Thursday, May 10, 2007

Entrepreneurship: The art of business

My dad, Charlie Soderquist, passed away in 2004. It is trite and hollow to say he lived a full life. But, he did. He was the best damn entrepreneur I’ve met, and he dedicated much of his “second” life (his last two decades after taking his company public) to supporting his alma matter, UC Davis, and advocating the little guy, entrepreneurs. (He also penned two books, one out-of-print muse about the confluence of art, science and entrepreneurship [The Waring Blender], and another [Sturgeon Tales] detailing the life of Sally Sturgeon and her journeys through the Sacramento River.)

One of my dad’s benevolent causes was the Sacramento Entrepreneurship Academy, a one-of-a-kind nonprofit that has mentored, educated and trained more than 500 college-student entrepreneurs. In 1996 my dad delivered the organization’s commencement address, shared verbatim below. And, I had the honor of sharing the same address with a new class after dad's passing.

Here goes ...

SEA Commencement Speech, 7 May 96
Charlie Soderquist
1240 words

Welcome grads, board, parents, friends.

Dr. Mae Jemmison, the first black female crew member of the space shuttle, gave a talk at UCD last January. She said that the problem with speeches is the following: you have to say something, but you can’t say too much. That’s my dilemma: how do I say something clever in 10 minutes after spending nine months with this class.

Dr. Jemmison illustrated her point with a story of an old lady named Mrs. Brown, whose husband had died. Mrs. Brown took a three-page, single-spaced obituary to the editor of the local newspaper.

“It’s too long,” said the editor, “for I must charge you five-cents per word and you can’t afford it.”

Mrs. Brown grabbed back the pages and wrote across the top of the first page: “Mister Brown died.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Brown,” said the editor, “but that’s too short, we have a seven-word minimum.”

Mrs. Brown again grabbed the papers and added, with finality, at the top: “Red Ford for sale.”

My “seven words” are about the words we use to try to understand this very odd word: entrepreneurship. Each of us – graduates, board members, parents – has a different collection of definitions. I believe that I can stand before you and say with great confidence that I personally hold the Guiness Book of World Records-record for definitions of entrepreneurship. However, whatever the collection of adjectives and adverbs we use, they seem always to apply only to three nouns.

First, the person.
We say things like: Did they display integrity? Work hard? Were they compassionate? Creative?

Second, the result.
We ask: Was it important? Did it create jobs? General good? Something beautiful? Wealth?

Finally, the process.
We comment: was it artful? Was it skillful? Was something else destroyed? Was it risky?

Creative. Wealthy. Risky. These are the adjectives and adverbs. The colors of paint on the painting. Just the colors of paint on the painting. But what is the painting about? What is the essence of painting?

The painting is not about the person, the actual artist. As we know, Van Gogh did a self-portrait. But only one, amongst hundreds of pieces of art. And it’s also quite true that writers write autobiographies. Once. Not even writers are so presumptuous to write a second or third autobiography. The subject – the person – just isn’t that interesting past one read, and multiple biographies would expose the charade of truth telling: that the truth changes.

So I assert that the essence of the painting in question is not the person. As people, we are already too many other things. We are golfers and we are bicycle riders and we are parents and we are lovers.

The painting is also not about the result, for the result is always arbitrary. Only trivial things have exact endings, final results. Try and think of an example of something that truly ends. The lawn is mowed; no, the lawn is never mowed, the lawn starts growing as soon as the mower blades have whacked it. In the case of our painting, the painter just … stops … at the end of a brushstroke. Perhaps because of fading light, the call to dinner, boredom. But the artist could pick up the brush again, and add or subtract. Writers are the worst at this. I can go back to a short story in my computer, add one word, and create a new result. I can make ten different results in one hour. So there is no real end, never a final result to art. One day, the painter just stops.

If the essence is not the person and the essence is not the result, it must be something else. You are a golfer. Is the purpose of golf to complete the final putt on the 18th hole? No. You are a bike rider. Do you ride a bike to get somewhere? Maybe, sometimes, but only when you use a bike, not ride a bike. Have you ever been bike-riding? You are a parent. Try and describe what the result or the end or the completion of that would be. Your death? Theirs?

The essence of important things, like painting and writing, golfing and bicycle riding, cooking and loving … and entrepreneuring … is the process. The process is the only important thing. There is no other choice. To focus on yourself or on the end result is a mistake. There IS NO END. And you already ARE YOU.

Sports are always great metaphors for business lectures. Coaches and team and goals. But look down to the individual level. Basketball. Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, Mitch Richmond. In the art of basketballing, is the result to win the game? Sort of, but which game? What about the next game tomorrow, a hundredth game three years from now? Is the essence of basketball to Dennis Rodman the person Dennis Rodman? We may witness the person of Dennis Rodman in an interview before the game, or endorsing some consumer product after the game, or, most likely, being thrown out of the game. Is that basketball? No.

The essence of basketball is the playing of basketball – ask Jordan or Rodman or Richmond. Here’s another reason why sports analogies word. The word playing. What a perfect word for the process. Playing.

Dear graduates, please play.

As a final note, it is my hope that you do not become butchers, bakers or candlestick makers. It is my wish that you not become an employee of a board member, though they will try to hire you because you are bright and hard working and schooled. Constant diligence is required on this point. Do not become their employee. If they persist, tell them you want to become their partner.

Instead of butchering and bakering and candlestick makering, I want you to do something that no one has ever done before. The Academy – its board, friends, alums, speakers – is not unanimous on this point. That’s OK. But it is my turn to talk, and I would remind us all that this is the graduation of the Sacramento ENTREPRENEURSHIP Academy.

This is not some technical training institute, not an MBA school, not a backside of the matchbook correspondence program. Sacramento and the whole world is already full of smart, young people who can work for someone. SEA didn’t spend hundreds of hours of its time and tens of thousands of its dollars to have you do something that people who were not members of the Academy can and are already willing to do! Maybe I should have told you this in September.

Andy Shapiro, a Santa Fe artist, said, and I quote: “Nobody makes anyone become an artist. You have to be driven. You’re not an artist because you paint – you’re an artist because you have ideas.”

I would add to Shapiro’s quote that you will only find both satisfaction and success if you play at the process. Who you are is irrelevant; you already are who you are. And the results are elusive; there is no end.

All of us here tonight are very, very proud to have been with you in this first year of your membership in the Academy. When you leave here tonight, I ask that you join a team of artists. I suggest that you and this team of artists play at the art of business. The art of business is entrepreneurship.

Thank you and congratulations.

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