On Monday, Americans will honor Dr. Martin Luther King, the de facto spokesman of the Civil Rights Movement, for his key role in directing our nation closer to its goal of equality for all. Besides the obvious lessons that we can learn from Dr. King with regard to standing up against injustice, there are several important lessons for entrepreneurs that we can learn from his life and message:
1. Pursue your dreams.
Without a doubt, the quote that most people associate with Dr. King comes from his historic 1963 speech: "I have a dream." Dreams are powerful, and can serve as great motivators - but they are only meaningful if we act on them. How many people let their dreams die along with them because they feared making an effort to pursue that for which they wished? Such a phenomenon is quite common vis-à-vis business - how many great products were never invented - or were invented by people other than those who originally conceived of them - because someone was afraid of pursuing his or her dreams? How many great companies were never founded because the person who could have created them decided that it was too hard or time consuming? There is a women's entrepreneurial group in New York appropriately called " Dreamers and Doers" - to be successful entrepreneurs need to do both.
2. Do not give up.
Today, as "money morning quarterbacks" we know that the efforts of Dr. King and others involved with the civil rights struggle would ultimately prove successful, but that was not always the case; the movement suffered many setbacks along the way. Various civil rights leaders were even murdered. (Dr. King himself was killed just a few years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.) Thankfully, those involved in the struggle did not give up. Most entrepreneurs will face serious challenges and consider "throwing in the towel" at various points. Sometimes there is a need to exit a failing venture, but, keep in mind that nothing that is abandoned can ever succeed.
3. Expect to work hard.
Dr. King and many others spent years of their lives in order to make the Civil Rights movement succeed. Without their efforts who knows what America might look like today? While there may be some lucky people who succeed in business without much effort, such individuals are far and few in between. And, in most cases, the people whom we think succeeded without much effort actually worked quite hard to accomplish their achievements.
4. Big changes happen.
It may be hard for those of us who were born well after the Civil Rights Act was passed to truly comprehend from an emotional perspective, but at the time that the Civil Rights movement began the idea that laws that discriminated based on race would be outlawed probably seemed crazy to many people; widespread racism had been a part of American society for centuries. But, like so many other status quos that we think can never change, they changed.
Less than a decade ago many "experts" said that America would not elect an African American president and that marriage equality would never be the law throughout the United States. They were wrong. Big changes also impact businesses - especially in today's technology-rich world. From the shift to online news from printed papers, to the shared economy of Uber, AirBnB, and others, major changes are happening. Businesses that stick with the "old way" when the world shifts to new models are doomed to fail.
5. ...and the changes happen much faster than many people expect.
While racism is, unfortunately, not yet dead, it is obvious how quickly attitudes towards race have changed in America. Many Americans alive today remember an era in which segregation was legal, yet many children being raised in today's America, led by an President who is African American, have difficulty understanding the concept of segregation, as to them it seems not only immoral, but downright ridiculous. Why in the world would anyone force people to physically separate based on how they look?
Changes for the positive can make older approaches seem primitive quite quickly, and those who do not adapt to progress are left behind. The same is true in business: How long did it take for people to replace their film cameras with digital cameras, and then to replace their digital cameras with the camera features on their phones? Twelve years ago anyone taking pictures in much of the western world knew the name of the industry-leader, Kodak, the film manufacturer that was then a member of both the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 index; today, how many teenagers have even heard of the brand? Perhaps even more poignant - just nine years ago Blackberries were ubiquitous and the iPhone did not exist; today, my five-year old daughter has never heard the former term used other than to refer to a fruit. Change for the better can happen rapidly, and businesses that do not adopt can suffer or disappear.
6. Develop strategic partnerships.
Dr. King made sure to align visible support from like-minded leaders outside of the African American community - (standing with him in the front of the Selma march, for example, were a rabbi and a nun) - an effort that magnified the civil rights message and helped it influence more people faster than would have been possible otherwise. If the right partners are chosen, strategic alignments with influencers can dramatically help most businesses.
7. In order to lead you must make people excited to follow.
None of Dr. King's speeches would have accomplished anything without the large crowds of people who listened to them, and were motivated to act based upon them. It wasn't the speeches that influenced government officials to make society-transforming changes - it was the large number of people peacefully demonstrating, lobbying, and influencing. Nearly half a century after Dr. King's death, in the era of the Internet, social media, and perpetually-connected smartphones it is easier than ever for people with powerful messages to motivate large numbers of people. Businesses need to keep this in mind - and act accordingly.