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 is exciting in business today?
Nancy Koehn: What’s exciting today in entrepreneurship is at least – at least – three things. First there’s this explosion of women going into the entrepreneurial field if you will, or onto the entrepreneurial ocean and bravely sailing forth to create their own businesses and their own products. And I’m not just talking about women with rich educations and many, many sort of economic assets. I’m talking about women at all points along the social spectrum who are, you know, building beauty shops; setting up small schools for their kids; opening up new telecommunications ventures; creating a beauty company to sell to a larger beauty corporation; women doing astounding things all over the map for a variety of reasons – not the least of which is being their own boss and having control of their time. But women are now starting in this country more businesses than men by some measure. And that’s interesting, and exciting, and different than the past.
Secondly, because of what’s happened in the capital markets; because of the extraordinary expansion in financial instruments, and in kind, and in number, and in sources of funding, you now have entrepreneurs from all kinds of pockets of society that now have a chance to get the cash, which is the oxygen, right, of any idea … any business in its first few, you know, months or years in the garage to get the oxygen and to try to bring their idea out of the ether. So you now have pockets of entrepreneurship all over the world being purposefully, if you will, purposely enabled and stimulating. And so we see young men in the inner cities starting businesses. We see entrepreneurs in Latin America . . . in the Latin American countries starting businesses. We see graduates from the Harvard Business School starting businesses as soon as they get their diploma. That … The flowering so broadly of entrepreneurship along so many different people because they can find the money is really important and really interesting.
And I think thirdly, you know if you look at … if you look at the cycles of history, or you look at the great religious traditions, there is in all of them, you know, a “toing and froing”; a going and coming back; being at this point and coming round again in an undetermined amount of time to that point again. There’s a wonderful line in T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” that says: “I shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all my exploration shall be to arrive where I started, and to know the place for the first time.” And we are at a moment in history where, as this country was at the end of the 19th century, or Britain was in the middle of the 18th century, when we are coming back to an economy that will be absolutely powered by entrepreneurial activity … and not only in terms of job creation; not only in terms of invention and innovation; but also in terms of the kind of assets those entrepreneurs will control and the kind of market share they will enjoy. And that’s very obvious in the United States, and it’s very obvious in China. And I think it’s … and India. And I think it’s going to be more obvious in other parts of the world, including the Middle East, over the coming 20 or 25 years.
Recorded on: 6/12/07
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