July 6, 2017

Happy InterDependence Day! The Fall of the Myth of the Independent Entrepreneur

The month of July starts in the United States with a commemoration of US Congress’ decision to declare independence from the British Empire and adopt the Declaration of Independence. On Independence Day, we Americans celebrate the right of all people to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” For nearly 250 years, this mantra of liberty and self-determination has been not only a political theme in the United States, but a cultural touchstone of the entrepreneurial personality. For Americans, innovators are frontier-busting, swashbuckling risk-takers who ‘move fast and break things‘.  Americans have historically accepted outrageously bad behavior (‘breaking things’), because entrepreneurs get things done. Or at least that is the myth: Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s ‘founding fathers’ is rumored both to have discovered electricity by flying a kite in lightning, and to have had a strong appetite for very young women. There is a lot of ambiguity surrounding both accounts, but the point is that the myth of the risky kite-flying womanizer makes sense to Americans as the iconic image of an innovator.

But this image of innovation may be reaching the end of its useful life.

For one thing, it isn’t scalable.  Our challenges, nationally and globally, are too big and complex to be solved by the occasional individual who can trounce cultural norms to build something new. We need, instead, cultural norms and networks that support innovative thinking in all of us. These days, we need ecosystems —communities that provide the interactions that encourage innovation at all levels.  Last month, I was privileged to attend the first annual Kauffman Foundation Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Builder’s Summit a remarkable meeting of over 400 founders, platform builders, local and national policy makers, investing institutions, incubators and accelerators in Kansas City, Missouri. Their goal was to strengthen the ecoystems that lead to innovation and improve economic and civic participation in American communities.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James kicked off the meeting with strong words about the kinds of people that are needed in this work: “There’s the independent person, who relies on everybody else to do things.  There’s the independent person who thinks they can do everything by themselves.  And then there are the interdependent people, who realize that their true strength comes from working together, being part of a team, everybody offering their thoughts, their skills, their ideas. [Interdependent people] are able and willing to subjugate and mesh those together into one cogent thought, idea, practice, or business program.”

The need for trust and the value of diversity came up repeatedly in Kansas City. And that’s the other reason why the myth of the lone, macho innovator may be at the end.  They are more likely to break trust and dismiss diversity than to build them.  Best example: Travis Kalanick, creator of Uber. His bad behavior with all of the members of his ecosystem—from regulators, to drivers, to female engineers on the Uber staff—cost him his job late last month when members of his Board began to realize the potential costs of the toxic culture he had encouraged by example. (I discussed the cultural issue in more depth on CGTN’s daily Global Business program following Kalanick’s ouster—details below).

So, friends in and beyond the United States, “Happy InterDependence Day!”

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