'Having Impact Has to Come From an Authentic Place'
It’s not about inequality, it’s about impact.
These words, spoken by Dell CMO Karen Quintos during her closing remarks at the DWEN (Dell Women’s Entrepreneurship Network) Annual Summit last week in Berlin, Germany, hit me like a ton of bricks.
As a female entrepreneur, and often begrudgingly pigeon-holed into that category as if gender has anything to do with anything, it was refreshing to hear Quintos utter something that so many of us believe, but don’t know how to articulate.
After a whirlwind 48 hours of inspiring keynotes, informative breakout sessions, impromptu late night beer drinking (when in Rome, or, umm, Germany) and meeting with everyone from Cherie Blair (British barrister and spouse of Tony Blair) and Anna Maria Chávez (CEO of the Girl Scouts), I was reminded why entrepreneurship is my path of choice: It is the one pursuit where I believe I can have the most “net positive” impact.
For me, and I know countless others with whom I’ve had the privilege of working with over the years, this idea of impact goes far beyond money and success, and cuts to the heart of the human experience.
“Having impact,” as Kiva co-founder and author Jessica Jackley so aptly puts it, “can’t feel transactional. It has to come from an authentic place where there is real connection.”
So if entrepreneurship for you is about impact, how do you move beyond traditional modes of thought, better known as “hype,” in terms of what it means to be an entrepreneur? How do you conceptualize, build and grow companies that have tangible, financial outcomes steered by social innovation? More pointedly, to echo a theme that came up time and time again during DWEN, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
1. Think in terms of people, planet and profit.
Although small companies often scoff at the idea of the triple bottom line (people, planet, profit), assuming it is only a choice for larger, deep-pocketed, established incumbents, the truth is that building a business in terms of the “circular economy” is not only a more advanced way of thinking, but it can also fuel innovation.
Dell Executive Director of Corporate Sustainability David Lear puts it simply: “At the design stage, an entrepreneur could easily ask questions such as ‘Do I really need a product, or could this be a service? Is there a different way to conceptualize this?’”
In other words, an entrepreneur who is thinking beyond the immediate life of the product itself will likely draw different conclusions, which can often lead to more sustainable, profitable outcomes in the long run.
Additionally, modern-day customers are starting to ask the tough questions in terms of the brands they choose to support. They want to know if and how you’re reducing waste in your value chain, and they aren’t afraid to point it out.
“Ultimately, to change the whole system, you need everyone on board,” says Ida Auken, a Danish politician and former environment minister of Denmark. “Governments, contractors, retailers, entrepreneurs and customers all have to demand we move beyond pure profit and look at the entire ecosystem.”
Take action, have impact: Check out the EPA website to learn about the issues and how you can incorporate circular economy practices into your company, no matter its size.
2. Advocacy as an act of entrepreneurial duty.
As entrepreneurs in the developed world, particularly the U.S. and Europe, it’s easy for forget what a privilege it is to own a business. Not only do we get to call the shots, but we also have ample access to capital and a supportive environment (both business and government) that allows us to do so.
I’m not saying it’s easy, but the fact that we have a solid infrastructure is something for which we should be grateful given the circumstances of the majority of the world.
What then, does the evolved entrepreneur do with this privilege? Do we squander it and naively imagine the rest of the world will catch up eventually despite our apathy?
“We need entrepreneurs to advocate for other entrepreneurs, and themselves, so we can democratize the opportunities,” says Elizabeth Gore, who currently holds court as an entrepreneur in residence for both Dell and the United Nations. “The four pillars for entrepreneurs to thrive are access to capital, market, talent and technology. Without these, it’s nearly impossible to build a thriving ecosystem.”
The truth about barriers to entry for entrepreneurs in developing countries is the lack of government policies and regulation that support this path. Until institutionalized attitudes about entrepreneurship are shifted at the policy level, little progress will be made.
Take action, have impact: As part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which outline 17 specific areas of focus through 2030, you can join thousands of entrepreneurs who are specifically advocating for the eighth goal: “Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.”
Sign the #EntrepreneursUNite petition before Sept. 1 and do your part to democratize the privilege of entrepreneurship.
3. Shift from gender specific to opportunity specific.
Quintos’ point about “impact not inequality” had mostly to do with the fact that female entrepreneurs have, on some level, arrived. Perhaps she was alluding to the fact that women -- at least in the developed world -- now have the support to solve problems without having to fight to be taken seriously.
This is not to say that “female specific problems” don’t exist, because they absolutely do.
As Cherie Blair points out: “Entrepreneurship is a driver of development, but in the developing worlds women do 80 percent of the work and have 10 percent of the wealth.”
But to think “I’m a woman, therefore I cannot have as much impact,” is simply untrue.
“Be confident in your abilities and don’t let your gender get in the way of your passion for solving problems,” says Jim Lussier, who spearheads investing at Dell Ventures.
The endearing words of Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, spoken at the outset of DWEN couldn’t be more relevant: “I don’t want to be that dude giving advice to women, but I would say to anyone in the room, we have a huge opportunity to impact billions of people. We have a ton of work to do and we live in amazing times.”
Take action, have impact: Moving beyond gender arguments does not mean ignoring a community with which you have much in common. Ongoing mentorship and sponsorship is absolutely necessary to continue building an inclusive environment for all entrepreneurs and ultimately solving the world’s problems.
Amazing times call for amazing measures.
The evolved entrepreneur possesses many outstanding qualities that, in aggregate, likely set him or her up for far-reaching, positive impact.
The truth is, if you’re an entrepreneur you will likely be one forever in some way, shape or form. And it’s never too late start thinking differently about the entrepreneurship framework.
So let’s get to it.
Rebekah Iliff is the chief strategy officer for AirPR, a technology platform to increase public-relations performance that serves Fortune 500 and fast growing technology companies. Previously, she was the CEO of talkTECH Communications, where she created an industry-first methodology for emerging technology companies which positioned talkTECH as one of the fastest growing, launch-only PR firms in the U.S. Iliff holds a B.A. in philosophy from Loyola University Chicago, and an M.A. in organizational management and applied community psychology from Antioch University at Los Angeles (AULA).