Author Malcolm Gladwell's visit to the University of Michigan Tuesday drew an audience large enough to fill Hill Auditorium for a lecture on the risks and realities of entrepreneurship.
The talk, which explored the careers of scientist Emil Freireich, who helped invent modern chemotherapy; Steve Jobs, who founded Apple; and Ingvar Kamprad, who founded IKEA, was part of The Joseph and Sally Handleman Lecture Series hosted by the Ross School of Business.
Gladwell challenged the audience to reframe the traditional discourse surrounding entrepreneurship, encouraging them to consider the social implications as well.
“I think we spend a lot of time talking about the innovation part of entrepreneurship and not enough time talking about the social part of entrepreneurship,” he said. “That's what I want to talk about this evening.”
He suggested that entrepreneurs are defined by exigency rather than competence or resources, highlighting Jobs’ attempt to produce the Macintosh computer as quickly as possible.
“That's what sets (Jobs) apart, that sense of urgency,” Gladwell said. “That's what gives an entrepreneur their sense of direction and their sense of purpose.”
He also outlined three common characteristics shared by all entrepreneurs: openness to creativity, conscientiousness and disagreeableness in terms of a disregard for the approval of others.
To illustrate this notion of disagreeableness, he pointed to Freireich’s struggle with the medical community’s disapproval and accusations of immorality. Freireich's work that led to the discovery of a treatment for childhood leukemia was criticized for his experimental therapeutic models. However, today, his method has been effective in 75 percent of cases.
“If Freireich needed approval, leukemia would still exist,” Gladwell said.
He charged that a successful entrepreneur believes in the nature of a dynamic society, a vision which fuels the entrepreneur to implement change.
“Entrepreneurs believe in the inherent volatility of the world,” he said.
LSA freshman Jillian Gordner, who attended the lecture, said she thought a business lens was an interesting way to examine Gladwell’s work, and that his approach to entrepreneurship seemed unique.
“I haven't heard him speak much in an entrepreneurship context,” she said.” It was a cool way to use entrepreneur a lot of different ways, and I think what he has to say is relevant to everyone in all educational domains."
However, LSA senior Anu Vora said she wished Gladwell would have discussed a subject he’s more familiar with himself, noting that she didn't agree with everything he presented.
“He's a very creative writer in journalism,” Vora said. “At the same time, I don't necessarily agree that you can boil entrepreneurship down into three qualities. There's a lot more that goes into being an entrepreneur, which I've learned firsthand working with startups on campus and growing up in a very entrepreneurial home. It's not possible to accommodate all entrepreneurs in this model."
Nonetheless, Business sophomore Becca Rudman said she found herself inspired by Gladwell, and reconsidering her possible involvement in the world of entrepreneurship given the challenges and personality types Gladwell outlined.
“It made me question whether I could be an entrepreneur,” she said.