Defining entrepreneurship: lifestyle or achievement?

Entrepreneurship showed up early in my life.

I had big ideas from a young age and often spent my time imagining new inventions.

Like so many entrepreneurs, I didn’t enjoy doing just one thing. If I had to spend the first eight hours of my day in a classroom, I’d spend the afternoon planning what I’d build at the next day’s recess.

That energy only accelerated with time. I’d later learn to call this entrepreneurship: a constant cycle of taking on challenges and imagining new ways to do things.

People often define entrepreneurship in the context of business and risk, but I’ve experienced it as a lifestyle. The simple reality of entrepreneurship is that idea generation is a default function – entrepreneurs live to launch little revolutions and flip tradition on its head.

Whether you’re at work or maneuvering a morning commute, new projects, products and plans parade into the entrepreneur’s stream of consciousness, demanding to be brought to life.

Those ideas live on napkin scribbles, stray Post-Its and notebooks filled with what-ifs. Some have been animated while others are stored away for a someday with better timing. 

Harvard Business School professor (and “godfather of entrepreneurship studies”) Howard Stevenson defined entrepreneurship as “the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled.”

And that’s exactly how I see it – the pursuit of big ideas regardless of outstanding obstacles. It isn’t necessarily defined by a successful startup or the number of Post-It ideas you churned into reality.

To be an entrepreneur is to be willing to go against the grain no matter where that grain has grown. It’s a state of mind, not a title you win after earning your stripes.

That state of mind so often manifests in startups, but it also comes alive in the blank spaces – at big companies, in the fringes of old-school politics and among little movements where big change is imminent and risk-taking is a prerequisite.

There’s no dress code for that mindset.

So, whether it’s one CEO’s IPO or a dreamer’s scribbles on a napkin, entrepreneurship anywhere is the start of a good thing, and it’s time we think about it more broadly than in the context of unicorn startups. 

How do you define entrepreneurship?

Once upon a tunnel: Elon Musk’s Boring story

There are moments in history that inspire human imagination – breakthroughs and leaps for mankind that extend the barriers of progress and prove just how far bold ingenuity can take us.

Beyond the breakthroughs themselves, however, are the stories that make them legendary - images, headlines and films that animate complex innovations and first introduce us to gospels of invention.

It was true when Neil Armstrong first walked the lunar surface. Most might not have understood the physics that launched Apollo 11 toward the Moon, but footage of those historic small steps were enough to convert the U.S. into a nation of believers in the future of space travel.

 

It wasn’t just video footage that captured the world’s attention, but also a series of stories. Films, books, news features and promotional campaigns got the world excited about the wonder of space travel. The leaders of this charge included editorial teams at NASA and film producers, but most notable among them was the collaboration between Walt Disney and Wernher von Braun.

Von Braun was an aerospace engineer and rocket developer at NASA and an early advocate for space exploration. He worked on the teams that developed the Saturn rockets that would later launch men toward the moon.

To get the support he needed for the moonshot, von Braun partnered with Walt Disney to create a set of films about space travel.

 

They used the combined power of science and story to get the public to share their vision for a future in space. Von Braun had a hunch:

America’s devotion to space fiction in the early 1950s could be channeled into interest in space fact… together, von Braun (the engineer) and Disney (the artist) used the new medium of television to illustrate how high man might fly on the strength of technology and the spirit of human imagination.

Scientists criticized the effort because it targeted non-technical audiences, but von Braun wanted everyone to get on board. His “desire to see man travel into space meant convincing scientists, industry, politicians and, in particular, the public.”  

The result? People around the world started to believe that a moon landing was possible. Walt called it “science factual;” people learned facts about space exploration and as a result, grew eager to see it brought to life.

[A team of editorial professionals at NASA also shared the story of the moon program to the public through films, campaigns and important media partnerships. This saga is outlined in “Marketing the Moon,” a book that illustrates “one of the most successful marketing and public relations campaigns in history: the selling of the Apollo program.”]

In the absence of stories like those that preceded Apollo 11’s launch, so many important projects are left abandoned or unfunded. In one article about breakthroughs in the field of mathematics, for example, one author laments that math’s innovations often lose their moment in history because mathematicians rarely articulate how cool their discoveries really are – thus, “Math Has no God Particle.”

Great stories help us envision what’s possible and illustrate the promise of progress in ways we can all understand. This awareness can lead to funding for more research, government support and consumer enthusiasm. So was the case for NASA in 1969, and so today is the case for Elon Musk.

Like Walt Disney and the Moon marketers before him, Elon is good at telling stories, using them to bring attention to his most ambitious projects.

For inventors like Elon, much of the task in building novelty is convincing others the construction is worth their attention. In the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, "If you want to build a ship, don't herd people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."

And that’s what Elon does. Through storytelling, he’s taken the world to unconventional horizons of thought, encouraging them to long for the endless immensities of space travel, sustainable energy and better transportation.

When he first set his eyes on Mars, he developed a story to inspire wonder among the public and get them on-board his vision for Mars colonization. He believed that if he could plant a small, green garden on Mars (“Mars Oasis”), the visual would be compelling enough to prove that life could take root on the red planet.

Last year, Elon said he anticipates sending humans to Mars in 10 years. Skeptics dissented for Elon just as they once did when von Braun presented his own 10-year forecast. “If we were to start today on an organized, well supported space program, I believe a practical passenger rocket could be built and tested within ten years,” he once said. It was built, and it all started with an ambitious vision he was brave enough to share with the public.

Like Walt Disney, Elon has created “science factual” films to help the world imagine just what a trip to Mars might look like. One video depicts launch and en-route animations that follow travelers as they depart Earth’s surface and drift toward their new red home. These animations were based on real research - models of what the journey could look like.

SpaceX also launched futuristic promotional posters that further hyped the Mars experience, storytelling that made a Mars landing seem not-so-distant – “coming soon” to a universe near you.

These are just some among several stories that reinforce the SpaceX mission: to help people live on other planets.

It might sound like a long shot, but Elon solves for disbelief by animating the idea in small steps. For example, if Mars is too bold a leap for the average listener, he talks about a more local outpost, a place we’ve already been: the moon. And that’s where we come full circle.

To really get the public real fired up, I think we’ve got to have a base on the moon,” he said. “Having some permanent presence on another heavenly body, which would be the kind of moon base, and then getting people to Mars and beyond — that’s the continuance of the dream of Apollo that I think people are really looking for.

When confronted with skeptics, visionaries start small. They offer a taste of what’s possible to expand people’s boundaries of thought.

That’s also a best practice at Tesla. The company’s goal is straightforward: a sustainable energy future. It starts with cleaner cars, but we slowly expand toward broader applications of the same principle. It’s not just about building sports cars or wall batteries, but Tesla’s story is about building a better future that will last. The company’s products just help us get there.

Today, Elon wants to bore tunnels below Los Angeles to alleviate the city’s traffic congestion. The Boring company is his new story to tell.

We’ve seen animations that depict how our cars will be levered underground, and we’ve heard about mysterious test-tracks beneath Los Angeles. The Boring story is coming to life – we’re not just hearing about a futuristic underground commute, but we’re seeing the blueprints.

When I worked at Disney, I spent a lot of time learning about Walt and his own blueprints for the future. He had big ideas, and he shared those through stories: movies, television shorts, books and experiences. One of his greatest was EPCOT (Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow), a test city that served as “a living blueprint for the future.”

In one EPCOT promotional film, Walt shares his vision: “I don’t believe there’s a challenge anywhere in the world that’s more important to people everywhere than finding solutions for the problems of our cities… we’re convinced we must start with the public need.”

It might sound crazy, but Walt shows how he’ll build this future, what it’ll look like and what it means for tomorrow.

That’s where Walt and Elon cross roads: two storytellers with big ideas, trying to convert the public into a cohort of believers in the same fantastic future.   

It's not just about solving problems, Elon has said - we need reasons to get excited when we wake up every day. 

For now, we’ll wait to hear more about the wonder we’ll enjoy once that future arrives, taking us to a whole new world and dazzling places we never knew.

Toxic Products and Corporate Irresponsibility

Your paper towels. Your mattress. The candles on your coffee table. Chances are (apparently) very high that these banal household accessories are packed with all kinds of potentially harmful chemicals.

We’ve all seen documentaries and read blogs that warn us against parabens, phthalates and BPA. We keep a long, teetering mental list of all the things that are bad: avoid deodorant that contains aluminum; corn syrup is poison; modern mattresses are soaked in flame retardant. This is often the extent of our chemical literacy, but does it even matter how much (or how little) we know?

Keeping up with the science, foreign chemical nomenclature and legislative safeguards is challenging enough, but making the effort to purchase clean products at every touchpoint is a full time, tedious and often impossible job.

The job is difficult, because consumers are charged with the work of chemists, toxicologists and policy-makers every time they travel the aisles of a Target to restock their cosmetic inventory. It goes like this: you start with gusto, scrutinizing every product label to scan through cacophonous ingredient names, distinguishing bad chemicals from good chemicals and trying to weigh how many weird-sounding chemicals is too many.

You might pick the earth-toned bottle (colored to convey the all-natural) or the snack box with the most convincing “organics” plastered to its cardboard surface. But none of this matters, and none of it is enough.

It comes down to this: the public’s ability to keep up and take meaningful action is a function of awareness and education. And when awareness is crowded with contradicting messages, confusing language and intentional public affairs smokescreens, the job of the regular shopper becomes more confused and education becomes inconvenient.

The burden of responsibility today falls on consumers, who have to read between the lines of clever advertising and calculate the potential health consequences of every purchase. Even if all of us were chemists and scientists, we’d still struggle to find the right products or commit enough time to identify bad from worse.

Brands obfuscate the conscious consumer’s efforts with tempting advertorial words that imply “organicness” while delivering zero actual meaning. Products feature opaque labels like “all natural,” “multigrain,” and “100% clean,” none of which are scientifically-qualified terms recognized by the FDA or FTC. The Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) notes, “ingredient labels can be misleading, leaving even the savviest consumers in the dark about the safety of the products they use every day.”

The Consumer Protection Agency (CPA) asserts that “150 chemicals found in the home are connected to allergies, birth defects, cancer and psychological disorders.” The HSPH says that in the U.S., “the average person is exposed to more than a hundred chemicals from cosmetics, soaps, and other personal care products before leaving the house in the morning. While people may assume these products are safe, their chemical ingredients are mostly untested and largely unregulated, with even known carcinogenic and endocrine disrupting chemicals still found in some formulations.”

It seems like every day, we discover a new household product or food that’s been dangerous all along. Disclaimers pop up on products we never imagined were toxic to begin with – thermoses, shower curtains, lipsticks and sunscreens are some among many everyday items that are potentially harmful.  

Corporate social responsibility is defined by every moment a company decides to go beyond the required call of duty for the sake of a public good – in this case, that means not only complying with minimum standards set by the USDA or the FTC, but also actively supporting the public through clear communication, straightforward and honest advertising and health education.

When it comes to public health, CSR shouldn’t be one among several PR initiatives but a core tenet of public relations practice - building a reliable relationship of trust between consumer and brand.

According to one Nielsen study, “at least more than two-thirds of global respondents indicate they believe nutritional claims are either never or only sometimes trustworthy.”  

So, when brand communications impact public health, up-front CSR might be more of a cost save than cost drain. If brands really crave consumer trust and plumped profits, honesty seems a logical first step. 

Until brands purge dangerous chemicals from their products, our task is to detox existing, harmful PR and marketing practices in order to safeguard our audiences and keep them informed instead of confused.

Clear messaging, awareness-building and education are different avenues to a less toxic and more informed consumer future – and the burden of that responsibility falls in the lap of companies (not consumers) whose products affect the well-being of people around the world. 

The Armenian Genocide and My Story

The pages of Armenian history are stained by a sagging injustice, a genocide that nearly eliminated a race and a crime that never met consequence. From a young age, I came to understand the Armenian genocide as a justice deferred – an ethnic cleansing that escaped recognition and has since been denied by those responsible.

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I learned about the Armenian genocide from our family’s survivors. When I was four-years-old, I first heard my great grandmother’s distant stories about violence and escape. She was a witness to her sisters’ murders; her mother and two-year-old brother were sent to a desert march in Syria. Her family was extinguished, and she was the only one to survive.

Today, politicians debate the pros and cons of recognizing her reality. Turkish government leaders deny her story and attempt to erase those of 1.5 million other Armenians. Our own government fearfully tiptoes around the word “genocide,” because the country that perpetrated the crime is too dear a political ally to offend.

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The United States should never use history as a bargaining chip to appease foreign neighbors. Political friendship is not worth that price. We are either a force that stops violence through recognition or one that beckons it with a blind eye.

Recognizing the Armenian genocide is about doing what’s right by history – calling a crime by its true name and holding its perpetrators accountable. This will prevent more genocide in the future.

History proves that we can cauterize this injury through accountability and a relentless pursuit of what’s right – both for the Armenian cause and for all similar crimes. That’s why recognition is so important – it delivers justice to those who suffered, etches integrity into the pages of history and protects those who might suffer tomorrow if we don’t act today.

 

From Walt to Watson

The last year has been a whirlwind experience - a time of learning, growth and adventure. Around this time in 2016, I was finishing my internship at Nickelodeon, preparing to graduate from USC and packing for a class excursion to Silicon Valley. One year and three jobs later, I’m headed back to the Bay Area, this time for the long haul. I’ll be working at IBM, supporting communications for Watson and other artificial intelligence and machine learning initiatives at the company.

The road to today has been paved with valuable growth experiences, and I’ve learned from seasoned leaders who’ve both inspired and challenged my thinking. Since last April, I’ve worked for Nickelodeon, Levi’s and The Walt Disney Company. Each of these experiences shaped my understanding of the communications, PR and marketing industries, and I’m grateful for the adventures they’ve afforded.

As I inch toward the next page at IBM, I’m eager to meet more passionate builders, explore fresh modes of thought and discover new ideas. IBM has defined a century of technology history and continues to drive its progress in the future. I'm excited to join the team.

A UX approach to public relations: Communications as technology

During my time studying public relations at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, I supplemented my coursework with user experience and development courses at our engineering school. I was building 8-step communication plans while also conducting usability testing for apps. I didn’t know it then, but this curriculum crossover invented an interesting academic meld – one that's made me view communications as a product rather than a service.

Developing a PR plan, in principle, isn’t much different than developing software UX or UI. User experience design is the process of enhancing user satisfaction by improving process of use. UX is a user-centered design process - optimizing an experience for a target audience.

Today, this utility is more relevant to communications than ever; audiences don’t just receive our branded messages, but they also interact with our campaigns and help form their shape. This reality requires that we approach communications as a user interaction experience rather than an audience reception; by improving an audience’s process of campaign use, we can better achieve communication and business goals.

Traditional PR plans utilize a sequential planning model. In software development, a similar approach was called the waterfall method. The step-by-step process was similar to the sluggish passing of a baton. Once initial planning for a project was conducted, designers would build mockups. Then, developers wrote code. After implementation was testing and finally, project completion.  

The sequential waterfall method for software and product development

The sequential waterfall method for software and product development

By the time the final product was deployed, its relevance in the market was dehydrated. The waterfall method isn't preferred by developers today, because it’s too slow a development process.

Instead, developers abide by an agile framework called scrum. This is a highly iterative, fast-paced, vertical development process. All the pieces involved in development – research, planning, design, coding and testing – are collaboratively completed in lockstep through short sprints. Developers identify features they want to build and quickly work together to produce user-relevant products and updates.  

Agile development is continuous and iterative

Agile development is continuous and iterative

As a result of such fast-paced development, the creators involved remain focused on what matters – the needs they’re serving, the audience they’re addressing and their product vision.

This method can wholly be applied to communications planning. The PRSA defines public relations in part as a “strategic communications process.” We can treat it like an iterative development process. Instead of separating communications functions like research, design, strategy and social media, wouldn't it be better instead to work simultaneously in efficient sprints?

Agile is a vertical process. Each function works in lockstep with its adjacent partners.

Agile is a vertical process. Each function works in lockstep with its adjacent partners.

Separate from adopting a UX workflow, we can also adopt a UX planning model. The three commandments in user experience design are:

  1. Be useful
  2. Be usable
  3. Be enjoyable

Another principle in UX: you are not your user. The planning process includes the construction of user personas, during which developers paint a picture of their primary and secondary users so that they always build for the right target audience.

Aren’t these all valuable guiding principles in PR?

There’s much more PR can pull from the modern UX development process, including unique models for success measurement, project management and ideas about the value of simplicity.

All in all, I think PR and UX make for an interesting strategic combination, and I believe there’s an untapped value in building the communications product.