Linda Rottenberg has a message for aspiring entrepreneurs: If people aren’t calling you crazy, you aren’t dreaming big enough.
It’s a lesson straight out of her own life’s playbook. She has been called la Chica Loca (“the crazy girl”) for insisting that high-impact entrepreneurs exist in emerging and developing markets.
“If you don’t take some chances in today’s tumultuous, nonlinear world, then you risk being left behind,” she said. She took a chance, and it paid off. She’s co-founder and CEO of Endeavor Global Inc., an organization that rigorously selects, mentors, and scales the most promising, high-impact entrepreneurs in 30 countries and a number of underserved U.S. cities. Today, Endeavor Entrepreneurs—1,700 selected from more than 55,000 candidates—generate over $15 billion in annual revenues and produce more than 1.5 million jobs.
Crazy has become her badge of honor, but it isn’t her only designation. Her work has earned her the titles “Innovator for the 21st Century,” “America’s Best Leader,” and “The Entrepreneur Whisperer.” And, when her book, Crazy Is a Compliment, hit the shelves, she added New York Times bestselling author to her list. We spoke with Rottenberg about finding motivation in the “crazy” label and her advice for fellow entrepreneurs.
How do you define entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship isn’t just about starting a business. It’s as much a mindset than it is a profession: Entrepreneurship is a way of looking at the world that is contrary to how others see it. Many of the best ideas fulfill a need no one knows exists. Being an entrepreneur often means being misunderstood and being called crazy for thinking big, doing the unexpected and challenging the status quo.
Another definition I like comes from one of Endeavor’s very first entrepreneurs, who says, “Entrepreneur is really another word for doer.” Entrepreneurs actualize the future instead of merely imagining it. They live within their illusions, but then strive to make them real. In other words, they’re not just dreamers, they’re doers.
In Crazy Is a Compliment, you argue that entrepreneurship isn’t just for Silicon Valley techies—everyone needs to be an entrepreneur. Why?
Everyone today needs to think and act like an entrepreneur. Playing it safe works in times of stability, which favors the traditional status quo. But, chaos favors the enterprising, and today our world is filled with instability and chaos that isn’t going away. That’s one takeaway from working with entrepreneurs mainly outside of the United States. They grew up assuming the world is nonlinear (with currencies and regimes constantly shifting) and therefore are not as surprised when life throws them curveballs. I once said that “when economies turn down, entrepreneurs turn up.” High-impact entrepreneurs thriving in the most inhospitable economic climates—from debt-ridden Greece to recession-hit Detroit to the never-boring Middle East—prove this time and again.
To adopt an entrepreneurial mindset, you need to give yourself permission to get going. Contrary to popular belief, the biggest barriers to getting going with your idea are not financial, structural, cultural, or political, they’re psychological. I always say that the best ideas don’t die in the marketplace, lab, or boardroom, they die in the shower. Mustering the courage to take your idea from the shower or the napkin out into the real world: That’s the scariest part of being an entrepreneur!
Support—specifically mentoring—seems to be a big focus of Endeavor’s model. What mentors have you had in your life, and how have they inspired you to, in turn, become a valuable mentor for entrepreneurs?
While I’ve been blessed to have a number of key advisors at various stages, including the late Jeffry Timmons of Babson College, I find the concept of mentorship a bit outmoded. Frankly, the idea of finding “the perfect mentor” stressed me out in my 20s and 30s: You mean I’m expected to search for a mate and a mentor both at once? I never liked the model of a gray-haired individual gently guiding me up the corporate ladder: I wanted to avoid stepping on that ladder at all costs! Instead, I enlisted a circle of mentors—different ages, stages of life, professions, areas of expertise—who can funnel in and out as situations arise. I’m also a big fan of peer mentorship, and we now spend a lot of time at Endeavor encouraging and providing platforms for our entrepreneurs to deliver and receive this peer-to-peer guidance.
Still, the best piece of feedback I’ve ever received came not from a mentor but from my twin daughters (now age 13) when they were 5. One tugged on my leg and told me not to leave for a business trip; the other looked at me and said, “Just remember: You can be an entrepreneur for a short time, but you’re a mommy forever!” I still use that piece of feedback today.
It’s commencement season, and you’ll be speaking to graduates of Babson College—what’s the best piece of advice you have to share with them?
People often tell recent graduates that they should “keep their options open; don’t close any doors.” But, keeping every option open winds up leading to paralysis, or worse than that, self-deception. How many of my former classmates who took that job at Goldman or McKinsey for “a few years” before they pursued their real passions like cooking or starting their dream company are actually now chefs or entrepreneurs? My advice: CLOSE DOORS.
This advice also applies to entrepreneurs who have one foot in their business and one foot out. That’s OK at the outset (heck, Phil Knight of Nike worked as an accountant for years, and Sara Blakely of Spanx sold fax machines until she was certain her idea would take off). But, at some point after your idea has launched, the hedging has to stop. You can’t build a significant business with one foot out the door. Entrepreneurs often cling to their conventional work like a security blanket—out of fear rather than necessity—even after they can afford to pursue their venture full time. My advice to entrepreneurs: Once your idea has gained traction, cut the umbilical cord. Your idea can’t take flight if you don’t leave the nest.