In this column, Coursera President and Co-founder Daphne Koller discusses the state of American entrepreneurship with serial entrepreneur and current Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker. In addition to her work at the Department of Commerce, Pritzker is also a guest lecturer through University of Maryland's Entrepreneurship Specializationon Coursera.
With 27 years of private sector experience, five successful startups, and a position at the helm of the United States Commerce department under her belt, you'd be hard pressed to find someone who understands the many facets of entrepreneurship better than Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker. Indeed, Secretary Pritzker led the creation of President Obama's Presidential Ambassadors for Global Entrepreneurship (PAGE), a program that brings together entrepreneurs from all sectors of the economy to help catalyze entrepreneurship both in the US and abroad. I was privileged to be part of the inaugural PAGE class, where I have served for four years under Secretary Pritzker's leadership.
Recently, I had the privilege of chatting with Secretary Pritzker to discuss the changing face of American entrepreneurship, the unprecedented opportunities available today, and the public/private collaboration needed to maintain and expand them.
You got your J.D./M.B.A from Stanford in the 80s. What are the biggest differences you see between the opportunities and challenges facing your graduating class and those facing young, would-be entrepreneurs today?
It might sound a bit obvious, but you cannot overstate how much people today benefit from the Internet. In addition to creating an entirely new industry in itself, the Internet has completely changed how companies operate and dramatically lowered the barriers to entry. As a result, discovering entrepreneurial opportunities and going to market is much easier than before.
Second, I think our current economic situation really favors entrepreneurs. Sometimes you hear talk about the community being in a tech bubble, but I haven't seen any indication of that happening. Sure, valuations in certain companies might fluctuate, but that does not spell doom--65% of US jobs since 1995 have been created by startups, and on the whole, I continue to see entrepreneurship blooming all over the country.
It also seems like the path to entrepreneurship isn't quite as cut-and-dry as it once was--Mark Zuckerberg and Travis Kalanick, for example, have proven that a degree isn't always the most direct route to success. Is there a common background of experience you're seeing in today's entrepreneurs?
We are seeing more entrepreneurs today with a diverse, less traditional background and varied skillsets. Formal higher education certainly has its benefits, but it is not the only path to take to become an entrepreneur. In my job, I have had the pleasure of meeting a number of individuals who went through technical or trade programs and have gone on to either start their own business or become very successful. It is important to recognize that one can be an entrepreneur in many different ways--although I will say that no matter what field you choose, constant learning will be key.
The need for constant learning suggests that, in today's economy, it's not enough for people to learn a skill and settle into a career path. Can you explain what that might look like in the context of entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurs need to develop a broad set of skills as early in their careers as possible--learning how to identify gaps in the market, how to assemble and lead a qualified team, and how to transform an idea into a concrete business plan will all be foundational for their future careers. Of course, practical, industry-related knowledge is valuable too, but focusing on bigger picture competencies allows your experience to become transferable no matter where you end up. And with Americans more likely than ever to hold multiple jobs throughout their lives, they can't pigeonhole themselves by becoming too mired in one specific field early on.
Even though skills like these can be learned in a lot of different ways, I would still encourage everyone to participate in an organized educational or training program, whether that's through college, a trade school, an apprenticeship, or something else. The relationships you develop in these types of communities grow your network, which will help you unlock opportunities and expand your knowledge.
Can you talk a little bit about innovation in business? Do you see a dominant force that's driving today's entrepreneurial innovation?
The driving force behind the growth we have seen over the last couple of decades is largely due to a lot of very talented private sector folks creating innovative new companies, but I think it is critical to note the government also plays an important role in fostering the right conditions for entrepreneurship to thrive through smart and strategic programs, policies, and investments. At the Department of Commerce, we do this on a practical level--through efforts like collecting and disseminating data to inform better decision-making, issuing patents that protect intellectual property, and supplying grants that support incubators and accelerators. We also support entrepreneurship on a policy level, by expanding access to and protecting a free and open Internet and supporting training for skilled trade and technical programs.
We have also developed a number of public/private partnerships in support of entrepreneurship. One of my favorite examples is the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, through which we bring top academics as well as business and nonprofit leaders together to advise our department on how to best support the innovation economy. And, of course, we've partnered through the President's Ambassadors for Global Entrepreneurship with Coursera and the University of Maryland to offer an Entrepreneurship Specialization.
It sounds like your department is committed to innovation, which is interesting since most people don't necessarily associate the government with those kinds of opportunities. What would you say to job seekers looking for a cutting-edge career who may not have a government position on their radar?
I might be a little biased, but I think that everyone should explore a role in government--it all goes back to that idea of building transferrable skills. Even if it is only for a year or two, working in government is a personally fulfilling way to expose you to a broad, public-oriented perspective that will be an asset no matter where you end up afterward. Plus, if we increase the number of people with experience on both sides of the fence, the private and public sectors will be able to understand each other more deeply and ultimately work together more efficiently, creating a better environment for economic growth.
Last question--it seems like everyone has their own thoughts on what makes an entrepreneur. What's your definition, and how has it evolved?
I have become increasingly convinced over the years that being an entrepreneur is not just about founding a company. It is about taking ownership in driving new and innovative ideas. With the creative solutions I have been able to explore and the wide-scale impact my team has created, my current job as Secretary of Commerce is without a doubt one of the most entrepreneurial experiences I have ever had--and that includes my time spent founding businesses in the private sector. I think that really goes to show that you can be an entrepreneur wherever you are, whether that is in a tech startup, large corporation, self-owned small business, or even the government.