This month, entrepreneurship has been on my mind more than ever. First, I’ve been finalizing plans for Women Owned Law’s inaugural Symposium on Women’s Entrepreneurship in the Law (fantastic line up of speakers announced soon). Second, I’ve had several conversations recently with women lawyers at majority owned firms about what it means to be an entrepreneur and whether one can be an entrepreneur without starting or running a business. This last part seems unlikely at first, but after thinking about it, I realized that some of the larger women owned law firms started out being owned and run by men. So, are the women who run those firms entrepreneurial? I don’t have the answer, but it definitely seemed worth exploring. I also have been thinking about Melinda Gates’ Harvard Business Review article where she declared entrepreneurship as one of the six pivotal sectors of society that can be transformational when it comes to gender equality. If that’s the case, then women’s entrepreneurship should be fostered in every form it takes.
After significant reflection on what it means to be an entrepreneur and whether one can be “entrepreneurial” in someone else’s businesses, I concluded that it is possible (albeit not easy) and in fact might be a great way to bring about institutional change that would better advance women in traditional law firms. In discussing the later topic with a colleague, she pointed out that there actually is a word for this – “intrapreneurship” – the act of behaving like an entrepreneur while working in a large organization. In my experience, intrapreneurship is not promoted in most law firms, but I think it should be. Many industries provide examples of where this has been successful, including Lockheed Martin’s SkunkWorks and Sony’s Playstation.
So what makes someone an entrepreneur? To me, there are five major characteristics. First, entrepreneurs are innovative and creative – they build something that wasn’t there before, solve problems in new ways and/or fill needs that people didn’t even know they had (think Steve Jobs). They excel in “out of the box” thinking. Second, entrepreneurs are ambitious visionaries. They can both imagine a grand future and have the ambition – the relentless drive – to achieve it, even in the face of numerous obstacles and naysayers. I am reminded of one of my favorite Han Solo quotes from the Force Awakens. In response to the question “Is that possible?”, he replies “I never ask that question until after we’ve done it.” Being an entrepreneur means having the unshakable conviction that everything is possible. Third, entrepreneurs are strategic. Defying convention and achieving the impossible requires careful planning and strategy, leveraging strengths and compensating for weaknesses. Fourth, entrepreneurs are networked. I always had a strong network that I relied upon but for some reason I didn’t realize until recently that it applied to all entrepreneurs. This was a recurring theme from several speakers during my week spent with the Tory Burch Fellows. One speaker pointed out that venture capital folks often find new investments by referrals from their current investment partners, or at least from entrepreneurs they know and trust. In retrospect, it seems obvious but wasn’t something I had previously considered. Finally, entrepreneurs are fearless. Or, more precisely, they continue to act and move forward in spite of fear. Fear is just a feeling – you should understand where it comes from because it may provide important information about what you are doing that you need to consider. Or it may mean that you are out of your comfort zone and trying something new. All entrepreneurs feel fear on occasion (or often!) – the key is they do not let it stop them from continuing and moving forward.
Once we look at some common characteristics of entrepreneurs – innovative & creative thinkers, ambitious visionaries, strategic actors, effective networkers, fearless leaders – it becomes clear that entrepreneurship is less about what entrepreneurs do (start and run businesses) than who they are. In short, who are entrepreneurs? People who create transformational change and who help us move in new directions and accomplish better things than what was done before. Those types of people come in various forms and can be found in many workplaces. Just because innovation doesn’t come in the packaging you expect, doesn’t mean it has any less impact. These qualities can produce real change no matter where they live and should be fostered everywhere, even in existing organizations.