Saturday, December 24, 2011

We are the Entrepreneurs

My thoughts these days go to the core of being a Research Entrepreneur. With the Small Business Innovation Research program (SBIR) finally secure--knock wood--for another six years, there's a little time to reflect on where I came from and where I'm going. You see, four years ago, I was just an unemployed, disillusioned, interdisciplinary PhD. My terminal degree is ostensibly in Musicology with an Emphasis in Cognitive Science, followed by a two-year post-doc in Linguistics. I had never heard of SBIR.

I was unemployed because I had shirked my underemployed status as janitor Adjunct Professor of Music at Chapman University teaching 80 students a term for a gross salary just shy of $15,000/year, with no job security beyond one term at a time, no office, and no health or retirement benefits. Frankly, I may have been better treated as a janitor. That part's the disillusionment.

Despite the common view that professors are a well-paid, secure, and sheltered bunch, that's the reality. Far more end up in adjunct servitude than land tenure-track posts. There's the satisfaction for you of society's promise to those who go through college, to expect their hard work will be rewarded with a decent job, like an apprentice paying their dues to train for a lifelong vocation. This promise is fantasy.

I laugh sadly therefore at Mitt Romney's recent response to a college student at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire that "what I can promise you is this. When you get out of college if I'm president, you'll have a job. If President Obama is reelected, you will not be able to get a job." [Story embedded: skip to 1:40]

The promise is hollow whatever end of the political spectrum it comes from, unless of course someone is proposing a nationalized workforce, and guaranteeing employment. But I haven't heard that, nor would I necessarily endorse it. Indeed, politicians these days seem to be stepping back from bold and specific promises. Our own governor here in Wisconsin once spoke of creating 250,000 new jobs in four years.

Governor Walker gave a talk at last spring's National SBIR Conference in Madison, in which I was pleased to hear a specific pledge not only of new jobs but of 10,000 new businesses in the state. A worthy goal. My proposal has been that one fourth of those new jobs should come from new businesses. According to the Kauffman Foundation, new firms these days create 4.9 jobs on average (my firm's current count is 4.3 FTE). Do the math: 1/4 x 250,000 = 62,500 / 4.9 = 12,755 new firms in the state.

But the promise of jobs as a reward for schooling and hard work is not only hollow; it's misguided. Jobs are not out there like commodities for us to choose among and purchase. Rather, each of us chooses a path to follow. The path ought be defined in part by our talents and skills, and by that which drives us beyond our limitations to make a lasting contribution, regardless of schooling or credentials. Sure, some of us will get jobs that align with our interests. But others of us will follow our passion, define our life's work, and become the job givers. We are the entrepreneurs.

In my view, the greatest value of SBIR is its ability to seed those passions and facilitate entrepreneurial risk-taking, which leads to transformative innovations and technologies, and the creation of myriad jobs along the way. The statistics bear this out. If political leaders are serious about creating new jobs, it is entrepreneurs and innovators who should be getting their attentions.

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