I was in Budapest in July of 1990. The Berlin Wall had fallen less than a year before, and the republics once behind the Iron Curtain such as Hungary had started moving away from state led socialism and started freeing their economies. This was the time when the Soviet troops had just started leaving the country four months prior, and would continue to do so for another year. As I walked on one of the majestic promenades overlooking the Danube in what appeared to have been truly a gem of a city in the past, dozens of very humbly dressed older peasant women stood lined up side by side, each one of them holding up with both hands their beautifully crafted embroidered tapestries, unfolding them wide for me and all the passersby to view. Each lady was holding one piece. There were no tables, no bags, and no additional displays. You could stand in front of them and they did not blink, they did not talk. They just held the item in their hands, like mannequins, like human display stands, waiting for someone to notice and, I guess, to make a sale. We were foreigners with means, with money, with the ability to help them earn a day’s wages in an economic arrangement that at the time was still foreign and maybe even uncomfortable to them. There was no eye contact, no hustling, no advertising, no pitching, and no attempt at anything assertive. This slightly surreal image from this experience is forever etched in my memory. It was as if the value they were holding in their hands was higher than their intrinsic individual value as human beings. These ladies could hand craft these amazing works of art, but the concept of getting their product noticed, or even project their presence and value offer in order to be noticed within a “market” was less than rudimentary, it was absent. It had been crushed by decades of personal entrepreneurial and economic suppression via the enshrining of the value of the collective over the individual. Everybody looked, dressed and acted the same; there was no boldness, no diversity.
Five days ago I hosted a corner booth at SUP-X in the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention Center and met countless people who came by to learn about our programs. I also connected with many of the entrepreneurs who we have already helped launch their businesses through the Innovation Hub at Broward College. I had a great time as I greeted all my good friends from the startup, mentor and angel investor communities. The greatest thing about conferences and entrepreneurship events like SUP-X in Fort Lauderdale, Innovate Downtown in Coral Springs, Spark in Hollywood, eMerge Americas and Unbound Miami is that they become common ground for greatly diverse individuals, all with different origins, backgrounds and upbringings, to each one pursue the same collective goal that unites them at a mindset level: unleashing at their maximum their individual human potential, lifting themselves and the people they care for, and those who they can non-coercively associate with, to a better life and a better world.
One of the pitches that caught my attention during the final competition at SUP-X was started by a little boy that could not have been older than 14. He did a great job for the first couple of minutes while everyone was getting over the surprise, and then presented his cofounder (his dad), who continued the pitch until the end. It was a great attention grabbing tactic, and I liked the pitch and the company.
If you have been paying any attention, you would know that the number of programs and efforts to teach entrepreneurial skills to our young has exploded in the US and continues to do so. The economic advantage for social mobility through entrepreneurship, thanks to our institutional framework of government and laws, is one of the things that set us apart as a nation. Entrepreneurial minded individuals in the rest of the world are watching and looking for ways to lay roads to pursue the same overarching goal of unlocking their full human potential, whether through building businesses, building families, serving others through charity, or any of the myriad ways anyone can use their given talents to improve the world.
Yesterday a group of a dozen or so young students from a university in China came to tour the incubator – I would say they were around 18 or 19 years old. I asked them if they knew what an entrepreneur was, and nobody raised their hand. I asked if any of them wanted to start a business. Nobody raised their hand again. I’m sure there were aspiring entrepreneurs in the group, perhaps they were just shy. I proceeded to explain what an incubator was and what we did here for entrepreneurs that wanted to build companies. I told brief stories of Citrix and Ultimate software (as examples of home grown Broward County companies) and then I told stories of local successes like Magic Leap’s capital raise, and Chewy flying under the radar and scaling right here in Plantation to be acquired for $3.35 billion 7 years later by PetSmart. I told them that in South Florida, we are at the epicenter of entrepreneurial activity. At the end of my short talk, they were all very grateful, and some in awe or I’d like to believe excited about what we do, how we do it, and why we do it, and the reason we can do it.
It is in our culture to pursue the unleashing of human potential. It is in our nature as humans. We need to teach it to our young. That is the only way it stays as part of our culture. I know because I’ve met and experienced people from other cultures who either lost the urge within their humanity or were not made aware that it resides within them. You most probably know this, and would not let somebody else tell you otherwise. Now it is your turn to make the younger or doubtful aware, and to preserve it going forward.