By Henry Berman, ASF
For most of my life, and certainly all of my working life, I have always fashioned myself an entrepreneur. For a long time my definition, rightly or wrongly, focused on the word as a noun, describing someone who typically takes risks and tries new things – one who starts new ventures. In fact, one online dictionary defines the word entrepreneur as a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, especially a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk.
As I began spending more of my time in the philanthropic sector I started questioning whether I was still an entrepreneur. After all, was I taking initiative and risk? Was I helping generate the big returns, in a social impact sense, that I imagined high-tech entrepreneurs reaped in terms of dollars for the risk they took?
There is a theory that entrepreneurs are more embracing of risk. But if you actually look at their behavior, almost everything they do is aimed to reduce risk. They’re very systematic about trying to have the least risk possible.
I don’t think it’s that they’re more willing to take on risk, although that may be a smaller piece of it. I think it has more to do with the fact that they’re willing to go into uncertain areas, with the sense that even if I don’t know everything I need to know to solve this problem, I can pull people together who will together, as a group, have the skills and the knowledge to solve this problem—which gets to the thing that really defines what makes an entrepreneur successful.
Maybe it’s not just about risk taking. Rather, is being an entrepreneur actually about being a leader who defines a greater vision and systematically brings the right people and resources together to execute the vision? In business, this is done to create a great new product or service; in the philanthropic sector, it is done to address a social issue.
My colleague Andy Carroll has written about foundation leadership and asks: “How do people with no formal authority exert influence?” I imagine there are elements of confidence in yourself and your ideas, the skills you bring to bear on the issue and, as David said, by being “willing to go into uncertain areas.” What do you think?
Listen to my entire conversation with David Bornstein and then share with us your thoughts.
David Bornstein will be a plenary speaker at the ASF 2012 National Conference in October.
Henry Berman became ASF’s CEO in 2011, previously serving as acting CEO, board member, and committee member. Through his experience as a foundation co-trustee and ASF member since 2003, he brings a firsthand understanding of the needs of ASF members to his role. Berman’s early career included positions as an independent communications consultant and director, writer, and producer of film, video, and multimedia programs for education, motivation, and fundraising.