How to be a great innovator and learn to embrace and thrive in uncertainty

Todd Saxton, Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at IUPUI shares the secret to being a great innovator and entrepreneur. 

Madam C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, was America’s first female self-made millionaire. She pioneered a line of hair care and beauty products for people of color early in the 20th century, and the recent Netflix series “Self Made” details the story of this talented innovator and the challenges she overcame on the way to her success.

Madam Walker

Madam Walker was willing and able to face uncertain situations as she grew her business.
The Smithsonian via Wikimedia Commons

To accomplish her goals, she had to face overwhelming uncertainties. How would she finance her business? Would her partnerships fail? Would her products sell? Would ruthless competition and racism get in her way? Madame Walker’s future was far from certain when she began her journey, but that did not dissuade her.

I am a researcher and professor who studies strategy and entrepreneurship. I am also myself an entrepreneur, angel investor and board member for startups and innovative firms. Pop culture might have you believe it is a tolerance for or even an obsession with risk that makes great innovators. But in fact, research has for decades demonstrated that innovators and entrepreneurs are no more risk-taking than the average person.It is tempting to think that innovators are a breed apart or perhaps lucky to be in the right place and time. But research shows this is not the case. So what characteristics do innovators like Madam Walker have that lead them to the seemingly serendipitous moment? What makes for a successful innovator or entrepreneur?

Generally, innovators are much more comfortable making decisions under conditions of uncertainty than the average person. Additionally, innovators tend to have a set of skills that allows them to better navigate this uncertainty. My experience and research have shown that not only are these abilities effective, but they can also be learned and practiced and anyone can improve their innovation skills.

What is risk? What is uncertainty?

Risk is when the factors determining success or failure are out of your control but the odds of success are known – a game of dice, for example. You can’t control whether a 2 or a 12 is rolled, but you know the odds.

Uncertainty is when the factors determining success or failure are not necessarily out of your control, but are simply unknown. It is accepting a challenge to play a game that you do not completely know the rules of. Innovators tend to be more willing to venture into the unknown, and therefore are more likely to engage in ambitious projects even when outcomes and probabilities are a mystery.

Interestingly, risk and uncertainty appear to trigger activity in different parts of the brain. Functional magnetic resonance imaging has allowed researchers to discover that risk analysis is a largely rational and calculation-driven process, but uncertainty triggers the ancient fight-or-flight part of the brain. This research would suggest that experienced innovators are better able to maintain their analytical capabilities in spite of the adrenaline and instinctual response that arises when confronting uncertainty.

Innovators don’t ignore risk; they are just better able to analyze it in uncertain situations.

Dice with different numbers of sides of different colors.

With dice, the risks are known but out of your control.
Diacritica via Wikimedia CommonsCC BY-SA

Skills of innovation can be learned

The chemical response to risk and uncertainty may be hardwired in our brains, but that doesn’t mean you are either born an innovator or not. Innovative capacity can be learned.

Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen and the late Clay Christensen spent years investigating the characteristics of successful innovators and broadly divide the skills of innovation into two categories: delivery skills and discovery skills.

Delivery skills include quantitative analysis, planning, detail-oriented implementation and disciplined execution. These are certainly essential characteristics for success in many occupations, but for innovation, discovery must come before delivery.

Discovery skills are the ones more involved in developing ideas and managing uncertain situations. The most notable are:

  • The ability to draw connections between seemingly disparate ideas and contexts.
  • A tendency to question assumptions and the status quo.
  • A habit of looking at what is contributing to a problem before rushing to a solution.
  • The frequent use of systematic experimentation to prove hypotheses about cause and effect.
  • The ability to network and broaden a set of relationships, even without an intentional purpose.

Like any skills, these can be learned and cultivated through a combination of guidance, practice, and experience. By asking the right questions, being observant or mindful, experimenting, and networking with the right supporters, innovators will be more likely to identify opportunity and succeed.

My colleagues’ and my own research and experience are summed up in our book “The Titanic Effect.” We describe the PEP model of successful entrepreneurs and innovators. It stands for passion, experience, and persistence.

Successful innovators are passionate about the problem they are solving and share this passion with friends and family, potential customers, supporters, and other stakeholders.

Innovators also tend to have personal experience with the problem they are solving, and this yields valuable insight and firsthand knowledge.

Finally, innovation takes persistence. As Walker experienced, growing a business – even with proven products – does not happen overnight. It takes someone willing to push the boulder uphill to make it happen, and often, the more disruptive the innovation, the longer society may take to embrace it. Madam Walker amply personifies the PEP model.

Innovation now and in the future

During this pandemic, many people might be inclined to batten down the hatches, tighten their belts and ride things out by sticking to what they already know.

But uncertainty and change create opportunity and a need for innovation. The pandemic has created or exacerbated many problems that are ripe for innovative solutions.

Practices that were until recently on the fringe of acceptance – such as telehealth, food or grocery delivery, e-sports and online education – are now being accepted by mainstream society. As with anything relatively new, there is lots of room for radical improvement.

Now is not the time to put blinders on and close your eyes to uncertainty. If you build your discovery skills, you are more likely to create opportunity and persist through uncertainty. Like Walker, anyone can cultivate the abilities to navigate uncertainty and create positive change. Innovators are not a breed apart.The Conversation

You might be interested: Innovative attitude: the 7 keys to becoming an innovative entrepreneur

Todd Saxton, Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, IUPUI

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Nicole Mason shares how Lemonade Day builds confidence in youth through entrepreneurship

Nicole Mason serves as the National CEO of Lemonade Day, a non-profit committed to preparing youth for life by instilling an entrepreneurial spirit. For 15 years, Lemonade Day has offered youth K-8 an entrepreneurial and experiential program infused with life skills, character development, financial and business literacy, and mentorship. Their vision is for all children to be introduced to entrepreneurship through the real-world experience of starting their own business – a lemonade stand, the quintessential first business for young entrepreneurs. 

Embracing the entrepreneurial mindset 

As a proud first-generation college graduate, Nicole grew up in a very entrepreneurial family. Her parents came from modest means, and yet without a college education, they overcame hardship to build a successful international freight forwarding business. Nicole took the core values they instilled in her, along with the experience of watching her mother persevere through the challenges of running and expanding a business in a male-dominated industry, and used those paradigms to guide her into social entrepreneurism. 

“Entrepreneurship is about much more than starting your own business. It’s a mindset – a way to define yourself, interact with the world around you, and make an impact on your community,” said Nicole. “At Lemonade Day, youth entrepreneurship education is a vehicle to teach essential and foundational skills and values. They help youth develop a mindset critical to navigating all aspects of life.”

Lemonade Day helps youth develop a mindset critical to navigating all aspects of life.

Throughout her nearly 20-year career in non-profit, Nicole has taken her entrepreneurial mindset and connected this to the broader community to do good and be a part of something bigger than herself. Before joining Lemonade Day, she spent 12 years working in the affordable housing and homeless services field. That experience helped shape her belief in how incredibly important it is to teach values of entrepreneurship to children, especially minorities and underserved communities. 

“It is imperative to break the cycle of generational poverty,” Nicole said. “Research shows that for every state that experiences a one percent increase in entrepreneurship, they see a two percent drop in the poverty rate.”

Building confidence through entrepreneurship 

Building an entrepreneurial mindset also builds confidence and provides individuals of any age with the tools to achieve success. 

Nicole learned for herself how the entrepreneurial mindset can help strengthen one’s confidence and self-esteem. As a child, Nicole was bullied and felt challenged to fit in with her peers. This had a lasting impact well into adulthood. 

Nicole Mason, National CEO of Lemonade Day. (Photo courtesy Nicole Mason)

“My confidence and feelings of self-worth were strained. I had to navigate preconceived notions and misguided judgments. Imposter syndrome was often triggered. Over time, I learned how to adapt with poise and gravitas by connecting to people from their perceptions. I can’t change who I am, nor how people perceive me, but I can read a situation and respond to it with a tone and countenance that represents respect, consideration, and understanding. This technique has enabled me to overcome challenges and obstacles and inspire others through my passionate spirit,” said Nicole. 

Traditionally, successful entrepreneurs have been comprised of older, Caucaisan men. As a young woman, Nicole learned to embody her petite size and stature and to harness her bubbly, energetic spirit. She soon developed a high level of confidence in her ability to motivate others. Rather than using her energy to fix her shortcomings and try to be someone else, she focused on developing her strengths. 

“I found my voice to stand boldly behind my convictions and persuade people when necessary, not in a manipulative way, but in an intentional way that gets the job done and keeps people engaged and on board.” 

Despite her ability to persuade others, Nicole constantly reminds herself not to become easily discouraged. She promotes with enthusiasm and stands down with grace. She is not afraid to admit fault, nor does she hesitate to seek counsel from trusted mentors. 

“I align myself with strong women, experienced in their field. I allow myself to be vulnerable and transparent. I connect deeply with people. No connection is too small. You simply never know where it might take you,” she said. 

“This is an entrepreneurial mindset at work. This is me as a minority leader – a creative, passionate, colorful, innovative, problem-solver, who hustles in a meaningful and purposeful way to inspire others and enact social change.”

Lemonade Day’s impact on youth development

Through her work at Lemonade Day, Nicole has seen firsthand the effect the program has on youth development of skill-building, self-esteem, confidence, and future life stories. Lemonade Day’s founder, Michael Holthouse often says, “Attributes of a successful entrepreneur correlate to those of being a successful, thriving human being.”

Brianna Garcia named Lemonade Day’s 2021 National Youth Entrepreneur of the Year. (Photo courtesy Nicole Mason)

Nicole shared the story of Brianna Garcia of Lomita, California, a young girl who embodies this mantra. 

“Named Lemonade Day’s 2021 National Youth Entrepreneur of the Year, Brianna followed our 3-pronged approach to set a goal, make a plan, and work the plan to achieve her dreams. By operating her very own business, she learned the important tenets of our program and was encouraged to spend some on herself for her hard work, save some and open a bank account, and share some with a charity of her choice. 

With each and every activity of the program, you can visibly see her self-esteem and confidence grow. She persevered through every challenge and was incredibly innovative to differentiate her business by making frozen lemonade and incorporating another business venture: her handmade necklaces and bracelets and lemon-scented slime. As Brianna proclaims, ‘Now that I have had the chance to run my own stand and see how great being an entrepreneur is, I am going to continue doing it!’ Brianna is now working with her parents and the Lomita Chamber of Commerce President to secure a real business license and kitchen license so she can operate at local events outside of Lemonade Day.

Entrepreneurs take risks, believe they can realize their dream if they work hard, take responsibility, and act as good stewards of their resources. Today’s youth share that optimism but lack the life skills, mentorship, and work experience necessary to be successful. We at Lemonade Day want to build self-esteem and new mindsets that can propel youth to success they likely would not have pursued otherwise.”

For aspiring entrepreneurs of any age looking to achieve success, Nicole says it is important to first define what it means to be successful for you. Determine how you want to leave a great legacy in life. To achieve your dreams, be sure to align yourself with a purpose and with people who share your core values. 

Leave your heart in each encounter in life, maximize the beauty of connecting with others, and use your talents to be a part of something bigger than yourself. Then rock it like no other with grace, humility, dignity, elegance, and integrity. And don’t forget to have fun and celebrate often!”


entrepreneur skills

Beyond COVID-19: Prepare your entrepreneur skills for the survival of the fittest

Understanding how your entrepreneur skills need to change in a dynamic global world cannot be more essential than at this time of COVID-19. Even if you have a job, you should consider these changes in your professional skills for a changing world.

entrepreneur skills

(Photo credit by Simone Viani on Unsplash)

The expression “every cloud has a silver lining” (no hay mal que por bien no venga, similar in Spanish) means that even the worst events or situations have some positive aspect of which you can take advantage to make the necessary changes for the success of your business.

Many entrepreneurs will lose their sales and market share, others will have to definitely close their doors, and many will hopefully be able to quickly adjust to the new conditions.

Companies are starting to lay off employees and trying to adjust to the new working conditions in order to maintain their stake. However, this is not going away too soon, and the economic consequences can be as devastating as the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

Is your SWOT in place?

If you are familiar with the SWOT analysis, as you should be, you know that the O stands for Opportunities and the T stands for Threats. Every small business owner must be in constant alert of changes in their market or current clients, their potential market or future clients, and the current regional, national and global change of affairs.

In that way, you can make adjustments to the way you conduct your business, find opportunities to offer new products that are needed by your customers, and especially, prepare your entrepreneur skills to respond to these changes.

A personal story about not “seeing it coming”

One of the “lessons learned” that I regret the most was the loss of our publication, Periodico Latino!, the first side-by-side bilingual newspaper in New Jersey. Following my passion for writing, I started the publication as a small pamphlet to promote and advertise our business.

However, the publication took off and soon we went from 8 to 32 pages, mailing it for free to over 8000 households in Central New Jersey, and distributing another 8000 issues through churches, bodegas, marketas, Latino restaurants, and more. It was an expensive undertaken, and we paid dearly for it.

It was the early 2000s, and I could have quickly jumped into a digital version of the publication. The Internet was starting to grow and many publishers were going into that direction. I stayed with paper, and we had to fold the publication almost three years later.

entrepreneur skills

(Image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay)

Change your priorities with new entrepreneur skills

So, what is the silver lining in the COVID-19 situation? Let’s quickly review new entrepreneur skills necessary to survive in the new world. You can also follow these guidelines if you have a job or are looking for a job.

  1. Identify your strengths and weaknesses and work on them

As a business owner, you wear many hats all the time. However, it is essential that you understand your personal and professional strengths and weaknesses. This knowledge will help with your business decisions, the partnerships you can bring on, and where and when to find the exact help you need.

Take this time to identify your business and your strengths and weaknesses. Set up a contingency plan to make quick decisions. Are there areas that can be automated? Do you need to reinforce your online presence? Can you quickly innovate or create products -for instance, digital products or services- that can serve your customers now and in the future? Can you find new sources of revenue that will help your business survive and even thrive in times like this one?

  1. Work at having a strong personal and/or business brand

Having a strong personal and/or business brand has become the only way that your business or you -if you are looking for a job- can stand out from the crowd.

Customers are looking for a brand they can identify with for its values, its products, its customer friendliness and the extended-value or satisfaction that can bring them to being associated with a brand that represents them well. Learn from sports and try to understand why you root for your favorite baseball or football team!

On the same token, customers will look for brands that take leadership and care for their customers at the time of need. What can you do during this time to let your customers -current and potential- know that you care for their situation (instead of feeling sorry for yourself about the financial misery you’re going through)?

Large employers as well as small businesses favor employees and new hires that demonstrate leadership and caring for their brand. Ideally, your personal brand should have some overlap with the company or business brand you work for.

Stop obsessing over social media and bad news, and work on ways you can present your business or yourself as a brand that makes a positive change in the world. When your self-improvement is your top priority, you’ll find yourself ready to thrive in any circumstance! 

  1. More than ever, rely on the Internet to conduct your business

If  you are not already there, you need to quickly start having a strong online presence. “Social distance” is causing many businesses to fail due to the needed interpersonal relationship with customers. Adding some of these entrepreneur skills will help you in maintaining that relationship now and always.

  • Increase your offering online and make your customers look for your choices and continue the relationship you had in person.
  • Even in bad times, coupons and discounts help people take advantage of those offers while ordering regular priced items. For instance, if you are in the food industry, empty supermarkets and fear of contagion will help your business thrive with targeted delivery options!
  • If you have not done it yet, build your customer database immediately! Email, texting and even telemarketing can rapidly create response to your offers.
  • Continue to contact your customers regularly with personal videos about your concern for them, what you are doing to keep up with the times, and how you’d want to continue your relationship with them. Offer a video with an extra class or idea about your business.  Telling them about your values and your concern will keep your business fresh in their memory!
  • Social selling is a paramount part of your business success so invite people to make comments and engage them in a conversation about ways to overcome their fears and boredom!
  • Along with your online presence, social networks represent a key part of any business’s marketing strategy. Make an effort to understand how each platform works, you’ll want to arm yourself with the best strategies for getting your startup and personal brand noticed on each one.

You might be interested: SBA provides Disaster Assistance Loans for Coronavirus impacted small businesses by states

entrepreneur skills

(Image by Rob de Roy from Pixabay)

We are living in a new world, and we will see the actions and consequences of these events more frequently. Man-made diseases and natural disasters are forcing us to quickly learn new ways of survival and adaptation.

The old phrase “the survival of the fittest” continues to be truth.

However, Michael Le Page, a reporter at New Scientist, tells us, “although the phrase conjures up an image of a violent struggle for survival, in reality the word ‘fittest’ seldom means the strongest or the most aggressive. On the contrary, it can mean anything from the best camouflaged or the most fecund to the cleverest or the most cooperative. Forget Rambo, think Einstein or Gandhi.”