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The role of entrepreneurs and innovators: reflections upon the start of Young Transatlantic Innovation Leaders Initiative Program

By Maija Renko & Bruce Leech, Faculty from DePaul University Coleman Entrepreneurship Center 

Now that the world is slowly emerging from the worst of the COVID pandemic, many people are reconsidering their career trajectories. In the United States, recent months have seen Americans quitting their jobs in record numbers, and phenomenon that has been labeled “the Great Resignation." Globally, the pandemic has pushed a record number of entrepreneurs out of business. Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) has been recording international changes in new business activity for over twenty years. In their summer 2020 surveys of over 130,000 individuals across 43 economies, the GEM researchers found that 43% of respondents knew someone who had stopped a business in 2020 as a result of the pandemic. The current global challenges in supply chains are further creating headaches for companies, large and small.  

Even if these trends may sound like major headaches for businesses and policy makers alike, those of us who support, educate, and study entrepreneurs can see a distinct silver lining. While people are quitting jobs and closing businesses, they are also starting new businesses in record numbers. In the United States, 2020 saw the highest number of entrepreneurs filing paperwork to start new businesses within the decade and a half that the Census Bureau has kept track of this. The 4.3 million new businesses started last year marks a 24% increase from the year before, and the positive trend has continued in 2021 as well. Behind these numbers are profound transformations in how people work, earn their money, and spend their money. The pandemic has added ‘superfuel’ to the digital transformation that has been going on for decades. Entrepreneurs with solid technology strategies that can cater to the increasingly digital needs of consumers and business customers are well positioned to take advantage of this rapid transformation. 

Entrepreneurs are essential for progress as they birth the new as innovators. The word innovation typically brings to mind technological solutions that have the power to change the world. Indeed, innovator entrepreneurs are responsible for bringing us out of the Covid-19 pandemic. Noubar Afeyan, who was born in Lebanon, co-founded Moderna in 2010 as he and his colleagues were looking for a way to deploy the messenger RNA molecule to tackle life-threatening diseases. Today, we can thank Moderna for bringing us one of the most effective vaccines against COVID-19. In addition to success stories in large scale innovation, it is worth remembering that everyday entrepreneurs also innovate constantly in their businesses and communities. They may not be developing vaccines, but they are improving their products and services to better cater for the needs of their customers, communities, and employees. As the book Big Little Breakthroughs convincingly articulates, innovations are not just created by “propeller-head inventors, fancy pants CEOs, or hoodie-donning tech billionaires”. The skills required for creativity and innovative problem solving are present in all of us, and by cultivating them, we can train our innovation muscles to achieve even more.   

Innovating new businesses are important for economies around the world as they have potential to create new jobs. Research supports the general observation that entrepreneurship can be an important generator of jobs, especially when entrepreneurs innovate. When new businesses enter markets, they create pressure for existing companies to either improve or exit, contributing to long term progress and job creation. As such, entrepreneurs are essential to thriving communities. In entrepreneurship research, a lot of attention in recent years has been devoted to a better understanding of what creates a heathy and vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem. The core of an entrepreneurial ecosystem is its people and the culture of trust and collaboration that allows them to interact successfully. An ecosystem for entrepreneurship and innovation that allows for an efficient flow of talent, information, and resources helps entrepreneurs grow their companies, and welcomes new talent to the ecosystem through new business establishments and by providing startup jobs.  As a result, the whole ecosystem does more than the sum of its separate parts ever could. Clearly, entrepreneurs themselves play a key part in these entrepreneurial ecosystems, and by contributing to such an ecosystem, like the one we have in Chicago, they spread their knowledge, connections, and wealth well beyond the boundaries of their own firm.  

While the word ecosystem may direct our thinking towards tech-heavy clusters like Silicon Valley, it is worth remembering that entrepreneurs are a key to thriving neighborhoods and downtowns everywhere. The entrepreneur next door is the one who provides products and services to her community, participates in neighborhood initiatives, and likely hires others from her own neighborhood. Just like entrepreneurial innovations are not limited to those that change the world, similarly, entrepreneurs’ role in their community is essential, no matter whether that community is prosperous or struggling, urban or rural, high tech or low tech.  

As we are starting the fall 2021training sessions for Young Transatlantic Innovation Leaders Initiative (YTILI), one of the questions we constantly ask ourselves is this: What is the meaning of these macro level entrepreneurship trends for individual YTILI participants? In short, we believe that entrepreneurial individuals, like those participating in YTILI, and their teams, are the winners in this world of constant change. As instructors, our goal is to encourage entrepreneurial action and to help sharpen one’s entrepreneurial mindset in order to creatively analyze and solve problems. If we can help our student entrepreneurs to more quickly discover what works in uncertain environments, they have learned something valuable. As entrepreneurial change agents, they will have more choices in life while leading change across levels: for themselves, their families, their employees, customers, and communities. 

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