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Nike Founder: Find Your Calling and Ask for Help

The cofounder and chairman of Nike was the keynote speaker at the Stanford Graduate School of Business's recent diploma ceremony. Here are some pearls from his address.

Nike founder Phil Knight earned his MBA from Stanford's Graduate School of Business in 1962. Over the weekend, he spoke at the same school's graduation ceremony. 

You might think of Knight as a large-company executive, but entrepreneurship is in his bloodstream. The roots of Nike began shortly after he graduated, with his cold-calling the owner of a Japanese factory where sneakers were made. Knight left a $1,000 deposit for shoe samples. When those samples arrived, Knight's business partner, Bill Bowerman (who'd coached Knight on the University of Oregon track team), adjusted them to better serve serious runners. 

Knight then famously peddled the shoes from the back of his green Plymouth Valiant station wagon. At the time, the company was called Blue Ribbon Sports. A few years later, Knight paid $35 to a graphic design student named Carolyn Davidson. She created the famous "swoosh" that became Nike's logo. 

So when Knight addressed the recent graduates of his alma mater, he wasn't just speaking as the leader of a massive global brand. He was speaking as a self-actualized entrepreneur with 50 years of experience. Here are three compelling quotes from his address, which you can read about on the Stanford GSB site:

1. "Now that you have graduated, the goal should not be to seek a job, or even a career, but to seek a calling." Chip Conley, founder of the Joie de Vivre Hotel chain, has invoked the concept of a "calling"--as opposed to a mere "job" or a "vocation"--as the ideal thing a company can provide to its employees.

The idea is that by helping your employees find their calling, you'll make them happier--and get their maximum effort. Their long-term interests will become aligned with the organization's. 

Of course, a key first step in this process is for the company's founder to feel as if his entrepreneurial pursuit is also a calling. This is essential if you're going to become the empathetic provider of callings for your employees. "You ought to think of yourself as your company's chief emotional officer," Conley has said.

2. "It is hard enough out there--get all the help you can. Getting help really is just a part of that lifelong search for wisdom." For Knight, that quest for help began with his early partnership with Bowerman. It continued as he enlisted Stanford classmate Jeff Johnson as their first employee.

Johnson, notes the Nike site, "created the first product brochures, print ads and marketing materials, and even shot the photographs for the company's catalogues. He established a mail-order system, opened the first [Blue Ribbon Sports] retail store (located in Santa Monica, Calif.) and managed shipping/receiving. He also designed several early Nike shoes, and even conjured up the name Nike in 1971."

While the advice to seek help might seem obvious, it remains relevant for today's entrepreneurs, who still, as a generalization, like to go it alone. The dangers of extreme soloism include getting overwhelmed by negative thoughts and growing vulnerable to blind spots. The simple act of partnering--or seeking help from others--can go along way toward minimizing these perils. 

3. "Dare to take chances, lest you leave your talent buried in the ground." A quote like this, in an entrepreneurial context, runs the risk of seeming like a cliche, on the order of "you only live once." 

But you don't have to risk life and limb--or even your livelihood--to initially pursue an entrepreneurial dream. In fact, both Knight and Bowerman had full-time jobs when they started Blue Ribbon Sports. Knight worked at a Portland accounting firm. Bowerman still coached track at the University of Oregon, where he'd previously coached Knight. This was the main reason they needed to hire Johnson, once Blue Ribbon began to grow. 

The point is, you can take an initial entrepreneurial leap without quitting your full-time job. You are still taking a chance on an idea--and on your own combination of work ethic and talent. 

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