I just finished reading a wonderful novel, The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga. It’s a brisk story told in first person by a young Indian entrepreneur. I won’t say much more about the story, but it’s a good one, and deserving of the accolades and prizes its received. Perfect airplane reading, and, it has me thinking about how an entrepreneur gets started. Kudos to Adiga for writing a compelling, dark, fascinating examination of poverty, opportunity, and wealth.
A White Tiger is a rare breed in the wild, and the metaphor was used in the novel to describe how challenging it is for a young Indian, mired in the mud of deep poverty, to move from virtual slavery to being an entrepreneur. It’s the rare breed, the odd White Tiger, that can make the transition.
The point of this post is that there are White Tigers everywhere, people with unique skills, who could potentially create something. And, they need help, but different kinds of help, depending on what kind of slave they are, to make that difficult transition. Slavery comes in many forms doesn’t it? There are circumstance slaves, wage slaves, security slaves, healthcare slaves. What they have in common is fear. Fear is the biggest enemy of entrepreneurship there is. Removal of this fear is an unstated, but very real, element of economic progress.
John Kao, an innovation guru (former Harvard prof, Daily Beast writer) I’ve long admired, has just written a great piece in Forbes about the need for a White House Innovation Advisor. He argues that as the whole world innovates more, the USA needs to have a coordinated approach to on-going innovation. The USA and the UK, countries I have personal experience with, need to make more White Tigers into real entrepreneurs. Those countries need to do that in order to maintain their societies, create jobs, and more profoundly –hope, civility, order.
Surely, obviously, in emerging economies like India or China there is tons of latent talent that goes unused, flower bulbs ready to bloom, but sitting in ice, or on rock, unable to grow because they lack the warming sun of education and the nourishing warmth of capital. And, it’s not only in these difficult places that White Tigers exist. Frustrated White Tiger’s prowl the streets of London, New York and Chicago of course. You expect that don’t you? People migrate to vibrant cities in search of opportunity. There may be even more on the prowl in those desperate places like Detroit, or Liverpool. These are hungry, desperate cats. And they prowl in smaller cities and towns like Cincinnati or Hillsboro, Ohio, or even Three Oaks, Michigan, born into places with built-in limits. Many people want to make the leap into business ownership but lack the essential ingredients, the confidence, and the courage to do so.
Call those would be, but reluctant, entrepreneur’s White Tigers in Chains. In the case of the Indians and the Chinese, they are chains of circumstances, lack of education and resources. In the case of those in more developed places, it’s more about the self-imposed chains of fear, and, the lack of a supportive infrastructure for entrepreneur’s. It all boils down to creating an environment where the playing field is as level as possible.
And people, it’s not level, it’s not even close. I’m not arguing for a social safety net, but wouldn’t it be interesting if people were more free to fail, and they were rewarded for taking the risk? We heard many years ago about empowerment zones, tax free zones, etc. Why not have more of that? Why not have incubator’s — all over the place — where anybody can open an office for 100 dollars a month, and have a phone, a web connection, a desk and an address? How about simplified business taxes, easy incorporation forms, and cheap health-care pools? Why not let people fail without making them starve? Let them fail until they succeed.
It’s easy to understand how difficult it is to pull up one’s bootstraps when you don’t have any boots at all. It’s less comprehensible that the best and the brightest, who have silver boots, aren’t doing much pulling.
I was attending a lecture in Oxford yesterday and heard a wonderful talk by author Kieran Levis, (the author of Winner’s and Losers, Creators and Casualties in the Age of the Internet). Essentially, Mr. Levis talked about the paradoxical challenges of innovation, and he told some great stories to illustrate his points (Apple, Google, Webvan, others). Afterwards we chatted with students, and, I heard that of the 250 students in the business masters degree program, only about 10 a year go out and create a new venture. Driving home I asked myself why the number was so low, and concluded that Masters students are getting educated so they can have a “sure thing” in terms of employment. Then I asked myself why again, why do they need a sure thing? My answer — fear. Fear of not making a decent living, fear of failure, fear of loss of status, fear of making bad choices…fear!
In what ways might we reduce fear and let more White Tigers get star-ups going? In what ways can we make those who take entrepreneurial risk hero’s? Those are the questions the USA and the UK should be asking themselves. That is, if they want to release the White Tigers in Chains.