Creating opportunity from failure - An interview with Associate Director at the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship at UMass Amherst

The number one rule when creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem is that it must be led by the entrepreneurs. ~Dr. Birton Cowden

Back in May I attended an "Idea Jam" to help spur entrepreneurship in my community in Southern Vermont. This event was led by Birton Cowden the Associate Director at Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship at UMass Amherst and author of articles such as "Disruptive Innovation in Multinational Enterprises" and "The Role of Developing Disruptive Innovations in Domestic Firms." After this event I sent him some questions regarding the Idea Jam (these were published in the May Economic Development Navigator) along with more general questions related to entrepreneurism today. The following is a condensed version of his thoughts on entrepreneurism.

RS: What do you think is the best thing a community or economic development organization can do to support entrepreneurs?

BC: I see a lot of organizations trying to over-engineer an entrepreneurial ecosystem. The number one rule when creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem is that it must be led by the entrepreneurs. So, organizations just need to identify their true entrepreneurial leaders, give them a platform, and then try to keep up with them. These individuals also tend to not be the loudest in the room because they are busy actually producing value. Also, the old guard is not going to get it done, as they already had their shot to start this revolution. This is not a statement of age, but of freshness of prospective and willingness to do better.

RS: What is the biggest challenge facing entrepreneurs in the Northeast?

BC: I must say, coming from the Midwest, the Northeast isn't that bad of a place for entrepreneurs. The biggest issues that I have seen are weather and cost of living. Some ventures are finding it difficult to recruit from other places in the world because of the negative stigma of the winters. This is lessened by working virtually, but location and proximity still matter for some ventures. Also, with closings or loss of power, the weather can really put a damper on daily operations. For the cost of living, we all know that New England isn't cheap. Some small cities in the Midwest are trying to attract East and West Coast entrepreneurs to set-up shop in their cities because they can live like kings and queens.

RS: What traits/skills/experiences are most important for an entrepreneur to have to be successful?

BC: Research has shown that there is not a predominant trait that fits every entrepreneur. There are, however, skills that one can hone or acquire to be more successful. What all research agrees on, is that every entrepreneur needs to perfect the skill of opportunity recognition and assessment. Thus, you have to teach yourself to not just see a problem, but the underlying opportunity and discover its value to society. This takes time, and is a reason why most of our famous entrepreneurial heroes were successful after their first failure. By changing your mindset, it will also reframe how you define and interpret failure. If there is opportunity even in failure, then you rarely have anything to lose.


RS: How can we cultivate a sense of entrepreneurship in our children?

BC: I think the biggest part is to just create an awareness of what entrepreneurship is and that it is a viable career path. They say that entrepreneurship is like a virus, and the more you are exposed to an entrepreneur, the more likely you are to become one. Entrepreneurship is tied to every subject. So, find that jumping-in point for your children and get them in contact with an entrepreneur they look up to. This exposure will be meaningful and tied to their self if it is socially driven. Then, just like an organization, in your house, create a platform where entrepreneurial thinking and action can actually occur.

RS: What do you see as common traits in communities that have a successful and vibrant entrepreneurship culture?

BC: The best entrepreneurial communities are not driven by the top-down. They don't worry about the politics or what has happened in the past. While there are always naysayers, the best communities don't operate on perception, and move too quickly for anyone to block them. In short, it is focused on getting cool stuff done. Most importantly, it's fun. If it's not fun, then it's not worth doing. Lastly, when getting started, the best communities knew what their strengths were and what niche area of entrepreneurship their initial focus should be. For instance, this could be arts, medical, tech, etc. Quick wins and success stories go a long way of creating an ingrained entrepreneurial culture.

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