You needed to be at the iHub on the 26th of July 2015 to understand how popular an entrepreneur is. A successful internet entrepreneur moreso. It was a hot Sunday afternoon during the weekend Nairobi hosted the GES. If you may recall, we had some quite serious guys in town, including Barry, the President of the US of A. Barely 48 hours to that particular Sunday, the iHub had sent out a proudly toned communique; Brian Chesky, the shared economy wonderboy helming the now unicorn Airbnb would be hosted for a Fireside chat. Interested parties to sign up on eventbrite. Time; 2PM on a Sunday. Tickets sold out barely hours after the announcement hit the interwebs.
If the snatching up of the tickets was fascinating, the turn out for the session was overwhelming. The iHub filled up, including the standing space. The crowd even spilled into the corridor. The guys braved the unevenly aerated space. Their mood was upbeat during the Q&A session, testament to the attendees being unfazed by low oxygen. (Check out this video for context). When the time Chesky’s team had allotted the session lapsed, he was whisked out of the iHub for the airport to catch a flight to CapeTown. Mark Zuckerberg’s visit was more hysterical. But I elected to go with the Chesky example because Zuckerberg is now rather too mainstream.
The response to Zuckerberg’s and Chesky’s visit is not unique to Kenya. It is a global phenomenon. However, it is a response to a less nuanced view of entrepreneurship, the good bits. People are responding to the success because the story always lionizes the successful. A factor that can be attributed to our penchant to portray outcomes. We do not focus on the process. The result of this is two-fold. Like most things, there is the upside and the downside. If you’re still reading this, you must be well acquainted with the former, and probably, some aspects of the latter. I will nevertheless, explore the latter further by breaking down the downside to three
The Cool Aid
“We have built a narrative that being an entrepreneur is “cool”, ignoring that hard work & talent make the difference between success & failure.”
–Leon Emirali, entrepreneur,founder,investor
A typical public image of an entrepreneur is cool. At the extreme end of this cool entrepreneur spectrum is the too bright ivy league dropout, who once called a garage an office, now heading a global behemoth. When this story is told by the entrepreneur, it tends to include the hard bits. However, over time, they become a passing reference that only merits a phrase. The rest of the story becomes condensed into anecdotes and sound bites so sleek you’d think there are no major challenges in entrepreneurship, or any major challenge encountered will be overcome, therefore, a true entrepreneur will always be successful. Even events that have been setup to evaluate failure lionize it. This is the story most get to hear. The sheer sacrifice required to get there is overlooked. The challenge with sound bites and polished anecdotes is they mask some truths that whomever wishes to join the bandwagon should consider.
People face challenges, and some get out scarred. Only thing is, everybody works at keeping up appearances
Panacea for Everything
Be it people seeing it as a way to self actualization, or governments pushing it as the solution to unemployment, neither can be spoken about in abstract. Entrepreneurship will make sense when there exists an effective public framework. Ory Okolloh channelled Wandia Njoya during a 2015 QA with Quartz aptly titled We Cannot Entrepreneur Our Way Out of Everything. I can never put it better than the two.
Similarly, you need certain skills to make it work as entrepreneur. Someone I spoke to for this article said, people overestimate what they are capable of. He went further to wonder why people assume they can execute in entrepreneurship when they couldn’t hit targets in employment. They posited that entrepreneurship is about creative freedom. You start your own thing when the alternative spaces are too constraining for you to realize it.
The Demonization of Employment
It is the spin of the pseudo entrepreneur. They spin entreprepreneurship as a zero sum game. According to them , if you are an entrepreneur, you are everything right; hardworking, creative, driven, and on your way to self actualization. That attribution could be true but is not only limited to entrepreneurs, nor is it guaranteed that all entrepreneurs have them. Conversely, when you are employed, you are lazy, unmotivated and, lack ambition. This is counterproductive as any entrepreneur needs a team. It can actually be argued that a team is more important than an entrepreneur. Daudi Were, the ED for Ushahidi likes to say there is no need to hire someone who is less brilliant than you. Any entrepreneur who doesn’t recognize that is in for a high turnover rate. Research shows that employees leave bosses, not jobs.
Moreover, most founders cut their teeth working elsewhere. The bottomline is there is room for both, and we should, in the words of Chinua Achebe, let the eagle perch, and let the hawk perch.
Featured Image: Presidents Obama and Kenyatta during the opening plenary of the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi (Image: US Embassy in Kenya , via CC)