Episode II – Wrath of Businesses Stepping Up
Last week I presented the business case for sustainability. Today Alejandro Crawford, professor of entrepreneurship at the Bard MBA in Sustainability talks about how disruptive innovation can unleash the next industrial revolution.
At Bard, every MBA takes entrepreneurship because we believe these skills are essential for all sustainability leaders, not just those doing startups. Faculty members connect their courses to Alejandro’s through Bard’s Disrupt to Sustain pitch competition (pictured above). Students build innovative solutions, then pilot, commercialize, fund and scale them.
Alejandro has partnered with filmmaker and Bard MBA Amy Kalafa to create a TV series making entrepreneurship a high-energy, filmed activity one can learn. (Spoiler alert – I’ll be one of the “sharks” in what Alejandro says is the next economy’s answer to Shark Tank).
Alejandro’s entrepreneurship class starts with a simple question: What should just work differently?
The innovation starts when students ask: Why doesn’t it work differently now? What are the obstacles, and what would it take to surmount them? Opportunities with obstacles are undervalued assets—lucrative if you can make the case for their potential and marshal resources to capture them. If more leaders learn this, Alejandro believes, we can get our economy unstuck.
As he stressed in a recent talk at TEDxNYU, the entrepreneur is critical because she makes the thing that works differently and builds it into our way of life. But to master her powers, she needs successive experiences pitching, proving and growing disruptive solutions. Bard MBAs create brands, develop prototypes, validate markets, model cash flows, and make the business and impact case. These are the tools of creative destruction— necessary to generate the kind of disruption that can bring sustainability.
Alejandro emphasizes, “We must take on markets locked into obsolete modes of constructing homes, curing disease and getting clothes onto our backs. We waste the fat of the land, bleed energy from our homes, and schlep trinkets around the world as if the gas would keep on gushing. Wild subsidies–like the $5 trillion that governments spend annually to prop up fossil fuels—skew markets for everything from health to housing, perpetuating moribund companies and industries.”
The threat this poses to incumbents invested in obsolete industries, technologies, and business models is why you’re seeing chaos in our politics today.
We have the technology and talent to grow food regeneratively, refit our cities to consume a fraction of the energy, and transform supply chains in every industry. Today’s revolutionary is an entrepreneur fighting to forge alternatives, ones that deliver breathable air, health care that heals, coastlines that don’t disappear, food that isn’t poison, and clothes not made by slaves.
“It’s time for those who want change to stop fighting for a seat at the table, and start building new tables. We must fill these tables with bounty worthy of our civilization—instead of the flimsy, false choices we’ve been sold. Though there’s far more talk these days of building walls around what we’ve got than ushering in an era of innovation, no wall can block entrepreneurs from pursuing opportunity. And there’s no opportunity bigger than sustainability.”
As Henry Welt, advisor to leading fashion brands and cofounder of Ossining Innovates!, observed: “If we can convince people to drop thousands on a luxury watch that keeps time as accurately as a $50 one, imagine the market potential if we truly set our sights on sustainability.”
It’s urgent that we broaden access to entrepreneurship, as Alejandro argued in a recent paper for the Global Center for Youth Employment. To break such access open, Alejandro and his partners are testing the RebelBase beta at Bard this fall. Entrepreneurs are the new rebels, and they need a base. At a time when digital platforms connect you to the waterbottle of your dreams, entrepreneurs still network and pitch the way they have for decades. While it’s easy to match a person with a job or a date, it’s harder to match resources with emerging ideas. Still, wouldn’t the payoff be worth it, if it enabled those with solutions to bring them to reality?
Unfortunately, many of us only know how to say what’s wrong with the world. It’s time we had a way to model better options and showcase them to those with the resources to make them real. RebelBase lets users build and connect their solutions through a sequence of challenges. It’s time for the revolutionary to learn the way of the entrepreneur.
Time truly is of the essence. After the 2016 election, Alejandro and affordable passive house pioneer Scott Short urged entrepreneurs to build alliances to take what can be proven superior, and make it the new standard. “Corporate, government and community partners are desperate for alternatives,” says Alejandro. “Draw talent and capital to your solution, show that the numbers add up and can scale, and you will leave the wannabe fascists—and all who fund and give them comfort—feeling like they burned the house down, only to see that while they poured gasoline, the action moved elsewhere.”
Those of us who care about sustainability need to get out of our comfort zones, and fast. No more self-satisfied conferences celebrating social ventures that have no hope of scale, while the economy careens off the rails. “Another world is possible,” Alejandro says. “But only if we roll up our sleeves and do the grueling work. We need to model, market, monetize and make it real.”
Entrepreneurship can usher in the next industrial revolution. Societies that fail to deploy entrepreneurs to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals will lose competitiveness. As Alejandro notes, “It’s not too late. We have what it takes to transform the mainstream economy. We must make sustainability sexier, more convenient, more affordable: not the exception, but the norm—the thing you’ve got to have.” And as Stephen Williams, a Bard MBA making throwaway apparel a thing of the past, observes, “We have to make a sustainable world feel more All-American than cars or coal.”
If we fail, we’re looking at a future dominated by fighting over pieces of the world made yesterday. If we win, we create a Finer Future for all.