Some Business Skills to Go With the Passion

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Some Business Skills to Go With the Passion


Some Business Skills to Go With the Passion

After losing jobs, Saudi Davis joined an entrepreneurship course and started to build her own business with the eco-friendly cleaning services. (Source: NYTimes)

IT’S a recipe for a role model: economic anxiety and America’s inherent optimism. Enter that paragon of self-reliance, the entrepreneur.

“You are the president of a very important company — You Inc.,” said Thomas J. O’Malia, director emeritus of the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Southern California. “And that’s true regardless of whether you are starting your own business or working inside a large organization.”

The entrepreneurial ideal has been in ascent for years. But the shaky economy, it seems, is making the mystique of the entrepreneur a meme of the moment as never before.

But is the rise of the entrepreneurial role model just the latest self-help fad? Or is there real substance to the concept of entrepreneurship? Can it be studied and learned?

There seems to be no shortage of effort. Courses in entrepreneurship are now offered by more than 1,200 American universities, and by thousands more organizations including community colleges, small-business development centers and chambers of commerce. Many of the courses are continuing education programs for people with job experience. They include one-week courses, night classes, online offerings and graduate degree programs.

The courses vary widely, but they typically seek to leave students with some blend of two things: an entrepreneurial mind-set and a tool kit.

In a start-up or inside a big company, the entrepreneurial approach emphasizes the pursuit of opportunities with small teams and few dollars, quickly and flexibly. The mentality, experts say, is that of the insurgent “attacker” rather than the established “defender.” Look first to customer needs — solving some problem and getting paid for it — to build a business.

“And keep the F-word in mind — focus,” advised William K. Aulet, managing director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Entrepreneurship Center. “The No. 1 reason new businesses fail is lack of focus.”

One course the M.I.T. center offers is an intensive, one-week entrepreneurship development program that costs more than $8,000 (companies and governments often pay some or all of the costs for their managers).

“You see that the essence of the entrepreneurial spirit isn’t so much about money as it is about passion,” said Tetsuya O’Hara, 47, who took the M.I.T. course last December. “It’s a perspective that goes beyond business, forcing you to think about what matters most to you.”

Mr. O’Hara, director of advanced research and development at Patagonia, the outdoor clothing maker, said he had applied the program’s thinking in his job, which involves working with outside companies to explore new technologies and business concepts. Before the entrepreneurship program, he had a list of almost 200 projects he might pursue. Today, he has winnowed that list to two priority projects. “I already got a lot of return from the course,” he said.

Another participant, J. Patrick Bewley, vice president of global marketing strategy at Acxiom, a consumer data marketer, said one insight he took from the program was the importance of assembling strong teams of people with open minds, willing to experiment, learn rapidly and constantly refine ideas to improve them. “You have to build that culture of resilience within your group,” said Mr. Bewley, 34.

Both opportunity and necessity are motivations for starting new businesses. A report in May, based on data from the Census Bureau, found that new businesses were formed in 2009 at the highest level in 14 years, despite the weak economy. At the least, challenging economic times can prompt people to rethink their options.

That is what happened to Saudia Davis, a former movie publicist, who worked promoting independent films like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” She lost her job in 2007, when her employer cut her department. “I could find a new job or gamble and put everything on the table to start my own business,” recalled Ms. Davis, 32.

She chose to take the entrepreneurial plunge. Her grandmother had been a house cleaner, and Ms. Davis had long thought that house cleaning could be made more healthy and environmentally friendly for the clients and the cleaners. Her company, Greenhouse Eco-Cleaning, in Brooklyn, was founded to pursue that vision of cleaner cleaning. It uses no toxic cleaning agents like ammonia or formaldehyde, and checks the allergies of clients and their pets to avoid using materials that might aggravate those conditions.

Ms. Davis had never started a business before, and her work experience in movie promotion and her education, as an English and Africana studies major at Bowdoin College, were scant preparation.

The course work, Ms. Davis recalled, covered business functions like accounting, operations and marketing. “But it also gave me an understanding of what it takes and how all the slices of the pie that go into making a business come together,” Mr. Davis said.

Today, her company employs 12 people and has 600 household and office clients. Initial plans to manufacture green cleaning products have been postponed — too capital-intensive and distracting, Ms. Davis said. One lesson learned, she adds, is that the entrepreneurial journey is all-consuming. “The closest thing I have to vacation is sleep,” she said.

The entrepreneurial mindset, says Bo Fishback, the Kauffman Foundation’s vice president of entrepreneurship, is a personal asset that can be applied to any field. “It’s a mentality that sees every problem out there not as a setback but as an opportunity to fix,” he said. “Some people will start businesses, but others will take that mindset with them into corporations and government.”

It worked out that way for Carrie Coker Britt. After three years working for an Atlanta law firm as a recruiter and administrator, Ms. Britt decided against going to law school.

Instead, Ms. Britt attended Georgia Tech’s business school, and joined a program that puts doctoral science students, law school and business school students in teams to work on start-up projects. The goal of the program is to teach people from different disciplines to work together to accelerate the entrepreneurial process in high-tech start-ups. One team project she worked on won a competition at Georgia Tech and a $10,000 prize.

Today Ms. Britt, 32, works as a software sales representative for I.B.M., covering thousands of accounts in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi. Her job, she says, requires quickly researching industries and figuring out how I.B.M. technology can help individual businesses. “It’s very entrepreneurial, fast-paced, and you’re constantly looking for new and better ways to be successful,” Ms. Britt said.

And, she adds, there is another benefit to having gone through the entrepreneurial program, Ti:ger, for Technological Innovation: Generating Economic Results. “It was critical to getting the job I have now,” Ms. Britt said. “It differentiated me from other candidates.”

Source: New York Times

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