The entrepreneurial mindset does not discriminate.
Last week I visited a prison of life-sentenced men. Our Toastmasters club sponsors a program for inmates who are up for parole after 20, 30 or even 40+ years of incarceration. Chris Wolfe, the person who has run the group for nearly a decade invited another club member and me to judge a speech contest among 16 men. The theme was salesmanship and the men were challenged to come up with a product or service to sell to the group. In addition to the speech contest, the larger theme was entrepreneurship. Another guest and I were invited to speak about the entrepreneurial mindset. My revelation that night was that talent does not discriminate. In much the same way that a homeless person’s pet dog doesn’t know or care that he’s homeless, he just LOVES his master, talent and creativity don’t know that these men are in prison. The speeches that night would rival anything you’d see on “Shark Tank,” at a “makers” group or at any startup incubator across the country.
So, if a group of prison inmates are entrepreneurial, what does it take to cultivate the entrepreneurial mindset? As I spoke to the men, I was reminded of something I’d discussed at the reinvention workshops I’ve given to laid off Baby Boomers: There just isn’t much difference between problem solving — something we all do day in and day out — and developing an entrepreneurial mindset which is solving problems or finding solutions to problems for people. However, most people are very resistant and think of themselves as “nontrepeneurs,” rather than giving themselves credit for finding solutions to problems and making the connection between problem solving and the entrepreneurial mindset.
How do you make the leap from problem solving to providing a product or a service?
When faced with the hurdle of trying to reenter the job market after a lay off, most people bang their head against the wall and somehow believe that the perfectly tweaked resume or the most impressive LinkedIn profile will make or break their job chances. While both those things are important, I ask that people stretch themselves and “think outside the job.” Spend some time developing an entrepreneurial mindset by studying people who have identified a problem and provided a solution. See if you don’t come away inspired by these examples:
- William Kamkwamba, a 14-year-old boy in Uganda who couldn’t continue going to school because his parents’ farm was failing due to lack of water and they couldn’t pay the $35 school fees. He walked 8 miles to a library and found a book on building a windmill, built that windmill and used wind power to create electricity to power a pump that could irrigate the entire neighborhood’s farms.
- Captain Slim Cummings – A commercial airline pilot who encountered frightened flyers; he worked with his wife Carmen, a gifted mental health counselor to create a fearful flying program…and was so successful that he was interviewed by the Today Show…and many others…sold audio and video tapes and helped thousands of people get over their fear of flying.
- Jose Perez – A valet in a condominium who started a pet-sitting business because all the residents kept asking him if he knew someone who could take care of their pets while they were out of town. He leveraged the built-in trust that people had with him and created a thriving business.
- Tammy Hertz – Nurse who created a consulting business setting up new doctors’ offices with all of her familiarity with the processes and procedures and licensing
- Jen Jacobs – Anesthesiologist – Similar story; she worked in a hospital, but moonlighted as an expert who would go into plastic surgeon’s offices and advise them about the required policies and procedures needed for elective surgery
- Pamela Hersh – Interior Designer – Found a new market creating “aging in place” designs for elderly people who wanted to redesign their homes with safe, but not unattractive or handicapped railings, etc.
- Eleanor Hoh – Previous cooking school owner – created a business out of teaching people healthy Chinese cooking based on her heritage: goes by the moniker of “Wok Star.”
- John Heinz – Previous cell phone employee – took his phone expertise and became a “phone-cierge” who could advise and help people set up their new smart phones
- Brian Scudamore – Started 1-8oo-Got-Junk with $700 and a few fliers – now business is worth $100 million with more than 300 locations in Canada, Australia and the U.S.
And keeping with the original prison theme, check out this recent NY Times story about recently released prisoner, Coss Marte who started training heavily to lose weight while in prison. He’d been told by the prison physician that unless he lost weight, he was headed for a lifetime of ill health. After being released and in between his internship at Goodwill and cleaning toilets at a hotel at night, Marte worked out on the street using whatever “equipment” he could find. One day an out of shape passer-by asked Marte if he could train with him and he told him, yes for a price. The guy returned with $200.00 for a month’s worth of training and others soon asked to join in. Marte seized the opportunity and launched ConBody which now provides 40 classes a week to ~400 people. In a short period of time, the group lost 1000 pounds. Problem solved.