I was excited, and more than a little nervous, when Cornell University asked me to be an Entrepreneur in Residence. What did that actually mean? It meant I held office hours twice a semester, to meet any student who had any type of question about being an entrepreneur.
It was a fun adventure, with undergrad and grad students asking all kinds of questions. Since Cornell offers a variety of courses, I met with future lawyers, engineers, restaurant operators, and business people. The questions were as varied and interesting as the students.
Before I share my favorite questions and answers, let’s first explain what an entrepreneur is, and why I agreed to do this stint.
An entrepreneur is defined as a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, especially a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk. Brett Nelson writes in Forbes, “Entrepreneurs, in the purest sense, are those who identify a need—any need—and fill it. It’s a primordial urge, independent of product, service, industry or market.”
So why did I agree to drive 6 hours, one way, to Ithaca, NY, and meet with students four times in one academic year? Because I wish I had someone to help me when I was a student. I didn’t fit your normal student profile. I was an Ivy League drop out, and only went back to school when I realized I didn’t want to be a chef for the rest of my life. While most students in my class were interested in hotel and restaurant finance and real estate, I was interested in finding ways to operate my own small business. Yet there were few resources for me and I had to find my own path. If I had an Entrepreneur in Residence option when I was at college, I would have latched on!
So what do I wish I had known when I was a student? Here are some of my favorite questions, and answers, which echo what I wish I had known.
If Only I Knew Then What I Know Now
1. What skills do women need to learn about leadership?
Women unfortunately need to learn how to deal with gender bias. Women hold just 21% of senior leadership roles in the U.S. according to the 2015 Grant Thornton International Business Report, and make up just 14.3% of the executive officer positions. We all know about the very real and persistent pay gap.
Women particularly face performance bias, which is when it is assumed that some people (men) are much better at tasks than others, based on stereotypes. Performance attribution bias, where men are given credit more often than women and women are judged more harshly for their mistakes is also prevalent in organizations, as is the competence/likeability tradeoff bias, where women face a tradeoff between being seen as competent and liked. Finally, the maternal bias, where there is a strong belief that mothers can’t be good employees, is a powerful aspect in organizations.
Women can prepare for these biases by knowing their strengths and weaknesses, practicing negotiation, and working on their ability to respond rather than react. It also helps to be fully aware of common forms of bias against women so they don’t get caught unaware and unable to defend themselves.
I wish I had known… about gender bias. I grew up being told I could do anything, which I fully believed. It never occurred to me that organizations could be gender biased. If I had known, I would have prepared differently for my first job.
2. What’s the #1 thing someone should know about leadership?
The number one thing to know about leadership is that anyone can be a leader. Everyone benefits from leadership skills; they aren’t just reserved for the business world, or for people with certain titles. Everyone is a leader in some way, whether in their community, project, family or other area. Leadership is a mentality, not a title or position.
When it comes to leadership skills, the most important thing to know is that it takes Emotional Intelligence (EQ) to be successful. A study by Carnegie Institute of Technology reports success is attributed to 85% EQ, and only 15% hard skills. Emotions contain important information, so understanding your client’s emotions will help you interact with them more effectively. It can also help build trust and work and solve internal problems. A leader with a high EQ is aware of their own emotional states, enabling them to respond rather than react.
Having a high EQ future-proofs leaders, because in the future, organizations will not be as centralized, and hierarchy will diminish in importance. Leaders will be constantly creating and dismantling teams to complete projects, which requires a strong understanding of building and maintaining relationships.
EQ is also directly related to the bottom line. Pepsi found that executives with high EQs generated 10% more productivity, had 87% less turnover, brought $3.75M more value to the company, and increased ROI by 1000%. L’Oreal found that salespeople with a high EQ sold $2.5M more than others.
I wish I had known… about Emotional Intelligence (EQ). I had heard of Daniel Goleman’s book yet didn’t know how to apply it. And I certainly didn’t know important EQ is to someone’s success. If I had known, I would have paid more attention to this leadership skill.
3. Help! I don’t have any original ideas but want to be an entrepreneur!
It’s OK. You don’t have to create an original idea to be an entrepreneur. You may improve a current product or system; you may adapt a current product for another market. You may even bring your entrepreneurial desires into your more corporate role, by functioning as an intrapreneur, which is the act of applying entrepreneurial knowledge, skills, and mindsets within an existing organization. Intrapreneurship gives creative and freedom-seeking employees a way to develop new products, services, and business ventures without having to sacrifice their financial security along the way.
I wish I had known… that anyone could be an entrepreneur or intrapreneur, if they want to. I thought you were either born “a natural entrepreneur” or you weren’t. I had no idea there were specific skill sets that I could develop that would make me successful as an entrepreneur. Skills I could learn, not skills I was born with.
4. Do I take a corporate job or work for myself?
Ah…tough choice! We often tend to think in black and white…it’s either this or that. That’s a false assumption. The real question is “how do I get ‘both/and’”, in other words, the experience from both the corporate world and from being an entrepreneur. So ask yourself what skills you’ll get from the both and then figure out the timing to match the pursuit of an entrepreneurial path. Maybe your career path will start in the corporate world for a few years and then you’ll move into opening your own shop. The opposite is also true; you could start as an entrepreneur that develops your company to the point that you are in a corporate environment.
I wish I had known… that a career is long. I agonized over what job to take and what to do with my life. I thought it was the biggest decision I had to make, and it would dictate the rest of my life. If only I had known that a first job is just one step and it’s OK to switch careers and jobs.
5. How do I begin?
Here’s a basic step-by-step guide to starting an entrepreneurial career:
1. Start with your condensing your idea into a few sentences.
2. Then start your competitive analysis. Who else is doing something similar? Do a deep dive and analyze all potential competition.
3. Do a gap analysis based on the competitive analysis. What is no one else offering? What is the magic area that no one is tapping into?
4. Rewrite your original idea with the magic area you identified in step three.
5. Do a focus group to see if people are interested.
I wish I had known…there are concrete steps to being an entrepreneur. If only I had known it starts with an idea, then a competitive analysis, a product, pricing, marketing and sales. I am a systematic person so knowing there was a system to follow would have been so helpful!
6. How do I become an entrepreneur in a rigid industry, like finance?
It is completely possible to become an entrepreneur in an industry like finance. All industries are ripe for disruption! Just like with any entrepreneurial pursuit, you have to find what no one else is offering, or solve problems that the current system is not solving. Alternatively, you can take the intrapreneurial approach, and start working in a more traditional finance role; then use your entrepreneurial spirit to identify new solutions to problems the organization is facing, or new products to meet the customer needs.
I wish I had known… that industries would be disrupted in the future, and that any industry is up for grabs to change. Years ago, no one imagined the taxi industry was up for disruption. Alas, here came an entrepreneur who started Uber and everything changed!