An Optimist About Innovation: Don’t Wait for Permission

Johnetta Hardy

I’m brand-new to the University of Baltimore, in charge of its Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Merrick School of Business. I came to this university because it places a remarkable amount of faith and resources in what I believe is a crucial area: future talent -- specifically, the entrepreneurial talents of our students and alumni. Why “crucial”? Because if we don’t step up our game in creating and supporting vast new sectors of our economy, especially in the realm of small business, our state and our nation run the risk of slipping down in the global economy of the 21st century.

Truly, everything today is connected: Maryland does an incredible job of supporting basic research and development -- we’re very close to the top nationally in this area, and that’s a fundamental when it comes to being prepared for this new economy everybody is talking about. But we have a lot of work to do if we’re going to make all that wonderful R&D run hand in hand with our efforts in entrepreneurship: The state ranks #33 in that area, according to a recent Kauffman Foundation report. What’s the connection between those two – top 3 and #33? I look at it like an optimist would: If we’re doing that well in research and development, imagine where we’d be if we made sure our entrepreneurs were a fully-vested partner in that effort! These things are working together, whether we recognize it or not. My goals, and the goals of the great folks at Start Up Maryland, are to strengthen those connections and make them add value to our state.

That’s why I’m at Merrick. This school, and the city of Baltimore in which it lives -- they’ve always believed in the idea of connections. Our alumni, by the thousands, run some of our region’s most successful small companies. Our students -- many of whom are stepping up for the Pitch Across Maryland competition -- are beyond excited to bring their business dreams to reality. When they’re not trading ideas with each other and with their professors, they’re out networking with potential investors. When they’re not in class, they’re building their websites. When they’re not writing a paper, they’re checking inventory. I’m constantly in awe of the amount of real, tangible work these folks are doing. They are in “output” mode, in a big way.

To me, being an entrepreneur is much more than just that person plugging away at an invention down in the basement, hoping someday to sell it and make a fortune. It’s about finding a pathway for your passion. It could be a high tech device the likes of which we’ve never seen, or it could be a coffee shop down the block. In a way, it doesn’t matter what the entrepreneur is focused on – just as long as he or she is focused, and encouraged, they will do things that amaze us all.

This is not to say that innovation doesn’t matter. It does to me and the School of Business -- it’s in our center’s name. But innovation has a habit of showing up not just in your fantastic product -- but in the ways you learned to get your business off the ground. Steve Jobs liked to talk about how overmatched his little company was by IBM when it came to dollars devoted to innovation. But it wasn’t about having the blank check -- it was recognizing how Apple could innovate, where that could happen, and who could get it done for the company. “Overmatched” is a word that does not apply when it comes to innovation.

I like to think that Maryland can be a recognized national, even global, leader in entrepreneurial activities of all sorts. I believe we can sustain a business culture in our state that, from elementary school on, encourages young entrepreneurs to build their dreams right here. I know we have the talent -- I see it in the halls of my school every day.

What are we waiting for? Sometimes I think even full-grown adults like me need “permission” to move ahead, to strive toward greatness. We need people with some savvy and a bit of vision – somebody who can reassure us that, even when the economic outlook is unclear and our recovery is taking too darn long, it’s going to be all right. Go ahead -- be bold, be risk-friendly for a change. Be ready to learn from success and failure; they both have some good lessons tucked inside.

That’s the entrepreneurial spirit, right there. That’s the spirit that I see in the Pitch Across Maryland bus tour. And that’s the future of our state: independent, innovative, and INTO IT.

Let’s go, Maryland!

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