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Jean and Steve Case on a Rise of the Rest tour stop in New Orleans
Jean and Steve Case on a Rise of the Rest tour stop in New Orleans

Traveling America, the willingness to risk for real solutions is everywhere

Urgency pushes us to ‘be fearless’ and take risks for bold new ideas in our towns and in our lives – particularly when there is opportunity for transformational change.

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One of the most exciting things about being on the road for the Be Fearless book tour has been seeing how deeply people feel the urgency of this moment and how committed they are to engaging to find real solutions in their neighborhoods, towns and in their lives. It’s clear we live in divided times, not just in the United States, but across the globe. Time and again, I have seen a true desire to overcome the paralysis that can set in when life is overwhelming, and problems seem too hard to solve. That burning impatience or agitation to find a better way forward for our communities, our nation and our world is universal, and I have witnessed it wherever I travel.

In words and action, people are saying that we need a more fearless America and a more fearless world where more individuals and institutions allow urgency to push them to boldly take forward new ideas and solutions. Instead of complacency, I’ve seen more people than ever moved to let the urgency of the moment conquer their fears and, based on these experiences, I am optimistic that Americans have not lost their appetite for risk, particularly when they see the opportunity to make transformational changes.

Risk is everywhere

This is the attitude that has anchored every one of the stops that my husband, Steve, has seen as he has led with his Rise of the Rest bus trips and that Steve and I have seen as we have visited towns on our annual RV trips. As we roll from site to site, we explore small towns, local haunts, monuments, and parks, discovering the tapestry of America. Last year, we drove across the country and back. The year before, we stayed a little closer to home, meandering through the small towns of Pennsylvania, New York, and Virginia, covering 1,800 miles.

We saw the face of America in many intimate encounters during these trips. There were those who were blunt about the lack of hope they saw. For example, at one stop we were greeted by a woman who exclaimed, “I don’t know what you’re doing here, but if you had any sense you’d get right back in your truck and go back to where you came from. Nothing good comes from this town.”

But for every negative comment we heard, there were two or three positive ones that offered unique perspectives and made us smile. Like the Mennonite family of nine homeschooled kids that operates an organic store along the highway, or the mother of two preschoolers who, when learning of our RV camping trip and nights spent at beautiful state parks, was filled with admiration. “Why,” she asked, “would anyone pay a fortune to stay in hotel rooms when the most beautiful places are in our state and national parks, and only cost twenty to thirty dollars a night?” She had a point.

And throughout the communities we drove through and visited, we saw examples of people from all backgrounds taking risks to try to get ahead. They were pushing forward with new companies, launching small businesses and reviving or maintaining entities that were key to the vitality for their communities. From Omaha, Nebraska, to Fargo, North Dakota, and from the coal country of eastern Pennsylvania to the mountains of Idaho, there are examples of risk takers and innovators seeking to push forward and taking risks every day.

In particular, two examples, Pittsburgh and Detroit, come to mind. I found on a recent visit, in the former steel town of Pittsburgh, a unique combination of start-up accelerators, universities, tech companies, and investors intent on creating the city’s resurgence. This is the reason Ford pledged to invest $1 billion over five years in a Pittsburgh-based company specializing in artificial intelligence and autonomous car engineering, and Google has a significant presence in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh innovators range from Courtney Williamson, the founder of AbiliLife, a biomedical company that engineers devices for Parkinson’s patients; to Vaish Krishnamurthy of CleanRobotics, whose Trashbot uses artificial intelligence to sort recyclables from waste; to Matthew Stanton and Hahna Alexander, cofounders of SolePower, a technology that uses a foot-powered, energy-generating insole to charge portable devices – something of particular interest to the U.S. Army.

Detroit is also experiencing an epic rebirth, led by visionaries like Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, who moved his company and all of its employees to the city after the 2008 economic crisis. He has invested heavily in Detroit real estate, helped dozens of start-ups, and now employs an estimated 17,000 people. Detroit’s renaissance is also thanks to unlikely collaborations between the public and private sectors – particularly leading philanthropies, including the Kresge, Ford, and Kellogg Foundations, whose commitment to bringing all sectors of society to the table has been key to the broad impact the city’s economic and social revitalization has had. Because of these joint efforts, Detroit is fighting its way back, and the optimism coming from this city sets a great model for others. New skills and a new way of thinking about work are being created in the shadow of the once-great automobile industry.

Making risk part of the process

Few people are inclined to run toward risk. Instead, I often hear people ask, “How can we minimize or eliminate risk?” But what if we substituted the term “research and development” for “risk taking”? When you change the image from a reckless act to an intentional, sometimes incremental process, the fear lessens. Rather than a matter of life or death, risk becomes part of the process of discovery.

Fear is a powerful force and our brains are wired to avoid risk. In humanity’s early days, physical danger was ever present, so our brains adapted to tell us when we needed to fight or run away. Today, we need to help our brains go through a different exercise, asking ourselves: “What’s the downside of the risk? What’s the upside of the risk? What’s the downside of doing nothing?”

Everyone has a different tolerance for risk, and we need to remember that measured risk can be very different than “bet-the-farm” risk. Sometimes dipping a toe in the water is the best way to get comfortable with the idea of experimentation. In my work with more risk-averse organizations, I often suggest they think about making a limited investment, putting aside maybe only 1% of their budget for special projects to test out a new idea. In this way, risk stops being scary and becomes R&D.

Talk to private sector CEOs and they will be quick to point out that R&D is the lifeblood of innovative companies. Yes, some things will fail as you discover what works and what doesn’t. But as Albert Einstein reportedly said, “You never fail until you stop trying.” This is true whether you’re launching a program, developing a product, or starting a movement. I’ve often heard people from the social sector protest, “But we don’t have funding for R&D!” My response is to remind them of the words of one of our greatest modern-day innovators, Steve Jobs: “Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least one hundred times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.” You don’t need a big budget in order to experiment.

Equal access to risk

American ingenuity has brought us the quality of life we enjoy today, and calculated risk has always been at the center of the American Experience. However, while risk is supported and encouraged in certain sectors – Silicon Valley is just one example – this support is not equally available to all. Research shows that women and people of color disproportionately lack access to the capital, support, and networking that young companies need to grow. By failing to give all aspiring entrepreneurs the same advantages, we may very well be stifling the creators of the next great innovations.

The numbers are stark: In recent years, only 10% of venture capital–backed companies have had a female founder and, in 2018, Pitchbook reported that only 2.2% of all VC capital – the jet fuel that many companies need to scale – went to companies with female founders. Less than 1% of these companies have an African American founder. And more than 75% of all venture capital went to just three states – California, New York, and Massachusetts – leaving the rest of the country to compete for just a quarter of the pie. And yet those 47 under-funded states have produced hundreds of Fortune 500 firms, proving that great companies can be built anywhere.

Current data suggest that the fastest-growing segment of entrepreneurs are women, followed closely by African Americans and Hispanics. Female-owned firms are growing at 1.5 times the national average, while African American-owned firms are growing at a rate of 60%. (Non-minority-owned businesses are growing at a rate of just 9%.) And there is a lot of evidence that these businesses often out-perform their counterparts. One venture capital firm found that the female-led start-ups it funded performed 63% better than those with all-male founding teams. Good thing, then, that there are more than 9 million such companies today.

We have the opportunity to energize our economy by expanding our reach when it comes to investing in promising new companies. If we seize this opportunity to democratize entrepreneurship and build more inclusive businesses, we will strengthen our economy and make sure that anyone from anywhere has a fair shot at the American dream. That means being fearless in disrupting the status quo – not just in business, but all across our culture.

The great conductor Zubin Mehta once said there was no place for women in orchestras. Fortunately, not everyone agreed. In the 1950s, the Boston Symphony Orchestra was the first to hit on the idea of holding auditions with the performers behind a curtain. Unable to see the musicians, judges based their choices solely on talent. Other orchestras followed suit, and most orchestras do blind auditions today. Not surprisingly, researchers have found that blind auditions in the first round of tryouts improve a woman’s likelihood of advancing to later rounds by 50%. When blind auditions are held in all rounds, the likelihood of a woman being chosen triples. Today women sit in more than 50% of all orchestra chairs.

If we took the same approach and allowed women and people of color the same access to capital and encouragement to embrace calculated risk, we would ensure the American Dream is available to all and we would expand our economic growth in completely new ways.

“The Risk Optimistic” is about belief: the assurance that taking a chance is worthwhile, even without knowing the outcome. It’s also the belief that if we value and support risk – in policy, community, and culture – we benefit from each person’s ability to make choices to achieve success. With this initiative, Kauffman kicks off 2020 with insights, stories, and opportunities to explore what it means to take risks, and own your own success, however you choose to define it.


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