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5 Entrepreneurship Lessons From Obama and Romney

What can entrepreneurs learn from the backgrounds of the two men running for the highest office in the land?

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In an election in which job creation is one of the biggest issues, it's kind of glaring how little entrepreneurship we find in the backgrounds of the 44 men who have served as president, to say nothing of the current candidates.

Most of our previous presidents have been career public servants. Thirty-five were former vice-presidents, governors or senators. Four (Washington, Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower) were Army generals. The remainder were either congressmen or cabinet secretaries.

True, a few started or ran businesses. Mitt Romney might be one of these exceptions, with his experience at Bain Capital. Of course the Bush family had success in the oil industry.

All of this led me to think about how entrepreneurial in spirit (and how friendly to entrepreneurship) President Obama is, or how entrepreneurial a hypothetical President Romney might be. Regardless of whether you consider either man a true entrepreneur, I think there are a few lessons to be learned from their campaigns.

1. Success comes at the end a long, long slog.

President Obama first announced his candidacy for president on February 10, 2007.  Gov. Romney announced three days later.  Of course, you don't just wake up one day and announce. Both men had been--in actuality--running for years.

Back then, the Iraq War was by far the biggest political issue. Unemployment was lower than 5 percent. There were no iPhones. Facebook had only just opened to the general public. Remember back then?

Lesson for entrepreneurs: Set a goal and stick with it, even while understanding that circumstances may change greatly in the meantime.


2. You don't need more experience.

Think about how the president looks in Hollywood movies: He has a full head of hair. He's probably a war hero. He's most likely a former governor of a big state with a long series of government accomplishments. He's definitely a he, and he's probably from an accomplished, upper-class family.

Yet, we've got two men squaring off who served only four years in statewide office, who take all kinds of shots for their unusual middle names and their ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

It's also the first election since 1944 in which neither candidate is a military veteran. When they first started their unofficial campaigns, neither Obama nor Romney had any defense or foreign policy experience to speak of at all.

For that matter, some higher power clearly has a sense of humor to pit two men against each other who were each responsible for giant government-run health care insurance schemes.

Lesson for entrepreneurs: Central casting doesn't know a thing. Don't let who you look like or what your resume says define who you're going to be.
 

3. Varied backgrounds make better candidates.

Both Obama and Romney had significant formative experiences in foreign countries (Indonesia and France). Both have talked about times that they spent living in poor conditions--Romney, for example while serving as a Mormon missionary, and Obama while living in a sporadically heated apartment in New York while attending Columbia University.

Of course, both men can trace part of their path through Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Obama earned his law degree at Harvard in 1991, and where Romney earned both his law degree and his M.B.A. in 1975.

Lesson for entrepreneurs: Take heart in experiences that broaden your background, even if you're not clear at the time how they'll make you more interesting.
 

4. Family background doesn't matter.

This one says more about us as a people than it does about Obama and Romney, but still: This is the first presidential election since 1976 in which nobody named Bush or Clinton vied for either the presidential or vice-presidential nomination of one of the two major parties. Of course, 2008 was the first election in 28 years in which someone from one of those two families didn't win!

Neither candidate is from a great political legacy. (Yeah, I know, Romney's father was the governor of Michigan, a presidential candidate and a cabinet secretary. But, if it weren't for the fact that his son was running for president would you ever have heard of the elder Romney? I rest my case.)

Lesson for entrepreneurs: This is America. Define your own destiny. The vast majority of people on the list of the wealthiest people in the country who didn't inherit their money are all self-made men and women.
 

5. You don't need a regular job to represent real people.

Let's be honest: Neither Obama nor Romney ever had a regular job before running for office.

I get that this is probably a bit offensive to business consultants and law professors (to say nothing of professional investors and community organizers).

They're great, sure, and they provide value. But there's not a lot of connection to the experiences of ordinary Americans.  There's probably no concern about meeting payroll, or about having to ask a boss to come in late next Thursday so you can take your daughter to the dentist.

Lesson for entrepreneurs: Define the game by what you can bring to the table, not by what your roles were in the past.

Last updated: Aug 10, 2012

BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist

Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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