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To be a great innovator, learn to embrace and thrive in uncertainty

Screen Shot 2020-09-21 at 12.24.17 PM

Source: Todd Saxton The Conversation, 15 September 2020, photo credit: Peshkova/Getty Images/Entrepreneur SA

Madam C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, was America’s first female self-made millionaire. She pioneered a line of hair care and beauty products for people of color early in the 20th century, and the recent Netflix series “Self Made” details the story of this talented innovator and the challenges she overcame on the way to her success.

To accomplish her goals, she had to face overwhelming uncertainties. How would she finance her business? Would her partnerships fail? Would her products sell? Would ruthless competition and racism get in her way? Madame Walker’s future was far from certain when she began her journey, but that did not dissuade her.

Madam Walker was willing and able to face uncertain situations as she grew her business.

It is tempting to think that innovators are a breed apart or perhaps lucky to be in the right place and time. But research shows this is not the case. So what characteristics do innovators like Madam Walker have that lead them to the seemingly serendipitous moment? What makes for a successful innovator or entrepreneur?

I am a researcher and professor who studies strategy and entrepreneurship. I am also myself an entrepreneur, angel investor and board member for startups and innovative firms. Pop culture might have you believe it is a tolerance for or even an obsession with risk that makes great innovators. But in fact, research has for decades demonstrated that innovators and entrepreneurs are no more risk-taking than the average person.
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