Entrepreneurship: What is Old is New Again

By: Phil Gibbs, Principal with The Disruption Lab

Even if you are only a causal student of social and economic trends, you can’t miss the emergence of innovation and entrepreneurship as major waves sweeping this country, and in fact, the globe. Not only is the expectation of working for one corporation for an entire career a subject for history books, but the expectation of being an employee of any large organization seems to be fading.

Just a few years ago, a typical career might follow a path that starts with basic education at the secondary and undergraduate level; followed by gaining experience in an entry-level position in a large corporation; then possibly an MBA or other graduate education at a respected university; followed by entry back into the corporate world in a mid-level position; and then, capitalizing on the education and experience, climbing the corporate ladder, or venturing out into a senior position in a promising small company.

The appeal of this path for many has vanished. Social scientists and economists may identify multiple causes for this shift, but the effect we are observing is the emergence of entrepreneurship as a normal career path. Several years ago, a few universities, such as Nashville’s Belmont University, started offering courses in entrepreneurship and worked with students to start businesses. Then entrepreneur centers started springing up in cities like Nashville to support the broader startup community. As interest grew, almost all universities started offering an entrepreneurship option.

The trend continues and entrepreneurship education is moving to the secondary level. In Williamson County where I live, a private K-12 college prep school recently announced a program in entrepreneurial leadership billed as the only true 9th-12th grade entrepreneurial department in secondary schools in the country. Not to be left behind, the public school system in the same county followed by announcing the opening of a 10,000 square foot facility, basically across the street from the private school, to house an Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center (EIC) for students who are interested in “starting a business, developing a product or providing a service.” And then it was announced that the county’s Chamber of Commerce was partnering with the Heritage Foundation to convert a mansion on the campus of a former college of design into an Idea Center that will be an innovation and entrepreneurship center.

This is not just a Williamson County or Nashville phenomenon, but appears to be a global trend. This summer while on The Disruption Lab’s annual Executive Innovation Program, we walked into an entrepreneurship center in Helsinki, Finland, that housed Aaltoes, a student entrepreneurship society, and student-run Kiuas Accelerator, that had the look and feel of the Nashville center. The student who presented to our group could have been a clone of the entrepreneurs who have populated the Nashville Entrepreneur Center over the years.

The general perception or myth is that this is a major invention of the 21st century. Our genus is emerging in a form, branded with the terms “innovation” and “entrepreneurship,” never seen before on planet earth. While fascinating to observe, the reality is—it is not new!  This mode of  economic survival and social fulfillment has been the dominant form through most of history.

What is unique is not the re-emergence of entrepreneurship, but what we have experienced in recent history. With the birth of the modern form of organizations, over time individuals became dependent on employers for everything from wages to healthcare to vacation to social relationships to retirement. Corporations developed “human resource” or “talent management” departments to manage the relationship. And if employers couldn’t deliver jobs, often employees didn’t appear to have many options, except perhaps dependence on government.

For most of human history, however, individuals have depended on themselves, along with their families and communities, for survival and fulfillment. From hunters and gatherers, to farmers and craftsmen, to shop owners and merchants, and teachers and doctors, individuals have used their own ingenuity, willpower and entrepreneurial skills to experiment and figure out ways to survive and often thrive economically and socially.

It is intriguing to see this call reemerge. Note the focus of the public school entrepreneurship program, referenced above, on students who are interested in starting a business, developing a product or providing a service. It is interesting that “finding a job” is not on the list.

Many of course will continue to choose a job, and appropriately so, with all the advantages that accompany working for a large corporation. With so many, however, choosing to follow the entrepreneurial path, it is exciting to see a re-balancing and re-emergence of innovation and entrepreneurship. While the specific businesses they start and the products and services they develop may be different today, the entrepreneurial spirit continues to be exhilarating and freeing for those who choose to follow this path.


Phil is the founding Principal of The Disruption Lab, where he focuses on disruptive innovation and corporate growth. For over a decade, he led Executive Learning, one of the country’s leading firms supporting continual improvement (sustaining and efficiency innovation), particularly in healthcare, and including work with industry leader HCA and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI).

His entrepreneurial experience includes co-founding multiple companies, including E|SPACES and LifeFilez. In addition to his startup experience, Phil has served as a principal in an early-stage investment firm and worked in/consulted with multiple large organizations, including the Oak Ridge National Laboratory early in his career. His interest in innovation began with his doctoral research at The Ohio State University focused on understanding how organizations achieve both high productivity and high innovation.

You can connect with or ask Phil a question through The Disruption Lab community at https://thedisruptionlab.community/.

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