What sci-fi and Sir Ernest Shackleton can teach us about entrepreneurship

My last post here was a soft rebuttal of Mr. Evslin’s assertion that entrepreneurs are born and cannot be made. As I said in that post, I never believed that we can arrive at a scientific definition of entrepreneurship. In other words, it is not possible to define the nature of entrepreneurship so completely that we can build a predictive model using that definition.

For me this is readily intuitive for the reason that entrepreneurship is an exclusively human enterprise. Just as we cannot design/build a society without any violent tendencies because of human factor, it is not possible to build a completely accurate predictive model of human behavior. Such an attempt is completely at odds with the concept of “free will” and anyone who brought up a kid knows that free will is as real as gravity! One of the best explorations of this is Isaac Asimov’s Hari Seldon. Hari Seldon is the lead character of the Foundation series and is credited with developing a branch of mathematics called psychohistory.

Using the law of mass action, it can predict the future, but only on a large scale; it is useless for anything smaller than a planet or an empire. Using these techniques, Seldon foresees the fall of the Galactic Empire, which encompasses the entire Milky Way, and a dark age lasting thirty thousand years before a second great empire arises. To shorten the period of barbarism, he decides to create the Foundation, a small secluded haven of technology on the planet Terminus, to preserve knowledge of the physical sciences after the collapse. If done properly, only a thousand years would be required before the next empire is established.

Sometime back today, I was reading an article in HBS Working Knowledge about Sir Ernest Shackleton. To quickly recap, Sir Ernest was the leader of an expedition in 1914 to cross Antarctica. When his ship Endurance becomes hopelessly trapped in pack ice, he redefines his mission to survival instead of crossing the continent. Struggling over the next 2 years, he succeeds in bringing every single person in his 27 member crew back home. A measure of his success is reflected in the fact that 8 members of the Endurance crew signed up for his next expedition to Antarctica.

There’s a definition of entrepreneurship that HBS’s Howard Stevenson pioneered. Many of us have used it at the school. It is, “Entrepreneurship is the relentless pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.” That’s a great definition, and it was true of Shackleton when his objective was to walk across Antarctica.

He had to pursue opportunity. He had no money. His reputation suffered some when the South Pole was discovered in 1911 and that was no longer “a company to found.” There was no longer a continent to conquer. He suffered somewhat when Robert Falcon Scott died on a horrendous journey back from the South Pole in 1912. He realized that Scott would be lionized. And, indeed, Scott became a martyr, a great hero for English history.

This meant that Shackleton was perceived to be out of the loop when he started to raise money. And as the winds of what would become World War I started whipping across Europe, people were less interested in polar exploration. So it was under less than ideal circumstances that Shackleton had to marshal resources: He had to find men, money, a ship, dogs. He had to find someone to help them learn to ski. He had to figure out how to do all this—how to make his dream real, how to bring it out of the ether.

When we teach students about the entrepreneurial journey—which can apply to a manager at a small company or in a large, established organization—we say that entrepreneurs are made, not born, and that entrepreneurship is a way of managing, not necessarily a way of being as a person. Any of us can be an entrepreneur.

I was fascinated with how completely Shackleton’s enterprise had to change once the ship was frozen in the ice. That happens in all kinds of businesses. Anyone who has tried to start a business or manage an existing one knows that you often have to change horses midstream several times if the thing is going to succeed. And those can be big midstream horses—from a new product, to a new CEO, a new set of investors, or a whole new set of customers.

The will of Shackleton or the will of an entrepreneur is present in all of us. The question is not if we can be one; the question is how deeply can we draw from that wellspring of courage, resourcefulness and conviction.

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