Reframing Entrepreneurship

For a long time I've secretly questioned my place in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

I've spent years as a Techstars mentor to over ten programs. I spend my days fostering invention, and I've created a national practice group representing emerging companies. I have wonderful mentors who are entrepreneurs, and I live, breathe, and write about startups, execution, legacy and impact.

Yet, there it is, the cloud hanging over my head...I've never started my own company.

Which has always left me wondering: am I a true entrepreneur?

We live in a world where being an entrepreneur is synonymous with starting your own company and being your own boss.

And with the title of entrepreneur, there comes a certain level of cache that being a banker on Wall Street held in the nineties. Admit it -- being an entrepreneur sounds pretty cool, right?

However, as entrepreneurs go about their days disrupting just about every industry imaginable, we must stop and ask ourselves, is our world view of what it actually means to be an entrepreneur broken? Is the term entrepreneur itself ripe for disruption?

As the season of university commencement addresses comes to a close, a particular speaker offered an inspired view of entrepreneurship through a much broader lens.

Kevin Colleran, one of Facebook's first 10 employees, delivered a powerful commencement address to Babson College's Class of 2015. After seven years at Facebook, Colleran was building hundred million dollar deals for the company, and was the most tenured employee at Facebook aside from Mark Zuckerberg. Initially, Colleran thought that joining Facebook meant putting his own entrepreneurial dreams on hold to go work for someone else's company. He couldn't be less correct in that assumption.

In his commencement address, Colleran reflects on his career, and he challenges the traditional definition of entrepreneurship, turning it on its head with his thesis that "you do not need to work for yourself or start your own business to be an entrepreneur."

Wait, what?

Yes, you can work for someone else and still be an entrepreneur. While this may sound controversial, I believe in its truth, as entrepreneurs share common traits, and these traits may be developed and sharpened by working for someone else.

In Colleran's case at Facebook, he had the autonomy to create, to make his own hours, to inspire, to teach, and to deliver in order to move the company forward. Colleran asserts that, without knowing it, during his time at Facebook he had been a true entrepreneur by learning about total commitment and giving all of himself to building a company from within his unique role.

Ultimately, it's not about the job itself, but rather what you do with it, how you approach it, and what lessons you take away from it.

Entrepreneur literally means, "to take into one's own hand." I offer three concepts to support the notion that one can be an entrepreneur by taking responsibility for the work to be done, whether it is inside a company they founded or not. And in proposing this, I hope I offer a healthy dose of encouragement to those that think that they may be putting their dreams of being an entrepreneur on the shelf, when in actuality, they have the tools at their fingertips to be an entrepreneur right now.

1) Be Relevant, Be Indispensable: One way to be an entrepreneur in someone else's company is to carve out your own specialty where your work is necessary to the functioning of the company. This won't happen overnight, so patience is necessary. Further, earning the respect of your colleagues is crucial, so don't be afraid to lean in as often as you can. Like any successful entrepreneur, show up to work with the eye of the tiger, and leave it all on the mat, every single day. Find your niche, and create around yourself. Listen, learn, ask questions, and lead. Think outside the box and around corners. These are all tools that are necessary in any entrepreneur's tool belt -- use them, regardless of who signs your paycheck.

2) Make Impact, Leave Legacy: Entrepreneurs take responsibility for taking an idea and making it a reality. So how do you do this if you work for someone else? Simple. You treat your job like a white canvas, and you fill it with beautiful colors. You take ownership of it. You think creatively. And ultimately, you learn enough about the world in which you work to suggest ways to make it more innovative, profitable, or efficient. Entrepreneurs exist in the hallways of many Fortune 500 companies, law firms, financial institutions, and medical practices. How? Because these same people can be thinking creatively -- they can be asking how can we be better? They can be innovating within new areas of their field. They can be asking to handle challenging questions and come up with out-of-the-box solutions. They can lead teams that require their direct-reports to believe in them, no matter what. Most importantly, they don't accept the status quo. Questioning what exists creates the context for innovation. And innovation itself is what guides the framework for entrepreneurship.

3) Give First: Give before we get. A mantra that is fundamental to Techstars, giving first applies in all facets of entrepreneurship (and frankly, in life). Help colleagues in your office or within your industry, without the expectation of anything in return. Build relationships and offer your experience to those that may need a hand. Learn how to leverage your network so that you are known as someone who is giving of your time, skill-set, or ability to connect others. Moreover, giving unconsciously gives others permission to do the same. You may not always know what you can give, but leave no doubt that you are ready and willing to give.

As I reflect on Colleran's words, and look back at my own career thus far, I'm proud to call myself an entrepreneur.

Yet more importantly, let us all heed Colleran's message. Entrepreneurship extends beyond a job, it's a way of life. It's a way of being. If you want to be an entrepreneur, don't use your current job as an excuse, use it as an opportunity.

* Thanks Kevin, a warrior, a brilliant mind, and an entrepreneur, for the inspiration to write this piece. Kevin's commencement address to Babson's Class of 2015 can be found here.