Scholar Looks at the Role of New Entrepreneurs

Scholar Spotlight on Public Policy Scholar Amy Wilkinson

Sep 07, 2011
By
Amy Wilkinson

What drives innovation in a globally linked economy? Amy Wilkinson, a public policy scholar at the Wilson Center, has identified six aptitudes required for innovators to be effective, including spotting opportunities, managing speed, networking minds, and failing wisely.

Wilkinson, who is also a senior fellow at Harvard University in the Center for Business and Government, is under contract with Simon & Schuster for a forthcoming book that focuses on how globalization, technology, and a shift in public service models create new paradigms for rising leaders. For the book, which looks at entrepreneurial leaders across sectors, she has conducted some 250 interviews with entrepreneurs, business leaders, and innovators in government.

“There is a deep divide between business and government leaders,” said Wilkinson, “but can their mindsets and skill sets be compatible?” This question goes to the core of her research, as she delves into what it takes for leaders to succeed.

There increasingly are compelling reasons why business and government leaders must work together. “The recession made this all the more important,” said Wilkinson. As the United States stood on the cusp of the debt ceiling crisis, as the stock market cycles with volatility, and as even the nonprofit sector feels the pinch, she notes the need for hybrid solution sets. No one sector can solve major problems alone.

Wilkinson said a new generation is emerging that she calls “Generation Good.” At one time, the social sector primarily was involved in benevolent change on such issues as education and the environment. But now, she said, “Whether you’re a business or social entrepreneur, you can influence positive outcomes.”

 For her interviews, Wilkinson chose high-level people who started a new venture and can boast at least five years of success. “These people had to have impact; I call them leaders on the front lines of the future,” she said. The new venture had to reach more than 100,000 people. Those on the private side had to claim at least $100 million in revenue; on the public side, they were at least assistant secretaries or mayors and above. She interviewed the founders of eBay, leaders of Facebook, and others in the Silicon Valley sector, as well as many in the social and public service sectors.

From her research, Wilkinson noted similarities between highly effective leaders across business, government, and nonprofit organizations. “They have the same adaptability and anticipation skills,” she said. “To shape meaningful outcomes, forward-looking leaders take macro trends more seriously now. They utilize technology to have virtual, as well as physical, presence; and they hone an ability to communicate globally.”

One interesting business model was PayPal, a concept that began with the idea of beaming money transactions across encrypted software on Palm Pilots. When that idea failed, the PayPal team reinvented their business seven times before selling it to eBay for more than $1 billion despite the troubled economy of 2001. Even more telling, the original PayPal team went on to create YouTube, LinkedIn, Yelp, Digg, Slide, and Tesla Motors and became the first financial backers of Facebook and several other social media innovations.

“They learned how to iterate concepts in a fast-moving marketplace,” Wilkinson said. “They found the secret sauce, then replicated it in the next wave of successes. It shows that to compete in a globalized world, you need an ecosystem. Find your people, iterate ideas in your community, and that is how you succeed.”