Spirits are fascinating things. I call them things because, while no one can prove they have seen one, or touched one, everyone seems to attribute to them characteristics, which make them a real thing. Just like Coke.
Ancient societies talked about spirits either as being part of a God-like trinity, or the energy left behind by dying bodies. Sometimes spirits are used to explain the anthropomorphic nature of inanimate objects that play havoc with people’s lives. For thousands of years we have prayed in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Some of us believe that this spirit is part of a whole responsible for all creation. But we have never actually seen the matter of a spirit.
Some others believe that –like energy that is never consumed, but changed in form and character—the bodies that are animated by the spirit, eventually yields, or transforms this energy into another being.
In the Lucumí religion of the Yoruba, spirits reside in trees and depending on how bad they are, one seeks to receive them or to send them on their way.
It is not surprising therefore that in the modern world, a magic that we do not fully understand nor can explain, would come from a spirit. Such is the case of the entrepreneurial spirit. This spirit resides in the creation of organizational wealth.
Scientists, investigating entrepreneurial behavior, refer to this vagueness as the “x” factor. Although this “x” factor is not quite measurable or explainable, it is definitely “there.” As someone who has interviewed dozens of entrepreneurs, I must admit, that they possess a different set of characteristics than the common man. But so do lawyers, warriors and politicians. Are there legal, military or political spirits as well? No one has referred to those yet.
No doubt that in our free society, imbued with a system of private incentives, entrepreneurs seem to be those who initiate everything, those who get things started. Whether business entrepreneurs, or social entrepreneurs or academic entrepreneurs, those who assume the risk and burdens of creating new things, nurturing new ideas and making it all economically viable so that they may become sustainable, are a big deal. We couldn’t do without them.
As a government we are very concerned about fostering this spirit. Politicians promote the concept that entrepreneurs need financial incentives, a lack of regulation, permission to break some of the rules, some of the time, so that they may create a disequilibrium, whereby what was (typewriters) gets replaced by what can be (word processors) and we all get rich.
I have a very personal relationship with the spirit of entrepreneurship. In every job I ever had, I accepted every opportunity to practice entrepreneurship but I have never felt such a spirit within me. I am entrepreneurial because that was what my father and grandfather practiced. My entrepreneurship has emerged in pursuits as diverse as for-profit business and non-profit academic institutions. It is an instinct, to look at processes that, if viewed differently, or reorganized to benefit from an unusual social or economic force, would yield gains –human, social or monetary. It is just an instinct.
But the “entrepreneurial instinct” does not sound as dramatic as the “entrepreneurial spirit”. There’s no magic in instinct. As a matter of fact, before the best-selling book Blink by Malcom Gladwell we didn’t think much of the cognitive mysteries of intuitive knowledge. It was something at which women claimed to be better than men, perhaps because their ancestral gender culture (their mothers and grandmothers) taught them a way of thinking, like my ancestors did, which clarified some things and made them actionable, for them in the ambit of human relations.
Academics are not natural entrepreneurs. They do not usually have the pedigree and when they do, they reject it, turning instead to the pleasures of thought, inquiry and learning. Universities have seen some who, in response to an emerging academic trend supported by external funds, or in response to an institutional crisis, build something new that becomes self-sustaining. But for the most part, we lack entrepreneurs, in the Traditional Universities (TU’s). We don’t lack them in the Capitalized Universities (CUs), and there, where academics are not in-charge, business entrepreneurs lead the way.
I have always believed we need more academic entrepreneurs and in my life I have prepared many. Some of my students established impressive academic careers, while others have left the academy to pursue challenges in other fields. However, those that I’m in touch with have maintained an entrepreneurial trajectory. In looking back, more than the intrinsic value of the research they did while working with me, or the publishing or the learning, they picked up an instinct. This instinct (or spirit if you will) was to change enterprises that were not sustainable, or was being overrun by external competition or stagnant in a morass of tradition.
In this season of thanks, I give thanks for having been able to provide this spirit (or instinct) to some.