Change from Within - An Individual Builds a New Market

Many philosophers, economists, pundits, and journalists have written on entrepreneurs. The engines of capitalism, entrepreneurs take calculated risks to create new products and services.Their actions often lead to disrupting the status quo of the day’s business practice, leading to the creative destruction that drives a healthy economy. Less is written on those that create change within organizations. Their stories are more nuanced, intricate, and often less grandiose.  Yet, it is these small actions by vendors, suppliers, and other stakeholders that often create the environment in which an entrepreneur can flourish.

I first met Jon when I was beginning work on a new non-profit organization.  He was serving in the capacity of the associate director of MBA admissions at a top five business school.Jon was a maverick, someone who had spent his life in a variety of industries.  He was picked up by the Director of MBA Admissions at this school after the two became friends through sport. He is quite possibly one of the easiest people to talk to, for both conservatives and liberals. It is clear that alliances to established parties or philosophies bore him; he is more a man of ideas.

In 2003, StartingBloc, the organization I worked on before JustMeans, was just getting going.  We had a vague sense of what we wanted to accomplish, to create a unique leadership development program for tomorrow's aspiring leaders.  Our goal; Have today's leaders (from business, government, and the social sector) demonstrate organizational models (both for-profit and non-profit) that create both social and economic value to tomorrow's leaders.   In other words, teach young leaders that business can create profit and positive social change; We would partner with universities to hold the events and they could lend their brand names to attract students and young professionals to apply.

Jon sat on the admissions committee for the program, along with some of his business and graduate school colleagues.  In the first year of the program we accepted just over 100 young leaders from 16 colleges and universities out of a pool of 250 applicants.  That first year, supported by four universities in the Boston area, was somewhat of a success.  At a minimum, it was something to build on.

The following summer, Jon approached me with an idea.  In exchange for the title of founding partner, his business school would agree to accept up to six graduates of StartingBloc (called Fellows) into the two year full time MBA program.  This was a first for any non-profit in the world.  Anyone who applies to a top business school knows how competitive it is.  While the #1 business schools vary whether you read the Economist, FT, or Business Week, there are consistently five that exchange the title of top dog.   Jon represented one of these five.

In creating that one decision, Jon created a market for education on social responsibility.  n a sense, what he and his colleagues were saying is a top young leader with a background in social responsibility is more competitive than one without that education.He gave us the artillery to go to every other top business school and convince them to support the program (which they all did, except Stanford). The point of this story is not that individuals should go out and take wild risks that could cost them their jobs. Jon negotiated his work environment, steadily convincing his colleagues on the worth of StartingBloc. He took a risk on a group of young entrepreneurs that ended up performing.   Research shows that entrepreneurs take outsized risks compared to the population.   However, the entrepreneurs taking these risks actually believe their risks to be calculated.  They see beyond the way the world is to imagine how it might be and they trace the steps to create that reality.   Individuals within organizations can do the same thing, calculating risks and finding points of leverage to create the environment in which an entrepreneur can perform.