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What Do Sara Blakely and Kevin Plank Have in Common?

What Do Sara Blakely and Kevin Plank Have in Common?
Image credit: Spanx | Facebook
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Unless you’re driving or operating heavy machinery right now, close your eyes and think about an entrepreneur.

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If you did, it’s likely you thought about one of those technology whiz-kids. Or a lone computer coder working into the night, headphones humming. Or maybe you thought of the creator of a new app catching fire, or the hoodied founder of a company like Facebook or Uber. 

There are good reasons for linking tech and "entrepreneurs." Tech entrepreneurs, along with their unicorn valuations and company mergers, certainly get a ton of media attention.

But that media attention can mean that we overlook an essential truth about entrepreneurship. That truth? Successful entrepreneurs are not always cutting-edge Internet pioneers. The reason is that, at their core, entrepreneurs, regardless of their respective fields, are problem solvers. And while tech entrepreneurs do solve problems -- Uber is a leading example – it’s the problem-solving that’s essential. The technology is not.

I'm moved to say all this, thinking about the most recent two featured speakers at my organization’s biggest annual events. Both succeeded because they recognized -- and solved -- real problems. One was Kevin Plank, founder of Under Armour; the other was Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx. Both are billion-dollar entrepreneurs.

Neither is in tech. 

And while both founded empires around basic garments (Spanx is underwear; Under Armour is sportswear), there's something far more important that these two have in common. When Blakely spoke with our students, for instance, she described how she had needed fitted underwear she could wear under white pants -- and that's how Spanx was born.

Plank told us about how, when he was playing college football, the cotton shirts the players wore became heavy when wet. He solved that problem with breathable fabric and that's how Under Armour was born.

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It’s a coincidence that both of our last two honored guests made their marks in apparel as opposed to technology. It’s also likely a coincidence that the last two winners of our national youth entrepreneurship competitions both devised and pitched problem-solving clothing lines, as well.

The first set of winners, Jesus Fernandez and Toheeb Okenla, from Illinois, developed socks into which soccer shin guards could be inserted. Their idea solved a problem of sweaty, unbreathable and short-lived sports equipment. And the second winner, Lilly DeBell, from Baltimore, had a winning idea for hand-knitted legwarmers -- dancewear that provided more warmth, support and longevity than traditional options. DeBell got her idea from watching her sister, a dancer, struggle with inferior, ill-fitting warmers.

The lesson from all four entrepreneurs is clear: The path to entrepreneurship runs through recognizing a problem people are struggling with and finding a solution. Whether that happens in tech or dancewear or food products is not the issue. Many times the biggest companies and personal triumphs start as solutions to small problems such as sweaty sporting equipment or floppy leg warmers.

The secret, and what we teach in our entrepreneurship classes, isn’t knowing where to look for business opportunity. It’s knowing what to look for.

We call it opportunity recognition. And, naturally, spotting a good opportunity or consumer need doesn’t guarantee success. But it’s difficult to become the next Sara Blakely or Kevin Plank or Elon Musk without having a keen eye for what people need.

So, the next time you close your eyes and think about entrepreneurs or being an entrepreneur, try not to think of what people have done or what products they already provide. Instead, think about what products or services would make your life better -- as well as the lives of your neighbors, classmates or colleagues.

That’s what entrepreneurship really looks like.

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