“Entrepreneur” is generally understood to mean someone who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of an idea or enterprise. Because of the risk associated with entrepreneurship, it is easy to assume success requires a specific type of person. But is it possible to create an environment that helps a range of people bring ideas to life?
In my previous article, I shared my visit to Baltimore where a group of leaders and I spent the day learning from social entrepreneurs re-shaping the city and the future. On that trip, we visited “innovation hubs” — places that bring people together and support their entrepreneurial ideas. We spent time at Impact Hub Baltimore, The Social Innovation Lab (SIL) at John Hopkins University and The Innovation Village.
The co-founder of Impact Hub and director of SIL are, respectively, Michelle Geiss and Alex Riehm. They share a similar network of entrepreneurs and their work often overlaps. As such, they have a unique lens on creating space for ideas to bloom. Below is a condensed conversation with Michelle and Alex that provides insight for anyone interested in learning how to support the entrepreneurial spirit.
How do you create an environment that supports entrepreneurship?
Michelle: We center community-building in almost everything we do. It even shows up in the physical design of our space. We have a huge kitchen because people gather in the kitchen. In our programming, we’re always creating opportunity for exchanging ideas. Along with ideas, you need to connect people with resources and skills to execute. By creating space for curiosity and dialogue, you can ignite someone’s passion and generate insights that eventually evolve into an entrepreneurial solution. A dynamic environment moves people forward into different paths
Alex: I give a lot of credit to Darius Graham, my predecessor at SIL, because when I joined my priority was to ensure we had a warm and supportive culture, like a family where we’re allowed to stumble and fall and celebrate each other. Collaboration over competition. When I arrived, I was glad to see that had already been established. We have alumni from years prior who support teams that are just joining. At our events, entrepreneurs bring their families, their supporters and their networks. We prioritize creating a place that feels like family.
Both of you spent many years working inside and alongside larger organizations, USAID, World Health Organization, the UN, corporations and foundations. What did you learn about creating entrepreneurialism within larger bureaucratic environments?
Alex: A challenge with large institutions is you’re working with people with many different incentives. Often those incentives are competing. All those forces are acting inside one organization trying to get something important done. I don’t think that’s unique to government. Part of succeeding as an entrepreneur anywhere is to understand incentives and think about mutual benefit. That requires empathy. Inside a large institution, you want to create a helpful culture which cultivates empathy and forgiveness. You need to invite people into that circle and say, “tell me what you’re going through, what you’re trying to achieve, and how I can help.” What I’ve seen here in Baltimore is people investing their own creative energy in our city. If you couple that energy with a supportive environment, you create an ecosystem that supercharges the whole thing.
Michelle: Create a culture of listening and feedback loops. In the first half of my career, I worked on large scale global health initiatives, and saw how they could be influenced by people on the ground. One of my public health heroes, D.A. Henderson, led the effort to eradicate smallpox. He spoke about how key innovations often came from community workers or kids in a remote village. The key to operating in big institutions is knowing that at the top you have blind spots and that you’re never going to be able to see around them without people on the ground. But you also have to really value that source of expertise. The more that entities listen and respond, the more innovative they become, the more relevant they stay.