Sunday, June 14, 2009

Tatyana & José: An allegory of innovation

Tatyana was born in the Ukraine, the daughter of a former school teacher and a shopkeeper. They emigrated to America when Tatyana was four. She excelled at school, learning English with amazing speed, surpassing her classmates in reading by the end of her first year. She was accelerated to third gade after completing first, because of her achievement. She completed high school in three years, taking all the AP courses available. With the exception of one B+ in sixth grade, she received all A's.

José's parents were from Columbia. His mother was 6 months pregnant when they arrived in America. José attended the same schools as Tatyana, but two years ahead when she started. They graduated high school the same year. She was valedictorian. He came in a close third. He was a good student, but always dreaming up new ideas rather than fully applying himself to classwork. He always sought practical applications, and had little patience for rote learning and tests that offered only one correct answer.

Tatyana's father, the former school teacher was an excellent cook. So was José's mother. They instilled in their children a great appreciation for food. They lived in a multicultural area, heavily influenced by Eastern Europe, Central and South America, as well as a small enclave of Pacific Islanders and Caribbeans.

After high school, rather than going straight to college as everyone expected, they took jobs together at Markman's Grill, a longstanding establishment, founded on burgers and fries, but changing over the years to include more of the varied fare expected from its diverse customers. Markman's owner Marcus, known as M&M, had run the grill for more than 20 years. He was ready to retire.

Tatyana and José dreamed of owning their own restaurant. But it'd be different. They might take some college classes at night, but only ones that served their purposes. They had little interest in pursuing a degree that would fill them with someone else's ideas of what knowledge they required. They'd take some classes in accounting, business management, and entrepreneurship. They'd take classes in horticulture and nutrition and biochemistry.

M&M was looking for buyers. The two teenagers had no means. An investor showed up at the grill one day, Victor Charles, or VC as he had been called since birth. VC was a Texan with big hands, a broad smile, and an even broader hat. He exuded confidence. He had an idea.

He'd buy up Markman's and quickly transform it. The diverse clientele longed for a mixture of offerings he knew. They reflected the changes in the makeup of American society. He'd be ahead of the curve. Makman's melting pot was about to become America's Melting Pot (AMP), franchised and distributed across the nation. He'd get in and out in five years, selling the chain to McDonald's or Pepsi!

He asked the kids to run the first store. Only... they had different ideas. They wanted to open a raw foods bar: Healthy, Nutritious, Delicious.
  • “Open a smoothie bar” they were told. Nope, not our idea. We want to serve food.
  • “Open a vegetarian restaurant” they were told. Nope, not our idea. We're not vegetarians. We just think meats should be in small quantities, you can serve it on salads like an antipasto.
They sought advice from Markman. He knew all about running a grill: what sort of ovens and stoves were needed, how to negotiate good rates for gas, what suppliers to use for fish and chicken, fruits and vegetables. But they wanted to grow their own, run a greenhouse that supplied them most of the food they used. They'd pickle their own cabbage and cucumbers, dry their own sausages and salamis to top salads. They'd squeeze their own apples and apricots.

“How you gonna make money doing that?” VC derided. “I can't make a franchise from that model.”

VC represented a particular worldview, where the object of running a business was to make a big profit fast. Markman was a good businessman, but had traditional ideas from his experience running a traditional sort of business. Tatyana and José were innovators. They wanted to create something different, something untried, untested, and unproven.

The question is: What's best for America? It would seem there is a place for all three: M&M, VC, and the team of Tatyana & José. Only, what possibility is there for those last two to get off the ground, to test their mettle, to hone their ideas? VC won't fund them. Banks won't lend to them. Markman can't advise them. They don't need much. But they need something.

Shouldn't there be a mechanism in America for encouraging the passions and energies of our brightest regardless of their present means, supporting innovation at every step? There is such a mechanism at present: let's not kill the Small Business Innovation Research program! When it comes to seeding early-stage, high-risk, high-reward innovation, it's the only game in town!

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