To restore the culture of achievement

We drafted a mission statement for Venture for America a number of weeks ago:

To revitalize American cities and communities through entrepreneurship.

To enable our best and brightest to create new opportunities for themselves and others.

To restore the culture of achievement to include value-creation, risk and reward, and the common good.

Though they’re all appropriately ambitious, I think that the third goal is perhaps the most far-reaching and profound and vital to achieving the others.

To restore the culture of achievement to include value-creation, risk and reward, and the common good.

When I was in college at Brown, I had a general desire for status and achievement. In my case, it led me to law school and a job as a corporate attorney in mergers and acquisitions and banking in New York.

That didn’t make me a bad person. I volunteered to do pro bono work as a sign that I was still interested in doing something kind of positive. That was maybe 2% of my time. The other 98% I was grease on a wheel, helping large transactions happen.

We need transaction attorneys to keep the wheels of commerce turning.  But we need more than that.

Our culture of achievement has grown to emphasize visions of success that are, for the most part, fairly predictable. Go to Goldman Sachs/McKinsey/Bain/BCG/Morgan Stanley, then to a top-ranked business school, then back to banking/consulting/private equity/a name-brand tech company. Or in the legal realm, go from law school to top firm to partner or in-house at an investment firm. Live in New York or SF.

People who head down these roads are generally very smart and hard-working. But we need smart and hard-working people to build businesses around the country as much as we need them to process complex transactions.

I was talking to someone who said, “I wanted to take a risk. That’s why I left Google for Foursquare.” This was AFTER Foursquare had just raised millions of dollars and had become a household name in tech circles. I thought to myself, “That’s a risk?” But to this person (who had graduated from Stanford), it probably seemed awfully risky.

Charlie Kroll started his software company as a senior in college with some seed money.  He worked for years in relative uncertainty and obscurity.  He almost went out of business multiple times, and had to figure out what to say to employees if he couldn’t make payroll.  Now, a decade later, his company, Andera is thriving, with 85 employees in Providence.   Jen Medbery is building Kickboard, an education tech company in New Orleans, that is making teachers’ lives better and more efficient and is hiring right now.  Don Naab is the CEO of Danotek Motion in Detroit, which is making more efficient wind turbines using magnets.  These are people who took on significant personal risk in order to build businesses that deliver real value and create jobs. 

We had our applicants and Fellows agree to the following statements as part of their application process:

1. I see my professional pursuits and my career as a moral choice that indicates my values.

2. I appreciate those who assume personal risks in order to build a company or pursue a common good.

3. I believe that actions are the proper measure of one’s accomplishments.

4. I believe that creating value and opportunities for myself and others is an important aspect of professional success.

5. I believe that one’s professional conduct is a reflection of personal character, and will always strive to act accordingly.

These statements likely represented something of a ‘check the box’ for most applicants. But our Fellows are actually demonstrating these values through their actions. They are dedicating the first portion of their careers to building businesses in parts of the country (Detroit, New Orleans, Providence, Las Vegas, Cincinnati) that could use an economic boost. Most of them turned down far more lucrative offers. They’re taking a risk in that the company environments they are heading to are uncertain (and in this 1st year, Venture for America is kind of new). The goal is that most of them over time will become the kind of job creators and business leaders that the country needs.

We need to redefine achievement to include these qualities.   We need more intelligent risk-takers and value-creators who see their communities reflected in the work they do.

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