How Can You Be Entrepreneurial in Any Organization?

by Vince Ponzo '03BUS
originally published in Columbia Business

No word captures the zeitgeist of today’s business environment better than ‘entrepreneurial’. The word
 is everywhere: in pop culture, on the news, and most importantly, reverberating through businesses of every size. So how can you learn to be more entrepreneurial within your organization?

First, let’s touch on why an entrepreneurial mindset is important. Today, the status quo for businesses is constant change, largely due to accelerating technological advancement, the erosion of brand loyalty driven by easy access to comparative information, and new local and global entrants regularly altering market equilibriums. An entrepreneurial mindset allows you to stay ahead in this competitive environment by creating and responding to opportunities in your business, industry, and career.

Now let’s discuss how to get there.


Start by assessing your strengths, weaknesses, and overall tolerance for risk. Reflecting on your biggest personal and professional successes, failures, and times of greatest growth will provide you with signposts for this exercise. Questions to ask at this stage include: Am I a naturally curious person? Do I prefer to work alone or as part of a team? Am I at ease in chaotic or undefined situations? Do I prefer a regular routine or an ever-changing schedule? How quickly and thoroughly do I bounce back from rejection or hard times? This self-assessment will serve as a road map for the following steps—and allow you to make quicker and better decisions.


Weigh your tolerance for risk against personal responsibilities and the context of your organization. Having
 a big mortgage, children in school, or other obligations, for example, may require you to move forward in smaller increments, even if you have a high tolerance for risk. Similarly, if you work in a conservative industry or corporate environment, you’ll want to advance at a measured pace.


Expose yourself to new ideas and processes by seeking out unfamiliar experiences like reading different books and websites, trying new food, and traveling to new places or parts of town. If done without judgment, these experiences will ultimately give rise to new ways of thinking and problem solving; innovation comes from adding to, subtracting from, or combining ideas. (When Gutenberg invented the printing press, for example, he put the wine press and the coin punch together.)


Regardless of your location and industry, there are entrepreneurial people at your organization; find and connect with them. It might not be immediately obvious who they are, but by initiating conversations, sharing ideas, and looking for clues—such as coworkers’ past work experience via LinkedIn, their associations with others at the office, and even reading materials on their desks—you will eventually find kindred spirits. Connecting with entrepreneurially minded people will provide you with support and insight into how entrepreneurial thinking is viewed in other parts of your organization, which could be a good place to look for opportunities.


Find the appropriate place and opportunity within
 your organization to be entrepreneurial and move forward. For example, look for new markets for existing products and new products for existing customers,
 or find a way to cut costs through negotiation or new technology. Be smart and decisive and move in small, controllable increments to allow for pivoting. Document your progress and find ways to measure the positive impact of your actions. If you don’t see an appropriate opportunity, don’t force one; opportunities will come with time or further exploration. But stay focused: there is a big difference between lack of opportunity and lack of action.

By following and repeating these steps, you will learn a lot about yourself, your organization, and your entrepreneurial opportunities. Stay attuned to your skills and your organization’s appetite for risk and continue to calibrate the risks and rewards of each opportunity. And remember that sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Vince Ponzo '03 is the director or the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center at Columbia Business School. Follow him on Twitter at @vinceponzo.

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