As director of Wesleyan’s Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship, I work to support students who want to tackle the world’s pressing problems with innovative, disruptive, system-changing, scalable, sustainable solutions. In other words: to support entrepreneurs.
Well, I have a confession. For a long time, I believed that most mission-driven students should not, in fact, innovate new solutions. They should not start new ventures or projects. They should not be entrepreneurs.
I looked at the statistics — 80-90% of new ventures fail; $358.38 billion in charitable donations was given away in 2014 (source: http://www.charitynavigator.org/), yet most non-profits still struggle to compete for funding; there are 1.5 million existing non-profits in the US alone (source: National Center for Charitable Statistics), many of which need talented employees and interns to help them keep up with changing technology and culture — and I decided that the best use of Wesleyan students’ passion and talents was unequivocally to support existing mission-driven organizations.
This even translated to my thoughts about on-campus activism. When Jacob Sussman ’17 told me his idea for Cardinal Pictures, I suggested that he explore the possibility of working within IMS (Wesleyan’s Instructional Media Services department). When Mika Reyes ’17, Mia Deng ’17, and Shirley Fang ’18 pitched a Design Thinking group, I wondered why they needed to create a formal organization rather than just study this topic that interested them. And when Alex Garcia ’17 saw a need to address the lack of diversity in tech and startups, the creation of Kai Wesleyan sounded less intuitive to me than simply teaming up with an already-established entity like the Wesleyan Entrepreneurship Society.
In all these cases and many others, I cautioned students against competing for limited resources, splintering a solid movement into smaller and less-effective ones, and most importantly, creating something new only to let it die a few years later, letting down stakeholders and community partners.
Well, during the past two years — thanks in part to innovative students like Jacob, Mika, Mia, Shirley, and Alex (not to mention Lily, Jennifer, Kwaku, Oladoyin, Olayinka, Max, Kennedy, Jessica, Raghu, Shivani, Bonnie, Jacob, Frank, and so many others) — I have changed my philosophy radically. I still believe that the best path to impact is not always to create something new, but I have gained a much better understanding of what makes our students tick and why they should be given license and support to create new projects, programs, ventures, and enterprises — or more simply, to create.
Humans are inherently creative creatures. From the time we are babies, we seek novelty as a way of building new neural connections — as a way of learning. Wooden blocks, Legos, and good old-fashioned crayons are ubiquitous toys because they stimulate kids’ imagination, intellect, and confidence. As we get older and learn to adhere to cultural norms — to assemble the Lego set according to instructions, to color in the (proverbial) lines — we still seek creative outlets, from cooking to knitting to Instagramming. These activities engage multiple parts of our brains and give us a special kind of satisfaction.
I realize there are many ways to be creative without completely inventing something new. Intrapreneurship, or innovating from within an existing organization, can be as gratifying as entrepreneurship and can lead to great impact with less risk. Employees are increasingly valued for their creative abilities, not just in the arts and engineering, but across industries. In a global survey of approximately 1600 CEO’s, the leadership trait that was considered to be most crucial for success was, in fact, creativity (source: Wikipedia). Thankfully this goes beyond lip service; “several big companies today actively promote intrapreneurship within their organizations, allowing their employees to spend 10 to 20 percent of their time on innovative ideas” (source: Entrepreneur). I see signs that non-profits are adopting versions of this philosophy as well.
I have come to deeply understand the appeal — and benefit — of building something from scratch. I’ve watched Jacob, Mika, Mia, Shirley, and Alex thrive as a result of having been empowered to create and lead. And I will do everything I can to support other entrepreneurs like them who, after thorough landscape research and responsible user/community partnering, decide that they want to launch something brand new.
Last winter, I heard a story on NPR about human behavior humorously deemed “The Ikea Effect”. In a series of experiments, social scientists “demonstrated that people attach greater value to things they built than if the very same product was obtained already made.” They found that “building your own stuff boosts your feelings of pride and competence, and also signals to others that you are competent.” Most people intuitively believe that we work hard on things we care deeply about, but The Ikea Effect shows that the opposite is in fact true: It isn’t love that leads to labor. It is labor that leads to love. (source: NPR)
As the Patricelli Center and the overall culture of social entrepreneurship at Wesleyan grow, we will seek to strike a balance between creating new organizations and sustaining existing ones. We will recognize how much there is to be learned by building from scratch, and how we are drawn to work harder on projects that we started ourselves. We will recognize that labor leads to love — and to long-term commitment.
By cultivating creative confidence and competence in Wesleyan students, we will increase our ultimate impact on the world.
Image: via themonitordaily