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Elizabeth MacBride

To tell the stories of overlooked entrepreneurs

Experienced business writer and editor Elizabeth MacBride took a risk to show how vital unsung entrepreneurs and small businesses are to the U.S. economy and became an entrepreneur herself. Then, the coronavirus hit.

Elizabeth MacBride

Elizabeth MacBride has covered turbulent times before, during her many years working as a business journalist. She was managing editor of Crain’s New York during 9/11 and the recovery from those tragedies. As a freelancer for leading business publications such as Quartz, the Harvard Business Review, Forbes Magazine, and CNBC, she wrote about the impact of the 2008 recession.

A confluence of events may make 2020 equally unforgettable. First, she decided to take the plunge into entrepreneurship herself by launching the Times of Entrepreneurship earlier this year. This fledgling online publication addresses one of her ongoing frustrations – creating a place to tell the stories about the rest of entrepreneurship beyond the VC-backed tech startups on the coasts. The Kauffman Foundation is a sponsor of the publication.

The second event, of course, is the onset of the coronavirus.

I spoke with Elizabeth just as the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic was hitting. The health and economic crisis came to the U.S. right after she launched the Times of Entrepreneurship, giving a particular urgency to her stories about the entrepreneurs who are often overlooked by mainstream publications. She and a team of freelancers have covered a range of related topics, from the innovations entrepreneurs are bringing forth in response to the crisis, to the devastating impact the economic downturn is having on small businesses.

Keith Mays: You’ve been covering entrepreneurship for a number of years leading up to launching the Times of Entrepreneurship. Given all the stories you’ve done about entrepreneurs, do you think of yourself as an entrepreneur? And if so, when did you start considering yourself one?

Elizabeth MacBride: Oh, I definitely think of myself as an entrepreneur. I haven’t employed anybody, I still don’t, I’m a startup, so I’m doing everything with a freelance network myself these days. But five or six years ago when I started having to become the breadwinner, I had to get much more systematic about the work I was doing, the way I pursued it, the way I produced it, and that’s when I started to think of myself as an entrepreneur. Also, I had to become much better at sales so I developed a healthy respect for people who do that entirely for a living and people who are really good at it.

Keith: What have you learned from being an entrepreneur yourself about the challenges of launching a startup?

[The entrepreneurial mindset is] a mindset of agency, of not giving in, of resistance, persistence, resilience.

Elizabeth: I think being an entrepreneur myself has brought home the reality of how difficult it is. So, I have known since I became a breadwinner, what that pressure feels like of having to make your nut every month, not having much of a safety net. But now trying to build something, which is what I’m doing with Times of Entrepreneurship, trying to recruit people to what I see, trying to pull people together who share this idea, that is a different challenge. And it is at the moment feeling more high-pressure, probably because it’s new. Whether it’s changed how I write about it, I would say yeah, it… well, it’s made me more serious about the way I write about it. The stakes are a little higher, maintaining the high quality that I want for Times of Entrepreneurship means approaching every story in a pretty rigorous way. Where before when I wasn’t trying to build something that felt cohesive, I could have a little more fun, I could experiment more with stories that were maybe not in this vein of coverage.

Keith: You were in New York during 9/11 and the aftermath, what did you learn about the entrepreneurial mindset from what you saw after 9/11?

Elizabeth: That’s an interesting question. In New York, after 9/11, the city really relied on the spirit of entrepreneurship to get itself back, and I mean that it’s a mindset more than anything else. It’s a mindset of agency, it’s a mindset of not giving in, of resistance, persistence, resilience. I think that, in any society, comes from the entrepreneurs, and in New York city it definitely did. There were just stories then about restaurants that would throw their doors open and feed all the workers at Ground Zero; big companies were stepping up. Obviously, the companies in the Trade Center had to recover fast, some big companies can be entrepreneurial as well as the small ones. And then, I was working for Crain’s New York Business, Craine’s is a family owned company, I mean we were just … Every day was a new challenge and a new way to meet the challenge. And I think obviously government funding was essential to New York’s recovery after 9/11, but it came about because people adopted that entrepreneurial mindset.

Keith: What has the first few months of running the Times of Entrepreneurship, leading to the pandemic spreading to the US, reveal to you?

Elizabeth MacBride (third from left) in Oklahoma City, with Kourtney Leigh, Founder of Tinge; Erika Lucas, co-founder of StitchCrew; and Sean Akadiri, Founder of AgBoost..

Elizabeth: The biggest discovery of my first couple of months of working on Times of Entrepreneurship, which has meant talking to people in Northwest Arkansas, talking to people from Nebraska and visiting Oklahoma City where I did a really two or three stories that I’m really proud of. It’s just like a new respect and appreciation for the – I don’t want to drift into a cliché – but just sort of the strength of the Midwest of America, this idea how much economic power is in those states, how much creativity, how much energy. And that has been a really cool discovery.

Going to Oklahoma City and meeting the very committed people there who were able to get real estate project done in a redline district in Oklahoma City, the first one in 35 years, it was just really compelling. And there is a sincerity about those stories that exists in Silicon Valley in New York, but it’s a few layers down: it’s covered up with some cynicism and some snark.

And I think right now, when we’re looking at this epidemic just spreading and blossoming, as you would expect it would in cities, in California and New York, which are the worst hit that they’re having to shut down their economies. And I’m thinking for so long the story has been how much economic energy is generated on the coast, maybe for a while, the economic energy that we’re relying on is in the Midwest and the South. So, we’re just really lucky in America to have so many pockets of strength.

Keith: While we have to acknowledge that we’re still in the middle of it, how do you anticipate the entrepreneurial mindset will come to play in our current crisis?

Elizabeth: The response to COVID-19 has been very interesting, obviously scary and distressing for everybody, but also interesting when you take a step back and look at the slow and sort of monolithic mindset of our public health system that’s being revealed. And I’ve talked to many entrepreneurs now who are incredibly frustrated because they’re saying, “I have a solution. It’s a potential solution. It might not be the right one, but let’s throw it out there, get it in the mix, see if we can, working together, flatten the curve or build more hospital capacity or get better informed or do more tests.” And so, I’m not sure if it’s a change in terms of time. In other words, 9/11 happened, what, almost 20 years ago now, so were we a different country then? I don’t know. This is a different kind of problem. It’s a public health problem. But I do think we’re getting a window onto what happens when we have, I have to say, an ossified mindset to confronting a problem. And that’s, I think, what exists in the public health sphere.

Keith: So, do you think government should try to act more entrepreneurially or is government’s role different?

Elizabeth: Well, I definitely think government should act more entrepreneurially. I guess most entrepreneurs would say that it should. But we need both. We need both the scale and the standards that government can bring to the table, but we also need the speed and the flexibility that an entrepreneurial mindset can bring to the table. And we’re not operating with both right now – and that’s a big problem.

Keith: The tagline for the Times of Entrepreneurship is “Founders and innovation beyond Silicon Valley.” Can you talk about how you came to realize that entrepreneurship was an activity that all kinds of people engage in and benefit from, not just bay area tech founders?

Elizabeth: So back in probably 2015, I was interested in entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship in the Middle East, which just happened in that… actually, the way it happened is that I, shortly after my divorce, ended up with a Christmas holiday where my ex-husband had my two girls and I thought, “Well, if I sit at home I’m just going to be depressed.” So, I decided what I would do is plan a reporting trip to Jordan, this was at the beginning of the Syrian civil war, and I thought I will write some stories from the refugee camp, sell them to the BBC and the MSNBC. Those were two places I was freelancing for at the moment.

I definitely think government should act more entrepreneurially. I guess most entrepreneurs would say that it should. But we need both. We need both the scale and the standards that government can bring to the table, but we also need the flexibility than an entrepreneurial mindset can bring to the table.

So, I went and I met tons of great entrepreneurs in the Middle East and when I came back to try and pitch those stories, I was very excited, I found all these fantastic stories. When I came back to try and pitch them, it was hard to pitch them into the top tier outlets that I had been writing for. You could only sort of pitch them as in stories about, “Oh, what a surprise, there are people doing business in the Middle East” versus, “Oh, there are terrorists in the Middle East.” It was that much of a – I want to say – biased mindset. And that started me thinking about looking more critically at my peers in the media, I guess I’d have to say.

So, I realized business publications were over-indexed on Silicon Valley and not covering the majority of entrepreneurs over the years that I was traveling to cover entrepreneurs in other parts of the world. I had a hard time pitching those stories into the top-tier outlets that I was writing for, because they were looking for stories that were a very particular model, a very fast growth, well-funded, a big money… It was a recognizable pattern that they were looking at, and I kept finding stories that were not those stories. I was covering stories about big startup gatherings in Cairo, or I was finding a story about an entrepreneur in a small Pennsylvania city that revitalized his whole town, or like the one that I just did, there’s a story about a Missouri biotech entrepreneur who has a testing device that could be useful in COVID-19. Well, that’s not anything like the model that the publications want to see. They’re very focused on what venture capitalists, the bulk of venture capitalists, want to see.

Keith: So, how did the Times of Entrepreneurship emerge from that realization that there was a whole world of entrepreneurship that wasn’t being covered very well?

Elizabeth: I started thinking about it probably relatively seriously after I went to a particular startup gathering in the Middle East called Rise Up summit. And there were maybe 25,000 young people there looking to start businesses. It’s hard to find a job in Egypt, so entrepreneurship really provides a lot of hope. But when I saw the number of people there, how few media outlets there were to cover all those people and the great stories I was finding, it just planted this germ in my head.

And then, probably the next point is, I went to Cambodia and met a girl who had been in a startup competition. She was like 14, she was at a very innovative school in Cambodia, and they had hooked into the entrepreneurship movement around the world, which connects young people with the ideas and the agency and the critical thinking that’s involved in entrepreneurship. And she had ended up going to Google headquarters. And I thought, “This is a really powerful movement that can take a girl from a fishing village in Cambodia, who didn’t even know San Francisco was a place, and that the entrepreneurship movement took her from there to visit Google headquarters.” And I thought that is a powerful force and idea in the world and we should understand it better and cover it better. And that was the next point.

And then the final point was when I just started talking to people about it. This was about a little more than a year ago, somebody invited me to Renaissance weekend and I just started talking about it, more people said it was a good idea, then I listened to those people who said it was a good idea and I went ahead.

Keith: How did traveling outside of the US and covering stories internationally give you perspective on our country as well as our impact on the rest of the world?

Elizabeth: That’s a great question. I can say for sure that leaving this country, not in the routine way… It’s not like going to Paris or London, so you get a perspective from traveling to all of those places, but I do think it’s particularly valuable to travel to a place like Kenya or Cambodia or Gaza, because you see the result of our country’s actions on other people, you see what we export in all of the good and bad, our culture. The idea of entrepreneurship, in its later incarnation, I would say is a U.S. export. And when you start to think about, when you see what we put out in the world, I think you do see it more critically.

I do think it’s particularly valuable to travel to a place like Kenya or Cambodia or Gaza, because you see the result of our country’s actions on other people, you see what we export in all of the good and bad, our culture. The idea of entrepreneurship, in its later incarnation, I would say is a U.S. export.

Keith: As a female entrepreneur, can you talk about your personal experience and if you feel you’ve faced any funding or other obstacles because of your gender?

Elizabeth: It’s funny, there’s so much danger when you’re a woman founder, of saying something that sounds wrong to people. I think of this as like the “tyranny of optimism.” In the entrepreneurial world, you’re expected to have a positive mindset in the public sphere and to some extent, even in the private sphere, and I think that standard is even higher for women. So, to talk frankly about the obstacles you encounter, could be damaging. That said, I’m also a journalist and I am just a transparent person generally, so I can see now some of the dynamics that make it harder for women to raise money or to find support other ways.

And I think what the root of that is, there’s some research which points to the root of it, and that research, which was written by Heidi Moore in The Guardian, maybe about, I don’t know, five or six years ago, talks about the fact that women do not get credit for favors they do. And that is just fundamental to the business world, and especially the fast-moving entrepreneurial world, because when you’re building relationships with people rapidly, it’s usually built on, “I’ll do something for you, you’ll do something for me.” It goes back and forth like this. But the research is that men and entitled people, not all men, but all entitled people expect favors, especially from women. So that when a woman does something nice for them, it’s just sort of forgotten or discounted or they put it in another category in their mind. I don’t know how they work.

So, I’ve definitely hit that when I was beginning my fundraising, which was about only two months ago, I’m only two months in. I talked to a woman venture capitalist who is a supporter of mine, and she was suggesting, “Go back to all the people that you’ve helped over this long career in journalism,” and there are many. I mean, places where I self-funded a trip to do a feature story that I thought was important and I just did it myself to get it out in the world or times when a source misspoke and I said, “I’m not a gotcha journalist. I’m not going to put that quote out there. You said it, but let’s delete that from the record if it wasn’t adding to the story.” I could give you probably a thousand examples of times when I did that.

And so I have expected – wrongly, it turns out – that some of those people that I was super nice to would at least be open to hearing my pitch. And even if they weren’t going to provide support in a major way would provide it in a more minor way. But some of the doors I thought would be open based on what I’d done for people, men, over the years have been closed. Honestly, it’s sort of personally hurtful. Yeah, I think that’s one way to say it, but you have to put that aside. That’s sort of what I meant by the tyranny of optimism, to acknowledge that it’s hurtful is sort of not allowed in the world of entrepreneurship. And so, you put it behind you and you just move on. And so that’s what I’ve been doing.

And I have found a tremendous amount of support in other places, so that women who are now achieving levels of power in different areas, venture capital or foundations or other places are by far my best sources of support so far, but not exclusively. I have found men who are champions too. It’s just some men that I thought would be helpful aren’t, so I’m moving on from that fast.

Keith: You’re in such early days, when you look ahead, what’s the vision of success you have for your business?

Elizabeth: Success for Times of Entrepreneurship, 50 years from now I want to have established a competitor that is beating the Wall Street Journal. Yeah, I think there’s a whole new way to look at business news that recognizes the diversity in the world, that looks at impact as well as profit and that takes into account the needs of communities. And I think we can reframe business news so that it more accurately reflects what most of us live, which is not a purely profit-driven life.

[As a woman entrepreneur], some of the doors I thought would be open based on what I’d done for people, men, over the years have been closed.

Keith:   Well, if you’re not solely looking at profit as a measure of success, how will you know if you’re being successful with the Times of Entrepreneurship?

Elizabeth: I’m not… You ask hard questions. I’m not purely profit-driven. That is for sure. Well, nobody is. I think that’s the point.

So, how am I measuring my progress? At the moment, I am measuring it by how many people we’re reaching with our stories. That’s one measure. But that is in some ways also a somewhat misleading measure, we’re very numbers oriented in our society, but what’s also really important is making connections. So, I get super excited when somebody tells me that a story I wrote actually produced something valuable for them, so it created value. In other words, that idea that if I can get information into the right hands at the right time, something good will come out of that. That’s really what motivates me the most. It’s hard to measure that, first of all, because people don’t always tell you, and secondly, it’s a qualitative measure versus a quantitative one. But I do collect those things. Actually, I keep sort of a running list of them. And there have already been a couple from Times of Entrepreneurship, so that makes me really happy.

For instance, this is a good one, so the Missouri biotech company that has a device that can test for COVID-19 in the air, that story went into the hands of the highest and most influential people in the United States. And I can only think that it did some good to open their mindset to think it doesn’t always have to be a blood test. How much easier is it if we could set up testing stations that test the air, even if that particular technology and that particular company aren’t the solution everywhere to open people’s minds to thinking – that way is incredibly valuable.

Keith: The collapse of the ad-driven revenue model has made the media business challenging in the last decade, particularly for the traditional print media. What do you think about the future of media and what a successful business model might look like?

Elizabeth: Yeah, I wouldn’t be in this if I didn’t think there was a future for the media. And there’s a business model for it for sure. I mean, the fundamental problem with the media is that ethically speaking, you can’t take money directly from the people who benefit the most from the service. And if you do that, and I know this 100% because I’ve watched other publications fall in this trap, when you start to do that, the quality suffers and then you’re not doing good journalism anymore. So, I’m equally convinced there will be a good model and that it’s very challenging.

I think the self-sustaining model for the media is actually along the lines of finding a way to monetize that flow of the connections that we make. That’s been my business always, well, since I graduated into that recession, so that idea of building networks out. So, I do think there is a business model, and this is what I’m working on at Times of Entrepreneurship, that marries the production of high-quality journalism and the trust that it produces with a profit-making network underneath.

Keith: What impact do you think you’ve had as a role model for your daughters?

Elizabeth: I do think that I am a role model for my daughters because I have two super-independent, very adventuresome girls, and I am proud to have raised them. I don’t think that they would be who they are if they hadn’t traveled with me a good bit around the world. So, they accompanied me when they were younger, especially in their elementary school years, on a fair number of my reporting trips. And they’ve always just seen me acting professionally, even when they were little. We used to play a game when they were like three, and I was doing freelance interviews from home, I would say, “We have to pretend that mommy is at the top of a very tall skyscraper. That’s what we’re projecting out to the world.” My older daughter, Lily, rapidly figured out that meant that she could climb up and reach the candy cupboard while I was on the phone and there was nothing that I could do about it. So, I am very conscious of the fact that they’ve been shaped and influenced by being so close to my work and what my work has been.

The best moment of that is when over the summer I was talking about Times of Entrepreneurship to a family friend, talking about it voluminously, which I can do, and then my younger daughter just looked across the table at me and said, “We are really proud of her… And I thought, “That felt really great. I’m very proud of my girls. They’re proud of me. That’s fantastic.”

Keith: Thanks again to Elizabeth MacBride for taking the time to talk with me. She continues to champion the needs of small businesses and startups through the COVID-19 shutdown. You can read the latest on the Times of Entrepreneurship at timesofe.com.


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