Last week, a startup company that I help run called Gen Y Inc. collaborated with the Globe and Mail on a series focused on Generation Y in the Canadian workplace. It was an awesome week, to say the least, though several readers’ comments have left a bit of a knot in my stomach.
For the series’ first article, Randy Boissonnnault and I co-wrote a piece focused on research completed between September and January, with one of the research insights being that Gen Y is entrepreneurial. In particular, we wrote “Employers that provide their employees with room to experiment, question and build will see enhanced engagement innovation and productivity from their new hires.” Much to my surprise, several peers have responded saying that such statements about Gen Y are “sickening”; they paint too many people with one brush and worse, unfairly label young people as being individualistic.
I can see why the word “entrepreneurship” is associated with individualism. When one imagines an entrepreneur, they often think of the person who escapes the “real world,” abiding by their own schedule rather than by the 9-5 days of large corporations. In a follow-up article by two peers Navneet Khinda and Dongwoo Kim, also published in the Globe and Mail, they go as far as to say “… it is also evidence of our generation’s incapability to work with a team or take constructive criticism in the workplace, and our desire to forever prolong our kindergarten delusions where me is the centre of the universe. Entrepreneurship has become the very reflection of rampant individualism that our society champions wholeheartedly.” Khinda and Kim portray entrepreneurship in this vein, and thus ignore much of what makes entrepreneurship a meaningful endeavour.
In some ways, entrepreneurship is an individualistic activity. Having been in many leadership positions over the last year, there is nothing that comes close to the stress around entrepreneurship. When you can’t sell a service or close a deal, the fault lies in you, and you alone. Moreover, there are times where you simply wake up and don’t know what to do. If you want to cut it, sell services and build a good business, then you need to “hustle.” Anything less is insufficient, and some of the best business success stories result from individuals who took crazy risks (see Frederick Smith and FedEx) in order to keep their dreams alive. So in this sense, yes: entrepreneurship can be an individualistic activity. Because of this, I don’t think that everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur and run their own company, just as some people are “constitutionally unemployable” and would rather run one marathon per day than sit in a cubicle farm from 9-5.
But why is entrepreneurship-as-individualism worthy of discussion? And why is this perspective ultimately lacking (and even dangerous)?
One of the major problems with viewing entrepreneurship as an inherently individualistic activity is that it ignores the collaboration – and as Kim and Khinda remark in their essay, social awareness – required in entrepreneurship. Without a good team, your business will fail. And more importantly, without social awareness, entrepreneurship becomes little more than building meaningless gadgets that provide little value in people’s lives. Even with Gen Y Inc., still a relatively new business, our major breakthroughs have come in teams and in conversations with Edmontonians, Calgarians, Torontonians and so on. We owe much of our success to places/people like Xennex, Startup Edmonton, Pascal Finette, the Globe and Mail, Jaxson Khan, Matt Grimes and the Alberta School of Business – to name only a few. Every week, I meet with and call dozens of people, with each person helping grow our network and make our business’ vision a reality. Most readers would also be surprised by the number of C-level executives who respond to cold calls and provide us with opportunities basically out of the blue. In entrepreneurship, this generosity is the norm rather than the exception.
Finally, as Khinda and Kim remark, entrepreneurship is a means to solving many of the world’s problems. These problems, like indigenous engagement, energy sustainability, developing a healthcare system that accommodates an older population and youth participation in democratic institutions, aren’t solving themselves. And neither will governments alone, which are stymied by political conflicts and therefore take years to accomplish things that entrepreneurs can complete in weeks. When entrepreneurs want to make something happen, they often make it happen.
The World Bank reports that in the next twenty years, approximately 600 million news jobs must be created. Although corporations can grow and add new roles within their organizations, many of these jobs will come from entrepreneurs who see opportunities and jump on them. We need teams of entrepreneurs who are going to roll up their sleeves and tackle these problems – together. Yes, this will be stressful and likely cause many long nights, weeks and months – but we need these people more than ever.
So to those who say that entrepreneurship is nothing more than individualism, I disagree. Entrepreneurs are sometimes quite individualistic, as they must deal with considerable stress and continuously make decisions. But they also thrive in teams, and can only do great things in teams. Most importantly, we need our talented Canadians to become entrepreneurs, believing in their own visions and working amongst each other in order to build a stronger Canada.