Nancy Koehn On The Entrepreneurial Greats
Nancy Koehn is a historian at the Harvard Business School where she holds the James E. Robison chair of Business Administration. Koehn's research focuses on how leaders, past and present, craft lives of purpose, worth, and impact.
Her new book, Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times is an enthralling historical narrative filled with critical leadership insights that will be of interest to a wide range of readers—including those in government, business, education, and the arts—Forged in Crisis spotlights five masters of crisis: polar explorer Ernest Shackleton; President Abraham Lincoln; legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass; Nazi-resisting clergyman Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and environmental crusader Rachel Carson.
Koehn is the author of numerous books, articles, and Harvard Business School cases. She writes frequently for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Harvard Business Review Online. She is also a weekly commentator on National Public Radio and has appeared on many national television programs. She has spoken at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Aspen Ideas Festival, and in many other venues.
A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Stanford University, Koehn earned a Master of Public Policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government before taking her MA and PhD in History from Harvard. She lives outside Boston and is a dedicated equestrian.
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
Koehn on Wedgewood and Hershey.
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