Commentary and Opinion

BIRGE: Building a state of innovation

April 27, 2013

BirgeAre entrepreneurs born or made? As a corporate finance attorney who spends most of his waking hours with leaders of high-growth businesses, I’ve observed that entrepreneurs have certain shared traits: ambition, dynamism, curiosity and confidence.

Because entrepreneurs are critical for high-wage job growth, we need to develop these innovators. We must foster an entrepreneurial culture by recognizing and rewarding these traits.

Like most cultural transformations, this one begins with our children. A statewide Future Entrepreneurs program would celebrate and cultivate these attributes.

Traditionally, Indiana high schools have rewarded athletic ability and academic performance. The best athletes compete for full-tuition athletic scholarships and are revered at their high schools.

Our strongest academic students receive merit scholarships at Indiana universities and are recognized as valedictorians. Consequently, children are taught that there are two paths to success: sports achievements and book smarts.

Unfortunately, neither skill set is particularly valuable when it comes to innovation and entrepreneurial success.

In fact, if you research the background of most entrepreneurs, neither athletic prowess nor classroom aptitude is a hallmark of their formative years. Instead, these future entrepreneurs started a lawn mowing or painting business, and turned it into a moneymaker through savvy marketing and delegation.

Or, if they haven’t started a business, these future innovators are already developing crazy business ideas in high school, many of which will never work as conceived, but some of which have the germ of transformational genius.

The Future Entrepreneurs program would celebrate in children a much more valuable skill—the power to conceive of and execute on innovative ideas that create jobs, improve our standard of living, and solve society’s seemingly intractable problems. It would also combat brain drain by identifying the most valuable human capital—future entrepreneurs—and creating social, business and educational networks that tie them deeply to Indiana.

In the Future Entrepreneurs program, every high school would select a Future Entrepreneur nominee from applicants in their junior year based upon the quality of an applicant’s proposed business plan and an applicant’s prior body of entrepreneurial work. Those selected would move on to the regional competition.

At the regional level, area entrepreneurs would evaluate the applications and choose which students proceed to the statewide competition. This regional stage would allow students to network with local entrepreneurs and allow entrepreneurs to meet potential future employees.

At the state level, the most successful entrepreneurs would select the Future Entrepreneurs for that year, who would receive full-tuition, four-year scholarships to the state universities of their choice. Each Future Entrepreneur would participate in extensive programming during their college years to connect them with professors of entrepreneurship, technology transfer offices, business incubators, local entrepreneurs and internship opportunities.

Successful entrepreneurs are both born and made. Some individuals are innately attuned to the creativity and risk-taking necessary for entrepreneurial endeavors, and the Future Entrepreneurs Program would identify those individuals at a critical juncture in their development and nurture that talent in our own back yard.

The program would also deepen the pool of future entrepreneurs by changing how we recognize and reward accomplishment among our children, and ultimately, in our larger culture.

Like any self-respecting entrepreneur would do, let’s quit bemoaning the lack of entrepreneurship, and take action to secure a state of innovation for our children.•

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Birge is a corporate finance attorney at Faegre Baker Daniels LLP who acts as general counsel to high-growth businesses, as well as advising on strategic transactions. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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