Emphasizing entrepreneurship

Bo Peabody ’94 recently said to me, “since the liberal arts curriculum prepares you for nothing in particular, it’s the perfect preparation for entrepreneurs.” While a student at the College, Peabody launched Tripod, one of the first internet companies. Last year the Huffington Post included Peabody in its list of the 10 most successful college entrepreneurs.

Since launching Entrepreneurship@Williams (E@W) last fall in conjunction with the Career Center, we’ve seen ample evidence in support of Peabody’s assertion. Time and again we have seen students draw on their Williams-acquired skills to consistently impress us with their entrepreneurial savvy. By “us” I mean a couple dozen professional entrepreneurs and investors: folks who know what entrepreneurs look like.

Perhaps this should be no surprise. William Cronon, in his seminal essay “Only Connect … The Goals of a Liberal Education” suggests 10 qualities that a liberal arts education nurtures: listening, reading, talking, writing, puzzle solving, truth seeking, seeing through other people’s eyes, leading, working in a community and connecting. In my experience, those same qualities are common in successful entrepreneurs.

As numerous Eph entrepreneurs have testified, the entrepreneurial life parallels the life of the “liberal artist” to a striking degree, including the sheer breadth of daily intellectual activity, the creation and discovery of intellectual connections that aren’t necessarily obvious and the value and importance of questioning assumptions and thinking critically.

Some have asked whether entrepreneurship is a good fit with the College’s culture. After all, Williams is a premier institution of higher learning, not a business school or start-up incubator. My response to such healthy skepticism is that the primary objective of E@W is to launch entrepreneurs, not companies. By assimilating their liberal arts experience toward developing entrepreneurial skills, students are taking steps toward life after Williams, whatever that might be.

There are all sorts of entrepreneurs. For example, Mike Seckler ’94 developed one of the first human resources IT systems. In the mid-1980s Steve Case ’80 saw the importance of modem-based Internet access and created America Online (AOL). Malcolm Smith ’87 has founded energy start-ups that reduce customers’ energy consumption while making money for investors. Mariam Naficy ’91 founded Minted.com, a web-based stationery company that crowd-sources its designs. Just last fall, Brian Cole ’11 launched El Conejo Corredor, Williamstown’s beloved burrito truck. Anim Steel ’94 is the director of Real Food Challenge, a social venture that seeks to direct 20 percent of the $5 billion colleges spend on food each year toward local, sustainable, humane farms. In 2010, student Mati Amin ’12 founded the Afghan Youth Initiative, a social enterprise aimed at fostering community leadership among the ranks of young Afghanis. Many now regard the type of work that Steel and Amin do as “social entrepreneurship.” Social entrepreneurs seek to build organizations that benefit society. While entrepreneurs typically work toward a monetary return on investment, social entrepreneurs assess their returns by measuring social impacts. Teach for America, City Year, the BELL Foundation, Year Up and Jumpstart are among the best-known social ventures.

One of the most exciting developments in entrepreneurship is that the wall between for-profit organizations and not-for-profits is gradually falling down. For-profit entities are legally required to maximize shareholder value. Not-for-profit entities are barred from making profits and in return receive tax exemptions. In the past two years, nine states have now passed legislation creating a new class of benefit corporations that are required by law to benefit society as well as their shareholders. They must operate in a way that is sensitive to environmental and social impacts. This allows companies like King Arthur Flour, based in Norwich, Vt., to declare that “making money in itself is not our highest priority.” This opens the door for a new breed of business model that will empower profit-oriented companies to operate with a greater degree of social responsibility and socially-oriented companies to operate with a greater degree of financial stability.

Entrepreneurship is ecumenical. It includes all types of business models – for profits, not-for-profits, hybrids and benefit corporations. Entrepreneurs may aspire to do well, to do good or to do both at the same time. Only by embracing the full range of entrepreneurship can we support the diversity of the College’s student body.

And, as any seasoned entrepreneur would agree, you never know where the next great idea will come from.


Jeffrey Thomas is a biotech entrepreneur. He  lives in Williamstown, Mass. 

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