This is a book about creating the future, which, of course, is the business of any good organization. Whether you work at a nonprofit entity or a for-profit company, your ultimate job description is to bring something new into the world, something that will make life better in some sense.
At Kauffman, we've come to realize that our business is creating the future in a meta-sense. Mr. Kauffman gave the Foundation two fields of interest, education and entrepreneurship. Both have to do with essential human processes by which new things, and new capabilities, are brought into being. In both, the goal is to study and improve those processes, so that more people are more able to create the futures they envision for themselves.
You could say that this work involves the key enabling technologies of human advancement. We simply call it the greatest adventure one could imagine. The work is so fundamental that it just keeps growing and branching out. It is carrying us into new kinds of initiatives, with ever-growing networks of partners, and, in the course of expansion, another fact has become clear.
This business of future-creation is so common to all of us that it also draws us together. Our fields, and the many people we work with, all are growing more closely intertwined.
More than once in recent years, the directions our work is taking have led us to marvel at the truth of the saying that "everything is connected." And, more than once, we have seen what "synergy" really means: The more that people and initiatives truly work together, the more they grow.
On the Deep Level, It's All Connected
In the Foundation's early days, our operations in entrepreneurship and education were mostly separate, with only one significant point of intersection. We saw (as did many others) that entrepreneurship was not a black art, but rather comprised of a set of skills that could be learned and taught. So we supported the teaching of it, primarily at colleges and universities. This long-running effort has helped change higher education to the extent that nearly all four-year institutions in the United States, and many two-year community colleges as well, now have courses and programs in entrepreneurship.
But, for years, there was little cross-fertilizing with our core work in education. In that field, we focus on learning in the K–12 grades. Although we had a couple of highly successful programs to introduce children and young people to the principles of entrepreneurship, the two fields were still just touching at an obvious intersection. They weren't really advancing each other broadly, to the extent they could.
Today they are. For example, in Kansas City, our home region, we have long worked with local school districts to help augment what they do in areas from math and science teaching to college preparation for less-advantaged youth. In one outgrowth of that work, we now are founding a charter school. As the nation's first public school operated by a private foundation, it will be an independent, cross-sector prototype for new approaches to learning across the board. And—since the school itself is a complex startup—we are striving to get it right by applying what we have learned about entrepreneurship.
Meanwhile, a major recent initiative in entrepreneurship is Kauffman Labs for Enterprise Creation. This is a unique hub for studying and practicing the creation of scale enterprises: the kind that can grow to large scale, thus propagating new ideas widely while spurring economic growth. Each year at Labs we take on select groups of emerging entrepreneurs from across the United States and help them turn their ideas into high-growth companies. The pilot group, our "class" of 2009–'10, was made up of young researchers in the life sciences and physical sciences. They've started firms in areas from biomedicine to nanotechnology.
The new class at Labs truly represents a blend of our two fields of interest: a cross-section of entrepreneurs with dynamic ideas for improving American education. Their innovations include new learning tools, new curricula, new delivery methods, and more—all derived from original thinking about how and why people learn.
The current work in both Kauffman Labs and the charter school reflect a deep synergy. We are helping to test, refine, and disseminate fundamentally new ideas in human learning, while at the same time learning more about what it takes to launch and sustain high-impact enterprises in the world's most crucial "service industry"—education.
That deep synergy, in turn, has required a willingness by us and our partners to think deeply. In each of our fields, a great deal of superficial, quick-fix thinking has been extant. We have seen regions try to jump-start their economies by plowing money into startup incubators or venture capital financing. We've also seen no end of efforts to raise the test scores of American students. Fundamental change and growth have to be brought about more deliberately, out of careful deliberation upon exactly what it is that we wish to accomplish.
Fundamental change and growth have to be brought about more deliberately, out of careful deliberation upon exactly what it is that we wish to accomplish.
Even the words we use matter, as Kauffman's Dane Stangler points out in his essay on page 18. Thus we have come to understand and speak of "entrepreneurship" as more than a business practice that creates jobs (although it does). It is the act of going beyond invention or discovery to form an ongoing enterprise that engages others (literally, a "company" of people), and is capable of embodying new ideas so that they have a sustained and expanding life.
Similarly, "education" is more than instruction, and it certainly does not mean the processing of young people from raw materials into finished products ready for the marketplace. The word comes from the same Latin root as "educe," which means to bring forth or draw out. Education is bringing forth the energies and interests of people, literally drawing them out of their previous state into a transformative state where they develop new abilities.
On these deep levels, education and entrepreneurship are intimately connected. They lead us to create our own futures, and they lead us to grow, often into areas of activity that we once hadn't imagined we would enter.
Expansion to New Frontiers
Never in past years did anyone imagine the Kauffman Foundation becoming involved in foreign policy. Yet, our work with entrepreneurs from many countries has led us to create and champion a new school of thought in foreign policy, called "Expeditionary Economics." It contends that, when America sends troops and aid to troubled countries, a key strategic aim must be the building of a growth economy driven by indigenous entrepreneurs. The guiding premise, in a nutshell, is that a country can only have peace and prosperity when its people truly own the economy. Many policymakers in places from Washington to Kabul do not yet grasp this premise. So we are networking within the halls of power to seed a core idea: In today's world, maybe the best way of projecting power is to call forth the power of enterprise in others.
... a country can only have peace and prosperity when its people truly own the economy.
Our work on the domestic front is drawing us into new areas, too. In both our fields, for instance, we work increasingly with less-advantaged populations in urban neighborhoods. The immediate goal is to help people acquire the education and/or start the companies that will, as the cliché says, lift them out of poverty. But, in the course of this work, we have found ourselves confronted with a basic question. What, exactly, is "poverty" today?
In the United States, the nature of poverty has been changing. The term needs to be re-thought and re-defined. Most Americans whom we call poor do not lack the basics of subsistence, such as food and shelter; the society as a whole has grown affluent enough that these are available. Nor is "poverty" merely a relative term meaning that, in an affluent society, one is closer to the low end of the scale than the high end. Formally, our demographers and statisticians define poverty as being below a certain income level. But many of us who fall below that line at a given time either are not actually poor, or won't be for long.
Yet, we know that poverty is not a phantom concept without meaning, either, as it seems very clear that many Americans are chronically missing what would benefit them. Poverty in the United States may mean something on the order of "not having much money, and something else." Does it mean being poor in skills or credentials? Poor in opportunities or in resources to draw upon? Poor, perhaps, in the ability to find and activate resources?
If we could answer such questions more precisely, it would go a long way toward improving our efforts to draw people out from this sub-optimal state into a transformative state. I do not yet know precisely what the Kauffman Foundation's role might be in the fundamental quest to define and transcend poverty. All I can do for now is declare the game open, and declare that we intend to be in it.
The same is true of urban redevelopment. Because much of the Foundation's work is done in cities, we naturally are led into the whole business of re-inventing cities, and we can contribute more directly than we do at present. We already are being led more deeply into health care issues. Our Advancing Innovation work has dealt, to a large degree, with innovation in the health sciences. We know that innovation in this area could be greatly enhanced, in terms of developing new treatments for health conditions that have long defied effective care. You will read, in this Thoughtbook, some of what we and our partners have been thinking about in order to create a better medical future.
"Creative Destruction" and "Subversive Reconstruction"
As the scope of our activity grows, a limiting factor that has always confronted the Foundation looms larger than ever. We simply can't do all of this work ourselves. Even with the most astute partnering and leveraging of grant dollars, we cannot transform American education, transcend poverty, find better ways of treating diseases and supporting high-growth companies, and re-invent cities and foreign policy... all on our own. Yet, that agenda, and more, is the agenda we have chosen. How then to proceed?
To an extent, we can create new institutions to pilot new ideas, such as the charter school and Kauffman Labs. But our resources are finite; launching some new institutions is vital but far from sufficient. Clearly, we must try to influence the powerful institutions that already exist in our society for dealing with the various issues: not just particular educational institutions, for example, but the entire educational "Institution" with a capital—the establishment, if you will—and, likewise, the institutions of foreign policy, medicine, and urban and economic development.
Re-shaping those institutions may seem a tall order but, in fact, it is part of the plan, and it is possible. Years ago, the great economist Joseph Schumpeter described the entrepreneurial act as one of "creative destruction." He noted that it was not only possible but necessary for new entrants to a market to destroy the larger and more powerful entities that had held control, clearing the way for the next round of growth.
Our task, as an entrepreneurial foundation, should be easier. We are not out to destroy any institutions. We only wish to induce them to re-construct themselves along more fruitful lines. Instead of creative destruction, call it "subversive reconstruction."
And how is subversive reconstruction accomplished? By hard work. In part, by setting examples through pilot or prototype programs that turn out so well that others are compelled to follow. In part, by networking and educating. In part, by being persuasive in a friendly way, but also by not fearing to step on some toes and point out the obvious when that is called for. And, ultimately, by having the right kinds of ideas to begin with.
We believe that a focus on creating the future is that kind of idea. It's always more powerful to be a catalyst than a doctor. This is not meant to slight physicians, who perform essential and often heroic work, but many institutions in our society operate too much from the "doctor" mindset: trying to diagnose what has gone wrong in the world, then setting out to remedy or redress it. That is a mindset focused on the past. It is of limited efficacy, and the measures tend to be divisive, leading to institutional gridlock.
When we keep our eyes on creating a different future, the playing field is more open, more conducive to eliciting people's excitement and fresh thinking, rather than their vested interests and concerns. That is a unifying approach that leads to growth. What are you creating? In these pages, we hope you will find food