During the Empact100 2012 reception, Marketing Zen Group CEO Shama Kabani got an earful of entertaining start-up stories--and a few valuable insights about Gen-Y entrepreneurship.
Have you ever been in a room full of people who inspired, motivated, and intimidated you, all at the same time? I was lucky enough to have this rare opportunity just a few days ago in Washington, D.C., during the Empact100 awards.
Every year, the Empact100 list identifies the top 100 companies in the United States run by entrepreneurs younger than 30 (see the 2012 list here). This year, the organizers invited all honorees to the White House and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for a full two days of celebration, networking, and problem solving--specifically around the question of how entrepreneurship can be used as a vehicle for good.
It was a unique experience, and I left the event with five key insights about Gen-Y entrepreneurship today:
1. There is no "they."
Jeff Hoffman, co-founder of Priceline, presented this key idea during an inspiring keynote on the importance of legacy building. How often have we looked at a specific issue and proclaimed "they should really do something about that"? It's a pattern of thinking that allows us to instantly place the burden of change on the shoulders of the imaginary and invisible powers that be. If only "they" would fix global warming. If only "they" would make traffic less cumbersome. If only "they" would do something about unemployment.
The moment we turn that question around to "what can I do about this?" everything changes. And there were many entrepreneurs at Empact100 who came about their success because they asked themselves this very question.
Sarah Schupp, founder of University Parent, started her company because she saw the lack of resources for college parents. When her own parents visited her dorm room and asked for her recommendation on where to stay and dine, she was stumped--and so she turned the idea of helping colleges better serve parents (and turn that idea into a thriving business).
Justin Anderson, another entrepreneur, got tired of breaking his braces on hard granola, but he didn't say "I wish they made it softer." Instead, he invented his own Anderson Trail Uniquely Soft Granola.
Next time you find yourself saying, "they should really do something about that," just substitute "I" for "they," and see what happnens!
2. Hustle is a muscle.
My favorite part of the event was hearing everyone share stories about how they got started. John Hall of Digital Talent Agents spoke about how he sold his lunch as a 2nd grader and won a trip to the principal's office. Ray Land of Fabulous Coach Lines spoke about how, as a kid, he sold watermelons from his family's farm at a roadside stand. Chris Barrett of PR Serve talked about how he waged a campaign to get a corporation to send him and a friend to college.
There was plenty of laughter, too. Every tale held a similar element of what I can only call "hustle." Or, to put it even more simply, any activity that gets you moving in the right direction, usually imbued with passion and an almost childlike exuberance. Those who had hustled the most seemed to exercise it like a muscle, getting better and better at taking action with each try.
None of the stories ended with people giving up. They kept doing, failing, learning, and most importantly--they kept trying.
3. Timing is everything.
Any successful entrepreneur who claims luck has nothing to do with their success is lying. There is definitely an inexplicable serendipity that accompanies success. If you find it, be grateful. If you don't, remember that serendipity works on its own time. Case in point: Sam Carrasquillo failed three times, even going into massive credit card debt, before he found his success through SC roofing, a residential roofing company. Sometimes, it does take the right time and right place to make it really happen.
4. Entrepreneurs have 99 problems, but money ain't one.
If you ask non-entrepreneurs what one of the greatest challenges to starting a company is, many might answer with an obvious one: funding. But, out of all the colorful stories and stumbling blocks I heard about from the 99 other Empact100 entrepreneurs, a lack of funding wasn't mentioned a single time.
In fact, the general consensus was that there is plenty of funding available for the right ideas. And much can be accomplished just by bootstrapping and making smart choices. Entrepreneurship certainly has a lot of challenges, but a lack of money rarely ever hinders a great idea.
5. We still need greater diversity.
As I looked around the room, I was amazed at how many talented people were gathered there. As I looked a little deeper, I found something amiss: Where were all the women?
Later, I was told that out of the 135 individuals present, only 17 were women. Now, I am not some die-hard feminist. I don't believe women are being denied equal opportunity to become entrepreneurs. But I do believe that by not diversifying the business world, we risk stagnation. The best innovation comes from diversification. And I do believe higher education has to play a role here. For example, it was great to see what Steve Mariotti and his nonprofit, the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, is doing by bringing entrepreneurial education to schools in low-income communities. We will never move forward as a nation and as a society if we don't make a more proactive effort to pull others up behind us.