Nancy Koehn
Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School

What can entrepreneurs learn from the past?

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Build something that is tied to who you are.

Nancy Koehn

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: What can entrepreneurs learn from the past?

Nancy Koehn: One is that you can build something to last. I mean we live in a society with an extraordinarily short and shortening attention spans and sense of time. And the people that I've studied not just in this book, but over now two decades, are people that really built institutions and products and developed people for the long run. So thinking in a longer time span than how long it takes our iPod to sort of boot up is, I think, a worthy endeavor. The second lesson is that for almost all of these people, the work, and the business, and the company, and the endeavor was completely tied up with who they were. So the idea of finding an outline in which you can use your passion, and use your gifts, and learn about your weaknesses, and try and move forward, you know, toward light and possibility is just completely imbedded in many, many … most entrepreneurial stories.And then I think finally what you learn as an entrepreneur  and I've spent many, many years coaching entrepreneurs in a sort of one-on-one or one-on-three way what you learn as you take those steps along the entrepreneurial path is how much input an individual has. For the first few months, first few years, sometimes longer over an entrepreneurial venture, almost everything hinges on the two or three people that hold the idea and are building the company. They're the mother lode of the computer of this possibility. And so you can see in really pure, stark terms when you look at an entrepreneurial venture really what kind of impact a single person or a very few people can have.

Recorded On: 6/12/07