“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” William Gibson
There is an almost romantic understanding of innovation and entrepreneurship that pervades societies across the globe. To a certain degree, the general public believes that the answers to the world’s problems — to world hunger, to poverty, to global warming — are trapped in the head of a young, ingenious innovator and we are just waiting for that technology. And to an extent, that belief may be true. After all, innovation and entrepreneurship are powerful forces that have the potential to create outsized change in people, in communities, and in the world.
But, the public perception of success in innovation and entrepreneurship so often revolves around the Silicon Valleys of the world. And there is an innate problem with that perception. However bright and shining as Silicon Valley may be as a beacon of entrepreneurship, it is equally inaccessible and intangible to many (particularly on a global scale). It is a brand of entrepreneurship that is accessible to a proverbial 1% of young entrepreneurs.
Of course, there are legitimate reasons that this perception of entrepreneurship persists. At least one study purports that “cities are the principal engines of innovation and economic growth.” And the bigger that city, the greater the rate of innovation overall. Making it, according to this study, statistically unlikely that a student in rural Georgia will come up with a tech solution more innovative and cutting-edge than one from Silicon Valley.
They are already in Gibson’s “future” there.
So all hope is lost and if you want to be a successful entrepreneur and innovator you have to get to the those places, right?
Well, the answer is “of course not.”
The newest, most cutting edge tech or software innovation isn’t the only brand of innovation. And what is “innovative” varies depending on the circumstances of the individual community or society. In the same way that entrepreneurs must build scalable products and services, so must entrepreneurship itself scale to suit the community it seeks to impact.
At their core, entrepreneurs are people who see a problem in an industry or in a society, decide to solve it, and follow through with that solution. These core qualities are not specific to a city, a country, or a person.
Entrepreneurship isn’t a place. It’s a mindset and a way of seeing the world. The scope of entrepreneurship transcends the next cool app.
3 Day Startup knows this to be true because of our work in different entrepreneurial ecosystems. In every program we see the different shapes that entrepreneurship takes and the different ways that students use it to impact their world, their future. Our students bring their own needs, experiences, and perspectives to our programs, and apply the skills they develop in different ways. At the University of Northern Alabama and Texas State, the students focused on small businesses and family-oriented ventures; at schools like the University of Texas, Austin (located in a startup hub) the students were more focused on a product that could scale up and solve a particular problem, often a tech-oriented one; and, at Harvard, students want to make an impact proportionate to the name and reputation of their school.
Each startup team innovates based on some component of their lives, their realities. And entrepreneurship should celebrate and foster the richness of their diverse approaches, not constrain their directions.
Even in countries and communities with the lowest job prospects and highest poverty rates, the “unique characteristics of entrepreneurs and their contribution to the economy can make it possible [to grow] faster and provide economic means to enhance social, health and environmental well-being.”
So why do some communities not embrace entrepreneurship as readily as others? Why isn’t this kind of path for students universally accepted and celebrated?
Well, part of that issue is that, just like a community’s social context plays an important role in the type of entrepreneurship that students engage in, a “community’s social context plays an important role in encouraging or discouraging entrepreneurship.” That is to say, different communities prioritize and perceive the potential benefit of entrepreneurship in different ways.
When entrepreneurship can benefit and impact every kind of community but communities are still reluctant to welcome it. When that happens, the potential innovators in those communities are stifled. And breaking into these talent pools and allowing them to flourish can create outsized opportunities and change where there were none before.
But changing a community’s social context and operations is no easy feat. It takes time, a shifting mindset, and a vehicle.
In the case of our organization, we’re going into those communities and showing that entrepreneurship is a viable option. We’re making a tangible difference by helping students become entrepreneurs and start their own companies. And we’re seeing the spark go off in these students and extend to blaze a trail through their schools and through their cities.
The fact that this spark so consistently ignites in such diverse communities tells us one thing: that entrepreneurship can change people’s realities for the better. This revelation is important, and it is necessary. In communities of all scales, incomes, backgrounds, opening up to what their talent, creativity, and innovation can accomplish is what’s going to determine the trajectory of their individual futures.
For this shift to happen, we must not only speak more candidly about the different ways that entrepreneurship can emerge in societies, but also champion entrepreneurial efforts everywhere –– no matter how small the community and no matter if they initially fail.
And we must always remember that outsized change can begin in the smallest corner of the world.