This was originally written for and published on my short-lived personal blog. I've edited it, but because the topic is so relevant, I wanted to put it here as well.
This article from an MIT Entrepreneurship blog has me thinking this morning--about the connections between parts of my life specifically, but also about my philosophy of learning.
The blog post one is a thoughtful, well-written one, from the perspective of a young would-be entrepreneur raised in what we in academia would call a "privileged" environment. It's about the idea that most startups are concentrating on addressing either "Big Problems" of an exotic underclass--which is a good thing--like clean water in Africa or sustainable energy production in rural China, or addressing the relatively minor problems of a small section of young, well-off, urbanites like themselves. In the meantime, there is a large swath of the US population, the unexotic underclass, whose struggles aren't seen as worthwhile or glamorous (or profitable) enough for new startups to address.
I will tell you from experience that this population is virtually ignored by entrepreneurs because they are are ignored by those advising and funding these potential ventures. This "white bread" slice of the market is seen as difficult to engage and don't have enough money (or sense) to "fund" a viable longterm business model. I can tell you this because not only am I from the "unexotic underclass," my current entrepreneurial venture (and most that I have done or thought of in the past) is meant to serve them. Even in a region (NE Ohio) that is becoming rich in entrepreneurial resources and drowning in problems to address, too many of our incubators and networks are focused narrowly on tech startups, reflecting the thinking that technology will save us all. (I'm looking at you, Bizdom)
I'm not saying that technology is not a worthwhile investment. I am saying that too many of us are falling into the same trap that the rest of the "startup scene" in other parts of the country are. Technology will not necessarily save the people that need it most. Though it can definitely help: the example the author uses of the Veteran's Administration doing the majority of their disability paperwork by hand is a very good example. I can verify the legitimacy of this one, too, having helped my husband and father fill out those paper forms and waited with them to hear back.
But the idea that a web-based technology will somehow "magically" economically boost those who need it most overlooks the first, biggest assumption of access. Web-based and tech startups can by definition only serve a certain part of the population--those who have access to the technology. But real-world startups, also known as "lifestyle businesses"--retail, service, and neighborhood-based ones--don't have the ability to scale in such a way that gets the attention of VCs and angel networks, whose main incentive is profit and prestige. The high-tech startup and its backers have no connection to the masses.
I personally feel this disconnect in my own life, my own education, my own career. Because I am constantly looking for connections where many do not look (between theory and practice, classroom and real world), I have felt this pinch, the particular kind of loneliness that exists for someone who does not follow the well-worn path. This is one of the reasons I am an entrepreneur and passionate about helping others succeed.
But my entrepreneurial passion is not related to anything that will likely become the next Instagram or FourSquare. As nice as it would be to come up with the Next Big Startup, since the focus of the startup up-starts and the the money-holders is not on the unexotic underclass, I don't see that happening. The needs I see in the market have more to do with the Real World, the unexotic problems affecting those who don't have access to the resources of privilege. But there's "no money" in it, right?
And so I struggle: I struggle with the competing urges to be successful in the more ambitious and individualistic sense of the word--money, fame, status--and successful in the sense of helping others succeed. And hope that somehow, even though I can't see the way (yet?), that maybe there is a third possibility where I can have it "all"--the success in both senses of the word. Somewhere where theory and the real world can coexist, and maybe even thrive together.
**EDIT** So re-reading and thinking about this, I've realized this is what has led me to be where I am right now, repositioning myself from consulting for individuals who are trying to start lifestyle businesses to support themselves and their families while doing something they love and want to make a difference with in the world, to trying to help make connections and communication within the regional entrepreneurial ecosystem, focusing on helping startups connect with investors.