Friday, March 26, 2010

Gambling, Dandelions, Hackers and Swimmers

Here are is the written version of the comments I made today upon receiving the Olympus Innovation Award in San Francisco. I intended that there be a correlation between these notes and what I actually said. And, if any jumpers need to check back on the instructions, look below.

Thank you for this award. It is an honor to have the Global Social & Sustainable Enterprise program at Colorado State University recognized for its innovation. To me, it is still very much a work in progress, but an award is a good chance to stop and reflect for a minute (or five). It is meaningful that this is happening in the San Francisco Bay Area- the “breadbasket” of the Innovation Economy and a place known through its history as an outpost for the unconventional. In accepting this award, I’d like to reflect on four things: Gambling, Dandelions, Hacking, and Swimming.


As one who has always been threatened by the idea of a career track, I have always favored serendipity and opportunism over planning and strategy. It is ironic that I teach strategy and business planning classes, really. But key to pulling this off is gambling. More precisely, to have people gamble on me, and my ideas. I want to thank them for having this vice.

-To start, the number one gambler in my life for over 30 years is my partner, Annie Hudnut. A big part of any venture is the team, and this adventure I call life has been immeasurably enriched by her support, and mostly constructive criticism.

-Three people at CSU gambled on me in 2003. Tony Frank, Ajay Menon and Bryan Willson. They provided wonderful support as I started the transition from being a business person to being an academic. A transition I hope never to complete. And they all encouraged me to start building the GSSE program.

It seems strange to be receiving an award in the company of many of the people who have inspired, guided, and gambled on me. I started teaching in 2003, and attended my first NCIIA meeting in Portland in 2006. Until that time, I was having a difficult time connecting with people who were teaching at the intersection of entrepreneurship, technology and international development. In Portland, I found my tribe. A bunch of gamblers. There are a few other gamblers I’d like to thank, that are here today:

Paul Polak- “Design for the Other 90%”. 90:10 is the Polak Ratio. He does this with me, too. Pushing, questioning and challenging me on 90% of what I say and do. And being incredibly supportive on the other 10%.

Amy Smith and the IDDS crew, for inviting me to join a community where I have learned so much.

Andy Hargadon – for opening new doors for my thinking about innovation and entrepreneurship, and always answering my phone calls.

Carl Hammerdorfer- for succumbing to a transatlantic telephonic seduction and being such an important part of the GSSE program.

Phil Weilerstein- the chief of the NCIIA tribe, who subtly pushes, cajoles, engages, inspires and occasionally funds a number of “crazy” gambles that just might change the world and the way our students look at it.

You have all gambled on me, and I appreciate it more than you can know.


My vision for the GSSE program, from the start, was to build a program of changemakers, and to launch 20-25 of them into the world each year. What should the GSSE mascot be? Tigers? Dragons? Lions. Well, kinda. The image I used was dandelions. Now I know, particularly around this time of year, that dandelions are not greeted with enthusiasm. Some of you will probably start pulling, or even poisoning them, in the coming weeks. But dandelions are hardy, ubiquitous, resilient and tenacious. They reproduce in hostile environments. One dandelion will soon lead to many more. That is how I view my students. If our program can recruit entrepreneurial people, and provide them with tools, experience and networks, they will spread around the world. Like dandelions, they will take root and spread. Their work will empower and inspire others, truly becoming "seed" capital for other entrepreneurial ventures.


Schumpeter identified innovation and entrepreneurship as a process of “creative destruction.” A lot of people aren’t comfortable with that in an academic environment. They want entrepreneurs to “play nice” and like to pretend that new enterprises will fit nicely into markets and industries. This is often the way governments like to view entrepreneurs too. But it’s wrong. Entrepreneurs are revolutionaries with a business model. The good ones are looking to hack the system. To create fundamental change. To disrupt. Currently, business as usual, and capitalism itself, is under fire- climate change, social inequity, financial abuse, the rise of China's planned socialist economy. But business as usual is always under fire from entrepreneurs. That is as it should be. If you are an entrepreneur, you need to be aware of what you are going to destroy, as well as what you are going to create. Hacking, in the sense of taking advantage of systemic weaknesses in “business as usual”, is a useful approach to keep in mind. For social enterprises, rather than focusing on destroying an incumbent or competitor, entrepreneurs can focus on destroying conditions of poverty, environmental degradation and disease. Simply: figure out “what sucks” and then “what are you going to do about it.” Make that your BHAWG- your big hairy audacious and worthy goal. To me, that is the simple essence of creative destruction, innovation and entrepreneurship.


One analogy I use is that entrepreneurship is like swimming. You can read about it, you can watch others do it, you can ask others about it. But until you jump in the water, you can’t understand it. Just as you can’t understand “wet” until you are in the water, you can’t understand entrepreneurship until you start a start up. Our GSSE program is designed to get people into the water, into the currents of innovation, into the flow of starting an enterprise. An enterprise that will make the world a better place.

So I want to end my remarks with a request to the audience on helping more people swim. Could I see the hands of people who are swimmers? That have started an enterprise, built a business, developed and sold a product? Great… now could you folks stand up… and make some swimming motions… freestyle, butterfly, you decide. OK, now, could I see hands for those of you who are on the entrepreneurial water’s edge? You are planning to jump in, you have watched, but you want a bit more guidance from people who know how to swim. Great- OK, you folks are “jumpers”. Now, here is the drill: 1) jumpers spot a swimmer. 2) some time before the end of this conference, go up to the swimmer and say “I am a jumper and I am going to jump” and tell them in 30 seconds what you are planning to do. Then ask them for advice. 3) Swimmers, provide 2-3 positive suggestions to the jumpers- ideas, connections, activities. 4) NOW THIS IS IMPORTANT- jumpers, make a commitment to your swimmer to take an action in the next week to move your venture forward, and to let them know when you have done it. Then keep them posted on your swimming.

Thank you again Olympus and NCIIA, for supporting innovation, and honoring the GSSE program at CSU. You have supported gamblers, dandelions, hackers and swimmers. And that is important.
March 29 Update: Here is the press release on the awards.


Unknown said...

Congratulations Paul! The EECL is proud of you!

Paulina said...

Online debate on India-Brazil- South Africa (IBSA) Policy Dialogue Forum
In partnership with the Ideas for Development blog, the International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG) is launching an online debate that will contribute with inputs for the forthcoming IBSA Academic Forum, which will be hosted by IPC-IG on 12-13 April in Brasilia, Brazil.
We invite you to participate in this discussion and reflect about the following issues:
- What is the role of the emerging countries in shaping world politics?

- How can India, Brazil and South Africa strengthen cooperation in key issues on the global agenda?

- In which ways an improved policy dialogue among developing countries can contribute to the implementation of effective policies towards the achievement of inclusive growth and human development?

Join us at:
We also invite you to visit the IBSA Academic Forum website, where you can find interesting papers, resources and breaking news. Visit:

Anonymous said...

Great comments Paul. I particularly appreciate your reference to your distasre for a "career track" and your call-to-action for all the "jumpers". Thanks for helping BGI (my Alma mater) get to where it is and keep growing.

Indrani said...

Dear Paul,

Intellecap (Intellectual Capital Advisory Services Private Limited, India) is organizing a one day workshop on Capital Raising for MSMEs. We would like to promote the event through your blog. Please go through the event details and quote it in your next blog. You may find the web links for the event here:

Thanks in advance
Indira Mallela

Mitesh said...

Congrats on the award, Paul. Proud to be a part of your dream.