What is modern entrepreneurship?

This article was first featured on Lean Luxe on January 23, 2019

Spend five minutes with husband-and-wife duo Helen Reavey and Colm Mackin, founders of new botanical haircare brand, Act + Acre, and you realize in short order that you’re talking to a different type of entrepreneur. Purpose-driven, passionate, and sustainability-obsessed, their drive in creating carefully-considered, locally-produced, cold-processed products is equally matched by their desire to do good in the world through their brand.

This is in stark contrast to your average Ivy-league business school grad who crunched the right numbers, and discovered a market opportunity with a decent chance of being monetized. This particular business-school breed of entrepreneurship — ‘moving fast and breaking things’, and rapid, exponential growth above all else — reflects a deeply anti-social, zero sum game stance. It’s one that’s increasingly at odds with the slower, more long-term approach required to succeed in the modern business landscape — and it’s quickly losing its appeal with many.

A new kind of entrepreneurship is looming, built around a “when you do well, we do well” sensibility. This attitude extends beyond the relentless customer focus that next-gen entrepreneurs have, and encompasses other brands in their categories who would’ve traditionally been sized up as direct competition.

Modern entrepreneurs in this mold give back as much as they take and they thrive on interconnections. Consider, for instance, the recent New York Times article on the Bleecker Street revival. What’s most noteworthy here is not the fact that these formerly empty storefronts are no longer vacant; rather, it’s about the kind of businesses that now occupy them. Modern brands like Hill House Home, Lingua Franca, Bonberi, Huckberry, Buck Mason, and Nadaam are prominent examples. Many of these upstarts are run by women, and most of them were started online. All of them, though, have helped each other succeed in various ways.

It’s this modern style of entrepreneurship that’s most encouraging. It’s humble and open to collaboration. It doesn’t strive to disrupt the world; instead, it strives to better the world, to improve it in some substantial way. It’s respectful of what came before it, and of what’s to come later. It believes in the power of creating a chain reaction, and of course, of paying it forward. Not least of all, it’s about building brands that last for as long as possible, to the benefit of everyone involved.

As hippie as this might sound, the fact is that the problems we face today — global warming, overpopulation, pollution, political and social unrest, and economic disparity — are simply too complex and too volatile to be faced alone.

Traditional business school logic, however, teaches us that value is largely economic, and that values are fundamentally social. Here, there’s to be no mixing of the two. This line of thought has given us the worst of modern capitalism — Internet monopolies, Theranos, unfair business practices, not to mention rapidly increasing social, political, and economic divisions.

What’s becoming increasingly obvious now is that economic value and social values must be intertwined. Within this joint socio-economic framework, new brands coming to market have an critical role to play. Struggle porn and getting rich quick are no longer part of the responsible narrative. Instead of just being businesses, emerging companies must find a way to weave themselves into the fabric of society, culture, and even the planet.

It’s not just about pushing yet another ‘innovative’ business model, growth hack, or algorithm into the world. What this requires instead is a value system. Companies should be asked to stand for something — and imbed their values in their products, services, and behaviors.

This shift has already yielded immediate benefits. Brands like Act+Acre, and those revitalizing Bleecker Street, have monetized their shared commitment in doing better. They have strong, loyal followings, and deep roots in the subcultures they both represent and serve. They’re nimble, responsive, and adept at reading the atmosphere of the room and initiating change. Most importantly, they inspire a sense of togetherness, and actively encourage a feeling of community, generosity, and belonging.

This is the entrepreneurship that business schools need to teach, that VCs need to look out for — and that our popular innovation narratives need to reward. More and more, consumers are starting to vote with their wallets for those brands that are truly sustainable, compassionate, and purpose-driven.

The future of entrepreneurship is not with a lone renegade disruptor operating in the dog-eat-dog mode. It’s with those most connected with the world and giving back as much as taking in.