Sunday, March 22, 2015

Growing Your Own

A couple of weeks ago, I had the following exchange with someone who works at a community college in a struggling area:

Him: Nobody moves here.  Industry is moving out, and nobody is moving in because of the taxes.  It’s awful.

Me: If employers aren’t moving in, all the more reason to grow your own.  Teach entrepreneurialism to your students.

Him: Why? As soon as they get to any size, they’ll leave.

I changed the subject.  

But the basic impulse still strikes me as right.  Struggling areas need entrepreneurs of all kinds. The problem is that entrepreneurship is usually taught only in the context of business majors.  It needs to spread farther.

I should clarify: I’m using entrepreneurialism in the broadest sense of “starting or creating something.” It doesn’t have to apply to a for-profit company; it could easily apply to a non-profit, a political organization, or an NGO.  That’s not the crucial part.  The important question is: How do you create something where before there was nothing?  

Fine arts majors should absolutely have some interest in this.  How do you make money from your art?  Any reasonably honest historian of the arts would have to concede that much of the story of the twentieth century culture industry was of the exploitation of artists’ economic naivete or desperation by folks with sharper elbows.  Even as some of the trappings of the last-century version of that industry fall away -- record companies, say -- the issues that created them are still there.  How does an artist monetize art?

That may sound crass, and in some ways, it is.  But artists have to eat, and asking them to rely on day jobs is harder as the supply of well-paying day jobs that leave enough time and energy for other pursuits dries up.  

Students have a natural edge when it comes to creating new things.  They’re often relatively unburdened with the presuppositions that come from a knowledge of recent history; they see current gaps more clearly than those of us who unconsciously fill in the blanks with what we know of the past.  They don’t know what can’t be done.  That’s no small thing.

I’ve written before of my admiration of the singer Kristin Hersh.  I enjoy her music, whether as a soloist or with Throwing Muses or 50 Foot Wave.  But I also like the way she has carved a path to economic independence; she relies on listener sponsorships.  Her “Strange Angels,” as she calls them -- the term is taken from one of her songs -- allow her to make the music she wants to make.  (She also published a book, Rat Girl, that’s well worth the read.)

In a sense, Hersh had a head start.  She came up through the old label system in the 1990’s, and made her name when it was still possible to do that.  But she left before it was obvious that she needed to, and she developed a method that allows her to be unapologetically herself.  I admire that, and I’d like to see others find routes in a similar spirit.

At HCC, one of our most generous alumni made his fortune by founding Yankee Candle.  He was obsessed with candles, and grew that business into an empire.  If you had looked at labor market projections for the Pioneer Valley in the early 1970’s, I doubt very much that they would have indicated expected growth in candlemaking.  But there it is.  He created something where there was nothing, just because he wanted to.

The difficult part of selling the concept of entrepreneurialism is that defining outcomes is necessarily slow and squishy.  It takes years for the results to show up, and some of them may be small and/or initially unsuccessful.  But if the alternative is stagnation or decline, I’d rather give students some exposure to ways to forge their own paths in the world.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen particularly effective ways that colleges have helped students figure out how to create something, where before there was nothing?