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A Message from Dan Isenberg

Let me start by saying that I am honored and humbled to be a part of this new project, OPEN for Enterprise, which we will start right here in Milwaukee. Although I was born close by in Chicago (longer ago than I care to think about) and visited Wisconsin’s lakes for vacations as a 3-year-old, I am a complete newcomer and have a lot to learn.  I am here in Israel for Passover with my kids, something I could not change to be with you.

I have been engaged in almost every aspect of entrepreneurship over the past three decades, as an educator, researcher, author, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, angel investor, and as a change agent and policy advisor. I mention those things not to boast, actually, quite the opposite: despite that experience, formulaic answers to fostering entrepreneurship remain elusive. We know that when entrepreneurship takes root and grows in any region, such as it appears to have done in Milwaukee’s past, as well as present to some extent, it is an incredibly powerful force, spinning off employment, creating wealth, contributing taxes, and even boosting innovation, social awareness, and philanthropy.

Yet, despite its intrinsic elusiveness (it is the “job” of entrepreneurs, so to speak, to surprise the market) we know a few things about entrepreneurship in society, some of which are surprising as well.

  1. One is that we know that it is actually a very small number of high growth ventures which spin off the huge majority of all of the potential social and economic benefits of entrepreneurship. The latest and growing evidence from many countries around the world is very clear that small business per se does not do it even though it is important. It is a small number of young and rapidly growing businesses that contribute jobs and wealth disproportionately.
  2. Second, they can come from anywhere, and as I said, these entrepreneurs almost always baffle and surprise us and the market. They can come from any sector, be it technology, services, manufacturing, trade, finance—anything.
  3. Third, we know that there is no society without entrepreneurship – the drive to grow, to achieve, without the ambition to innovate, make an impact on markets and society. Entrepreneurship is part of the human condition. I have been to numerous of regions where they have told me, “we don’t have the entrepreneurial spirit. We used to, maybe, but we have lost it.” But when you look, it is there, lurking under the surface, with the potential to burst out and express itself.
  4. Fourth, that means that our biggest challenge together, is to help foster the conditions in which that completely natural human endeavor can be unleashed, and that ventures can grow rapidly and scale up. Now it probably won’t surprise you to hear me say that there is no recipe – fostering entrepreneurship is not an engineering problem like building a bridge. It is a cultivation problem, and yes, it can be fostered, accelerated, and catalyzed.
  5. Fifth, it turns out, that start-up is relatively easy compared to scale-up. That is why we are tentatively calling your project Scale-Up Milwaukee . Of course, without Start-ups you can’t have scale-ups, but we have to develop and maintain a clear focus on the end goal – it is scale, about aspiration, about growth.
  6. Sixth, this is Milwaukee’s project and you will have to name it. You will have to drive it. We can help, I think we can help a lot. But one of our early tasks is going to be to help facilitate common understandings, engagement and alignment of vision among a broad group of stakeholders, including private sector actors, investors, entrepreneurs, educators, large corporations, government etc. My impression – forgive me if I am wrong, but I spend all of my time in cities throughout the world – is that just one of the assets I think exists here is the collaborative atmosphere among various private and public sector groups. I am not saying that it is a paradise, but it is something that I do not take for granted.

Finally, I realize that there are many open questions about what and who and where and how. I will be in Milwaukee in mid-April to start rolling up our sleeves; and we will then kick off the program with a public event on May 6.   I am excited about working with you to address and invent answers to these questions. From my experience in other cities, it will require experimentation, confidence, commitment and collaboration. An entrepreneurship ecosystem cannot be created. It is not an engineering problem, it is a cultivation problem. Thank you for the opportunity to work with you to cultivate all of the natural entrepreneurial assets that you have.

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Daniel Isenberg is a Babson Global Professor of Entrepreneurship Practice and the founding executive director of the Babson Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Project (BEEP). His new book is Worthless Impossible and Stupid: How Contrarian Entrepreneurs Create and Capture Extraordinary Value (Harvard Business Press, July 2013).  BEEP creates projects around the world to foster substantially greater levels of entrepreneurship in specific regions. Daniel is also Adjunct Professor at Columbia Business School and teaches Innovation for Economic Development at the Harvard Kennedy School, and has been a visiting professor at Insead, Reykjavik University, and the Technion. He has been a venture capitalist and entrepreneur, and is an active angel investor. For more information, visit www.entrepreneurial-revolution.com. Daniel Isenberg has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Harvard University.