This article was originally published on Forbes.com on January 21, 2019.
“Entrepreneur” is generally understood to mean someone who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of an idea or enterprise. Because of the risk associated with entrepreneurship, it is easy to assume success requires a specific type of person. But is it possible to create an environment that helps a range of people bring ideas to life?
In my previous article, I shared my visit to Baltimore where a group of leaders and I spent the day learning from social entrepreneurs re-shaping the city and the future. On that trip, we visited “innovation hubs” — places that bring people together and support their entrepreneurial ideas. We spent time at Impact Hub Baltimore, The Social Innovation Lab (SIL)at John Hopkins University and The Innovation Village.
The co-founder of Impact Hub and director of SIL are, respectively, Michelle Geiss and Alex Riehm. They share a similar network of entrepreneurs and their work often overlaps. As such, they have a unique lens on creating space for ideas to bloom. Below is a condensed conversation with Michelle and Alex that provides insight for anyone interested in learning how to support the entrepreneurial spirit.
How do you create an environment that supports entrepreneurship?
Michelle: We center community-building in almost everything we do. It even shows up in the physical design of our space. We have a huge kitchen because people gather in the kitchen. In our programming, we’re always creating opportunity for exchanging ideas. Along with ideas, you need to connect people with resources and skills to execute. By creating space for curiosity and dialogue, you can ignite someone’s passion and generate insights that eventually evolve into an entrepreneurial solution. A dynamic environment moves people forward into different paths
Alex: I give a lot of credit to Darius Graham, my predecessor at SIL, because when I joined my priority was to ensure we had a warm and supportive culture, like a family where we’re allowed to stumble and fall and celebrate each other. Collaboration over competition. When I arrived, I was glad to see that had already been established. We have alumni from years prior who support teams that are just joining. At our events, entrepreneurs bring their families, their supporters and their networks. We prioritize creating a place that feels like family
Both of you spent many years working inside and alongside larger organizations, USAID, World Health Organization, the UN, corporations and foundations. What did you learn about creating entrepreneurialism within larger bureaucratic environments?
Alex: A challenge with large institutions is you’re working with people with many different incentives. Often those incentives are competing. All those forces are acting inside one organization trying to get something important done. I don’t think that’s unique to government. Part of succeeding as an entrepreneur anywhere is to understand incentives and think about mutual benefit. That requires empathy. Inside a large institution, you want to create a helpful culture which cultivates empathy and forgiveness. You need to invite people into that circle and say, “tell me what you’re going through, what you’re trying to achieve, and how I can help.” What I’ve seen here in Baltimore is people investing their own creative energy in our city. If you couple that energy with a supportive environment, you create an ecosystem that supercharges the whole thing.
Michelle: Create a culture of listening and feedback loops. In the first half of my career, I worked on large scale global health initiatives, and saw how they could be influenced by people on the ground. One of my public health heroes, D.A. Henderson, led the effort to eradicate smallpox. He spoke about how key innovations often came from community workers or kids in a remote village. The key to operating in big institutions is knowing that at the top you have blind spots and that you’re never going to be able to see around them without people on the ground. But you also have to really value that source of expertise. The more that entities listen and respond, the more innovative they become, the more relevant they stay.
What role does diversity play in the creation of these types of spaces?
Michelle: Diversity is instrumental to driving promising ideas forward in any sector. We’ve been intentional about building a diverse community of entrepreneurs since day one. The landscape of who’s doing social entrepreneurship in Baltimore has always been diverse. That has not been evenly reflected in the initiatives that get support, and we constantly work to shift that pattern so innovative leaders of all backgrounds connect to resources they need. We are about getting people together across silos, of any kind. Different networks. Different neighborhoods. You need diversity across demographics and across disciplines. In most situations, the public health person wouldn’t necessarily talk to the public transit person or the economic development person. We are intentional about who we give a platform to. We constantly check that our decision-making benefits people who need the most support, and that opportunities flow to people who reflect the demographics of the city. Having a welcoming, accessible space supports that goal because it allows our team to meet people from many different backgrounds.
Alex: It’s my vision we can create a Baltimore where anybody with a good idea can know where they need to go to receive the support they need to make it a reality. Impact Hub and SIL are complementary resources towards that goal. Through SIL’s cohort model, I think of it as “creative collision.” We’re looking for organizations who have something unique to offer to each other. We want to see teams representing different voices, approaches, backgrounds and communities who can offer something to each other. We want a lot of opportunities for voices in the room that you might not otherwise have had a chance to talk to who are supportive and helpful to each other.
You’ve both worked with many entrepreneurs. What are common missteps entrepreneurs make?
Michelle: It’s easy to want to tackle every issue or need at once upfront. Social entrepreneurs are really ambitious and full of optimism about what can be done and that’s usually an asset. It can also mean that they get really stretched. People have successfully found their way through that by building a great team. I can’t overstate enough how important it is to, really early on, find co-founders and collaborators who get it and are going to build it alongside you so you’re not alone. I encourage entrepreneurs to find their people early, early on and build with them. That’s why being part of an entrepreneurial community matters so much.
Alex: We focus a lot on customer discovery at SIL. You have to put yourself in front of the people who experience the problem and help them guide you to a solution. The biggest mistake I see, in various stages of development, is when entrepreneurs lead with solutions. If you’re inflexible in your ability to hear from those who experience the problem, if you’re not invested in co-ownership, then you will struggle. Entrepreneurs who have experienced the challenge themselves have valuable insights but are a sample size of one person. It’s essential to be flexible with your approach because ultimately, you’re solving a problem for others. So, include them in the decision-making process.
Michelle: Another thing that happens is the other side of the optimism coin. I see people sell themselves short a lot. They’re ambitious but they’re also humble and they don’t know how to brag about what they are doing. That’s something we coach people on it. We reflect back to them what they’ve already created and make sure that they take time to celebrate everything that they have already accomplished and can talk about that with people, even when folks face a long road ahead.
Do entrepreneurs think differently than other leaders?
Alex: I’m going to use my experience at Development Innovation Ventures and answer from the perspective of working in an innovation shop within a federal agency. On my team, our goal was to support interventions that had evidence of impact. Our hypothesis was that good ideas can come from anywhere, not just from inside the building. If we open our process to outside solutions and co-create, we can work with entrepreneurs to find and support the solutions which best work to solve the challenges we care about. That requires empathy as a critical skill to co-create solutions and an interest in effectiveness to credibly measure outcomes. Entrepreneurs have these qualities, which help them “move the needle” for their whole sector.
Michelle: Entrepreneurs are often interested in structural changes, system changes and they think a lot about not just what they’re producing, but why and how. They are intentional about changing patterns. The structures that entrepreneurs see are alternative models for what we typically see. That involves working alongside of, and creating with, the people that your end product or service ultimately touches. My experience with our community of social entrepreneurs is they measure value differently. They see value in what our community brings to the work. They aren’t just about creative thinking, but also thinking about power and access and representation. What’s beautiful about entrepreneurship is starting from a relatively blank canvas and starting with the values of that leader and the values of the team and then building outward from there.