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: Where is business headed?
Nancy Koehn: I’m astounded by the new possibilities. The possibilities for new business. The possibilities for new connections across formerly unpassable boundaries; the possibilities for new confidence and new contributions by what we call the millennial generation. I’m just in awe and … of what was called generation Y or the millennial generation, and what they want to accomplish and will accomplish, and the confidence and energy that they have. I’m amazed by the … just the astounding variety of capitalism. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think I’m going to see a new product and think, “My goodness. How can it be that another entrepreneur has created this product? This particular eucalyptus soap with this particular configuration of exfoliants that will sell for $18 with a gross margin of 98%.” I just marvel at capitalism’s inventiveness. I think I marvel finally at something much more … that you can only see in between the lines of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. And that is a yearning on the part of Americans for a reason to believe and to collect themselves in a belief. Collect themselves as a group, be part of a group, and to believe in something worthy. It’s there in the letters to the editor, which of course now are typed an hour after the story ran and e-mailed in the next minute. It’s there in the Style section on Sunday when you look at some of the very interesting social endeavors that people are involved in. It’s there in the Circuit section when you read about a new invention designed to help elderly patients do something better. It’s there in the occasional story about religion. We think we live in a massively and cleanly … pristinely clean, secular age. Oh no. Oh no, no, no. We live in an age of people longing to find a reason to believe in something larger than themselves and their stuff … and in some cases their country if they are really disillusioned. And I think we live in … I think as a historian we’re on the verge of an astounding, flowering emergence of new commitment on the part of people to causes, and being … and to a way of being much, much bigger than much of the 20th century has witnessed.
Recorded On: 6/12/07
Lincoln's emotional awareness, that kind of explicit, reflective, conversation with himself is how he used all the adverse classrooms, from his mother’s death when he was nine to all those lost elections, to...