*Originally written for the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network Fall 2011 newsletter
“Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
I was bitten by the entrepreneurship bug my sophomore year when I realized that startups can be a part of innovative solutions to society’s most pressing problems. I was attending the StartingBloc Institute in Boston, where young professionals learned how to increase their social impact through their careers, exponentially. There, I met numerous like-minded students who were my age and already founding and growing social ventures. These young founders inspired me to take my first steps into the world of social entrepreneurship.
Previously, I had interned at Root Cause, a nonprofit research and consulting firm. I had also volunteered with several education and social service nonprofits. Through these experiences, I learned a lot about the challenges nonprofits face in trying to serve their beneficiaries under chronic resource shortages. I saw well-intentioned leaders who were passionate about conquering serious social problems but did not have the support and skillset to make their visions a reality. I became truly interested in changing the ways nonprofits and social enterprises maximize their social impact.
Armed with passion and ambition, I set off on my entrepreneurial journey as the Co-Founder and Director of Development of the Seeds Consulting Group, a student-run nonprofit & social enterprise consulting venture. I also became a Class of 1982 Social Entrepreneurship Fellow in order to help a community non-profit, Upper Valley Business & Education Partnership, develop a performance measurement system.
Here are some of the lessons I have learned so far that I wish I knew when I started:
1. Figure out your first things before your second things.
Gregg Fairbrothers speaks frequently about the first things and second things principle. He cautions aspiring entrepreneurs: “you can’t get second things by putting them first. You can only get second things by putting first things first.”
In other words, first things are your why. I admit; they are tough to figure out. But I believe that aspiring young startup founders only cheat themselves by not developing a clear answer to this fundamental question. Without a firm grasp of why you are starting a venture, it is very difficult to stay motivated enough to plow through the obstacles that commonly plague startups.
In my case, I came to Dartmouth with the first thing of changing the world for the better. To make life better and easier for the people that I care about. However, I almost lost sight of this vision because I was sucked in by the herd mentality created by corporate recruiting like many of my peers. Fortunately, I broke away in time, but I had to learn how to filter out the noise so that I could stay razor focused on my vision.
2. Surround yourself with the right people.
As the old adage goes: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
In other words, surround yourself with people whose characteristics you wish to emulate and learn from.
The entrepreneurial journey can be lonely. For aspiring undergraduate founders, not knowing where to go for help and support can really stifle drive. To make this journey easier, join groups where you can meet and share ideas with entrepreneurial individuals. It might be hard to find a group like this, but take initiative.
At Dartmouth, I dreamed of having a “tribe” of undergraduate student entrepreneurs that acted as a support network and social group. I could not find an existing one. So after a couple months of networking and planning, I co-founded a chapter of the Kairos Society, an international network of student entrepreneurs building innovative ventures, with the goal of cultivating this tribe on campus. We have just recently accepted our first cohort of 15 fellows.
3. No one is going to tell you what to do and how to do it.
Startup founders often joke that there is a quickstart guide to starting your own venture.
In reality, no such instruction manual exists. Even if it did, it would be no substitute for experience and the intuition you gain from experience.
For most of my time in college, I made the mistake of applying for numerous prestigious leadership programs, thinking that they could show me steps I needed to take to start my own innovative initiatives.
I was wrong. While these programs were fascinating and helped shape my vision, it was still up to me to piece together all the resources I collected and act upon them to build my own venture. That is why the most valuable advice I received on this topic was “just do it own your own.”
Do not wait for others to tell you what to do. Be hungry. Be self-motivated.