There are many different kinds of entrepreneurs. We usually hear about those who have made the most money, invented the most innovative product, or who have “disrupted” the most entrenched industry. I recently met a businesswoman who got me thinking about a different way to classify entrepreneurs: who is the most inspirational. After a bit of thought, I came up with the following attributes of entrepreneurs who inspire me (I expect your list will be different than mine):
They do work that is important. By that I mean they do work that makes the world better in ways I think it needs to be better (inspiration is personal after all). Inspirational entrepreneurs fill a critical human need, sustain our environment, help others reach their full potential, support individual freedom and autonomy, and/or create things that lift the spirit, excite our senses, or stretch our minds. They make the world more just, humane, and sustainable.
They are in business for the right reasons. Inspirational entrepreneurs are in business to solve a problem, to express their creativity, to help their community, to be free, and/or to overcome personal or social obstacles. We commonly use money as a measure of success, but that is not the reason inspirational entrepreneurs are in business.
They successfully make a positive impact. The most inspirational entrepreneurs are those who successfully accomplish the things they set out to do. They apply the right combination of effort, ingenuity, grit, and guts to make the world better in a meaningful way.
The inspirational entrepreneur who got me thinking about this is Evelyn O’Donnell, the founder of GreenMouse Recycling. I interviewed Evelyn with my friend Richard Bell (SCU ’63) as part of a book project. Evelyn started GreenMouse in 2005 to recycle e-waste in a way that complies with the strictest state and federal rules. GreenMouse does this by hiring local people – many who have no other opportunities – including at-risk youth.
Evelyn's reason for being in business has changed, but the reasons have always been the right ones. "It was about my daughter, then it continued because of the people I'm helping, the at-risk young adults," she told us. Evelyn's daughter had a learning disability and she was worried about her daughter's ability to get a job and support herself. Evelyn's solution: start a business, create an opportunity for her daughter, and teach her how to work. As the company grew, Evelyn started hiring at-risk young adults to provide job training and create new opportunities.
The volatility of the business has put that program on hold while GreenMouse adapts to the new economic realities of recycling. "Now it's about each employee that I have, I have a responsibility to them to make sure that the job I create for them is going to give them a better life. […] We're all in it together. It's more than just me. It's us."
For more than a decade, GreenMouse has successfully created jobs, contributed to our environmental sustainability, and made a difference in the lives of hundreds of at-risk youth. All because of one inspirational entrepreneur.
[This article was originally posted on Santa Clara University's thought leader blog Illuminate on April 4, 2016]