Nancy F. Koehn, an authority on entrepreneurial history, is the James E. Robison Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Koehn's research focuses on leading in turbulent times and the social and economic impact of entrepreneurship.
She is currently working on a book about the most important leadership lessons from Abraham Lincoln and another on social entrepreneurs. Her upcoming book, The Story of American Business: From the Pages of the New York Times (2009), sketches some of the most important people and moments from the last 150 years of U.S. business history. Koehn's most recent book, Brand New: How Entrepreneurs Earned Consumers' Trust from Wedgwood to Dell (2001) examined six entrepreneurial visionaries who have created powerful brands and best-of-class companies in moments of great change.
Koehn consults with many companies on a range of issues including leadership development, effective brand stewardship, and customer relationship management.
Question: Who are the great entrepreneurs?
Nancy Koehn: Well one of my favorites is Josiah Wedgewood who founded the china company back in 1759. As I’ve moved into middle age, I think about people with this criterion: Would I shop, cook, clean, and make dinner for them and invite them into my home? And I would be honored and just jubilant to have Josiah Wedgewood come have dinner with me. Because his energy, his curiosity, his integrity, his deep knowledge, and his constant willingness to keep on learning made him a real citizen of the world as well as a brilliant marketer and manufacturer.
I greatly admire Milton Hershey, who is someone who is much written about; not only because he helped create a mass market for chocolate – or medicine, as my mother says – but because he had a very interesting, very enlightened dream about using this very successful business he’d built creating five cent chocolate bars and creating a social experiment in which workers and managers shared, in largely equal parts, in the bounty that capitalism offers. That’s a very risky, very interesting thing to do. And he did it to define himself; to answer to his own siren songs; but to make a big social contribution. And I think that’s interesting.
And I’m absolutely mad for Estee Lauder. A cosmetic entrepreneur; a woman born in Queens the very early years of the 20th century with very few options but a lot of chutzpah, a lot of imagination, a lot of warmth, and great, great ambition. And I never met her – I’ve met many of her family members – but her engagement … her constant, unstoppable wish to make women feel better about themselves, and her warmth were just, you know, enormous assets to her, and just again, completely engaging for me like magnets.
Question: What modern entrepreneurs do you admire?
Nancy Koehn: We finished a case on Oprah Winfrey a couple of years ago. It was a long, interesting journey learning about her road. Not so much her personal road – although that’s all wrapped up in the entrepreneurial story – but also about her business and how she built it, and what she’s done with it, and how she created an organization that could carry on her mission in tandem with her; but very much carry on her mission. And she’s just an extraordinary business woman. We know her as a woman of great celebrity and great impact; but the business story is as compelling as the celebrity story. And what she’s going to do with the next few chapters of her . . . of her journey, of her rewards, of her company, of her fame is really quite extraordinary. She is going to . . . She is changing education in Sub-Saharan Africa. She is going to fundamentally change thousands – maybe over time millions – of young women’s lives in terms of what they know, where they go, how they think, who they teach and help lead. And she’s going to do that with the tools that she built by creating this phenomenally successful company. And it’s not philanthropy as we think of it. This is a woman turning her business toward overtly social and educational ends. And it’s a gutsy and important thing that she’s doing.
Recorded On: 6/122/07