America has always been a country of entrepreneurs, at least in theory. It is, after all, here that the Henry Fords, John D. Rockefellers, Sam Waltons, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates of the world built their empires. Rockefeller transformed the petroleum industry, Ford revolutionized manufacturing, Walton’s stores sell consumer products at prices few can beat and Gates and Jobs forever changed the world of personal computing. Each created something where there was nothing before, and made millions in turn, profiting from the innovations which changed our very way of life.
It’s this personification of the American Dream that fascinated me even as a young girl, long before I moved to the States with my family at age 11. Ten years later, I’m still enchanted by the entrepreneurial spirit that, although by no means unique to the United States, truly is the hallmark of what was (perhaps until recently) the most free market country in the world.
I was reminded again of this the other day as I met up for coffee with one of the brightest young entrepreneurs I know. Brian Riley, a Cal Poly business administration senior, is one of those rare people that you talk to for an hour one day and feel better about the future of the world for the rest of the week.
At just 21 years old, Brian recently co-founded Conceptualized Engineering, Ltd. along with Andrew Ouellet, a mechanical engineering junior. When he partnered with Brian, Andrew’s invention — an anti-lock system for bike brakes — took first place in Cal Poly’s Ray Scherr Business Plan competition this year. Brian is taking this quarter off of school so he can nurture the fledgling company and the two are working on licensing and taking their product to market. If their venture succeeds, the two young entrepreneurs not only stand to make a lot of money, but also to literally revolutionize the biking market; their invention could prevent thousands of the most common biking accidents that occur around the world every year.
The first time Brian and I met, at your run-of-the-mill college keg party — and while the rest of our fellow party goers idly talked about the usual things one talks about at a party — the two of us chatted about the economy. Despite the few beers in each of us, it was one of the most intellectual conversations I’d had in a while. I was impressed. As I got to know him better, I was even more impressed. The guy’s a wealth of knowledge on anything from short selling shares to behavioral economics. His bookshelf is overflowing with business and how-to books. He dines out with some of California’s most successful businessmen and women and always seems to be taking off to some kind of business seminar or conference. In other words, he’s got entrepreneur written all over him.
Wanting to catch some words of wisdom from him before he jetted off for yet another business meeting, I turned my voice recorder on when I recently met up with him and asked him to share some advice for his fellow Cal Poly students.
He believes that entrepreneurship is an “engrained” personality trait, but that many people don’t choose to nurture it. “Even when I was a little kid, I was always fascinated when I heard people talk about business. I heard people talk about starting up new ventures, and I was there, I wanted to hear about it.”
When he was in junior high, he asked his mom if, instead of doing chores to earn his weekly allowance, he could figure out a way to make money on his own. In sixth grade, he took a Web design class at Sacramento State and created a basketball Web site that earned money from pay-per-click advertising. In high school, he taught himself video editing and made wedding and other movies for money.
“By the time I got to college, I kind of knew that I had something in me that wanted to be entrepreneurial — I knew I wanted to do my own thing,” he said.
At Cal Poly, Brian joined Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE), a nonprofit organization that connects students and business leaders to educate others on economics and business through outreach projects.
“That gave me the infrastructure; it made me realize that I could work with other people around me and build teams,” he said.
“It also gave me the confidence that I could do this in school. A lot of people think that they can be entrepreneurs but that they have to get a job first and go work somewhere for a while and then do it later. But I wanted to do it while I was young,” he added.
“If you go for it while you’re young, you really have nothing to lose. If you go bankrupt, you’re going to lose your iPod and your mountain bike and your pair of speakers. You’re not going to lose your job and your wife and your house.”
I’ve met other people like Brian before, but they’re few and far between. Not very many people have the smarts and the courage it takes to go their own way, to break out of the security of a stable career path and to venture out into the rocky, winding road of entrepreneurship, where both risks and rewards lie waiting around every bend. As Brian joked, “If anybody could be an entrepreneur, who would work for people like me?”
But as I’ve learned from Brian and the rare others like him that I’ve had the opportunity to befriend, there are entrepreneurial characteristics in all of us. The difference is that people like him choose to nurture those traits. He understands, too, that the education he needs for his future, won’t come pre-written for him in a textbook; uncharted territory by definition has no map.
“You can teach yourself anything,” he said. “Read as much as you can. Be interested in a lot of things. Soak it all in.”
“A lot of people know they have it in them, and it just takes a couple of steps and a couple of events to make it happen,” he continued. “Some of the best advice someone gave me once is ‘just show up.’ If you hear about something that you think may present an opportunity, show up and check it out.”
Entrepreneurs look for opportunities in life. They see a problem and they think of a way to solve it. If they’re successful, they stand to make soaring profits. If they fail, they lose everything they’ve invested in their project. It’s persistence and resilience that makes them bounce back after a failure and try again.
British entrepreneur Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin empire (which encompasses everything from Virgin Records to Virgin Airlines to Virgin Cola), has always been one of my entrepreneur-heroes. He takes risks like it’s nobody’s business, jumping from one industry to the next; a record label one minute, space travel the next. I’m sure Branson would agree with Brian when he says, “My opportunity radar is always on.”
Take the time to network with your peers in college. Seek out the best of them — the future Martha Stewarts or Warren Buffets — and take him or her out to coffee. Even if you learn nothing, their unbridled optimism may just spark your own entrepreneurial spirits.
Marlize van Romburgh is a journalism senior and economics minor and the Mustang Daily editor in chief.