I recently heard someone saying “the world needs more Elon Musks and fewer Mark Zuckerbergs” . Faced with a wave of people exited about the billion dollar exits in Silicon Valley and the glamorized movie tale of The Social Network, such a speaker seems to think that individuals would be drawn to the industry of social apps because of the easy riches. Easy riches built on frivolous social apps that do nothing more than solve rich teenager problems, so the reasoning goes. Meanwhile, perennial champion of the future Elon Musk is literally pulling the world forward through sheer force of will, with SpaceX, Tesla Motors, and SolarCity.
That statement comes from the idea that Musk’s innovations are more objectively useful, promising renewable energy and space colonies rather than personalized marketing. Such thinking would logically drive initiatives that inspire the next generation entrepreneurs to be more like Musk and less like Zuckerberg, in order to have a superior net result on the future.
People Don’t Choose Entrepreneurship – It Chooses Them
However, I think such initiatives are doomed from the start. It’s based on a flawed model of the reason that people decide to be entrepreneurs. No future titan of industry walks out of either Steve Jobs movie with a sudden desire to go into tech. One discovers this passion themselves, and it is a matter of time, not exposure, before they decide to pursue it. Look into the origin story of every idolized founder-CEO, from David Heinemeier Hansson to Dean Kamen, and you’ll find a kid fascinated with the fundamentals long before he knew it was a product.
The only exception to this off the top of my head is Jeff Bezos, who infamously left his cushy Wall Street job to pursue e-commerce after learning about the rapid growth in Internet use. Amazon started with books because it was the industry that stood to benefit the most from a massive selection and on-demand delivery, not through Bezos’ inherent love of books. This successful strategy thus paved the way for Amazon to branch out and own e-commerce as a whole.
So Bezos was just an smart guy (without an MBA, but Princeton nonetheless) who happened to see the writing on the walls at the right time. How many of the next generation can manage to do the same? And how many of them would have the interest and fortitude required to stick it out through the tough times of the business if they didn’t? Elon had to go into personal debt to fund the fourth Falcon 1 launch after the first three failed. And that was with the profits of a successful business (Paypal) to use. What about some smart young person who decided to tackle ‘a real problem’ simply because some initiative told him to?
Facilitate Interests, Don’t Realign Them
It’s absurd. You can’t make people like something, you can only give them the opportunity to explore it further. That’s what we should be doing for the next generation – making sure that tech is accessible to everyone, not trying to shunt anyone interested in software to hardware. Zuckerberg could never be Elon, as smart as he is. His interest, his passion, his skills, and even his timing all lie elsewhere – which is totally fine. (What’s so bad about bringing Internet to the rest of this planet, by the way? It’s still nowhere near as crucial as finding a new one, but it still adds plenty of value, regardless of the corporation’s ulterior motivation)
Just as you can lead a horse to water but can’t make him drink, you can show a high schooler physics but you can’t make him like it. You can’t teach entrepreneurship – it can only be learned. And an entrepreneur is going to innovate in the field she chooses, no matter what the general public says. It’s too personal of a field to do otherwise.
Any enthusiasm for the ‘less Zuck, more Musk’ initiative should instead be funneled into increasing diversity in tech. Don’t force women and minorities to become programmers – they won’t like it, and they will never be as good as the programmers who chose the discipline themselves. Instead, pave the road for them, by removing stigmas around math and science early in life, and removing the ostracism in the workplace later on. Easier said than done, to be sure, but it is a very different thing to coax a teenager to follow their natural interest than to get them interested in something they’re not.
Solving diversity in tech kills two birds in one stone, in that it both fixes the wage differentials and allows those with unique and different perspectives to innovate more efficiently. Those who bemoan the steady stream of white male Ivy entrepreneurs solving first world problems need to recognize this – you can’t make an entrepreneur solve a problem she does not care about. No matter how generous, empathetic, and open-hearted a privileged entrepreneur is, she will never understand the ‘real’ third world problems in the same way that a person raised in that environments can. Why should they, when they know they have their stable rich family waiting for them stateside? Compare such a selfless child of privilege to a slum child empowered with the spark of enterepreneruship. Wouldn’t the latter work longer, harder, and more efficiently knowing that they’re solving the problems they grew up watching their friends and family suffer from? Not to mention that they understand the issues firsthand because they’ve lived them, rather than learning about such issues in a book. Passion about the problem will trump even an interested MBA every time.
Find The Passion and Nurture It
Again, it’s not a matter of pushing slum children into Stanford willy nilly, or nontechnical women into programming, or Zuckerberg into space. It’s a matter of finding those people who already have an entrepreneurial passion inside them, and helping them develop it further. Instead of something like ‘Entrepreneurs without Borders’, we need something more like Kiva, a model where the Western world enables the locals to succeed rather then telling them how to do things. Help them solve the problem themselves, instead of doing it for them.
Stop telling the Zuckerbergs of the world that they’re doing nothing worthwhile, and start inspiring curiosity and intellectual exploration in children of any interest. Stop donating to poorly researched internet campaigns about fighting in the third world and give the money to someone who knows what they’re doing. Stop whining about the lack of diversity in tech and start whining about the culture that encourages teenage girls to shop and socialize while letting the boys tinker.
Stop trying to make entrepreneurship happen. Like ‘fetch’ in Mean Girls, it has to happen on its own, but we can coax the spark into a fire whenever possible.