A Real Test for the Entrepreneurs

By George O’Brien

“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”

That was one of the many — as in many — poignant thoughts left with the audience as Randy Pausch, the 45-year-old professor of computer science, human-computer interaction, and design at Carnegie Mellon, who had been recently informed that his pancreatic cancer was terminal, delivered what became known, famously, as the “Last Lecture.”

I was thinking of that quote — and some of the others — as a I contemplated what this pandemic has wrought — not only for business owners and managers, but for everyone. Indeed, it was Pausch who said, “time is all you have, and you may find one day that you have less than you think.” Tragically, so many have had such a day because of this crisis.

But it is that remark about experience that has been on my mind lately.

None of us wanted any of this, and we’re getting plenty of experience, which we have to hope will make us all stronger one of these days.

These thoughts about experience are especially relevant to the entrepreneurs out there — all of them, but especially the younger ones, the ones this region has devoted so much time and energy to nurturing in recent years.

Indeed, there has been what amounts to a movement, a strong movement at that, in Western Mass. to encourage entrepreneurship and mentor those who aspire to work for themselves. We see it in the programs administered by Valley Venture Mentors, EforAll Holyoke, and other organizations, and in the work of the Grinspoon Foundation and the massive gathering its hosts each spring to recognize entrepreneurs at each of the region’s many colleges and universities.

Almost every one of the entrepreneurs, whether they’re developing an app or baking cupcakes, brewing beer or planning to put a food truck on the road, has a business plan. And it’s quite safe to say that not one of those business plans has a page with contingencies for a global pandemic.

It’s just not something you can remotely plan for. And for many of these entrepreneurs, it will provide the sternest of tests.

The pandemic has brought life, and almost all forms of commerce, to a halt. For those already in business, the crisis will certainly set them back in some way. It might force some of them to close their doors.

As for those still in the aspirational stages, this will likely put some dreams on hold — or perhaps inspire some different dreams.

What we all have to hope in this region is that these young entrepreneurs, whether their venture survives this crisis or not, never stop dreaming — because those dreams form the basis of the economy in this region in the decades to come.

As they contemplate the present and the future, and gain all this experience from not getting what they wanted, these young entrepreneurs may want to remember some other remarks from Pausch’s last lecture.

“We cannot change the cards we are dealt,” he noted, referring to his own situation and his response to it, but also life in general, “just how we play the hand.”

He also said this: “it’s not how hard you hit; it’s how hard you get hit … and keep moving forward.”

Everyone’s getting hit extremely hard right now, and they have to dig deep and find some way to keep moving forward.

“And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.”

George O’Brien is the editor of BusinessWest.

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