school, you don’t need it.' It almost seems like a modern 'get rich quick' scheme. Sure, it works for the precious, lucky, talented few, but what about the rest of us mere mortals?
It would be great to see an emphasis on the hard parts of climbing the ladder alongside the motivational stories. If everyone experiences rough patches, what specifically have these entrepreneurs done to overcome them? What makes these stories different from all the stories of failure? How much of it is really just up to chance? This reality check might help set expectations and remind the next generation of entrepreneurs that while there are outliers, for most of us entrepreneurship is hard. It takes more than a bright idea and a little diligence to become a successful entrepreneur.