The Myth of Isolation

The Myth of Isolation is the second post in the Case Foundation’s Myth of the Entrepreneur series. This series is intended to intentionally examine, and change, the stories our culture tells about entrepreneurship. For more information on the Case Foundation’s approach to the Myth series and Inclusive Entrepreneurship, please check out our introductory piece. We encourage you to join the conversation using #Ent4All on Twitter.

The Myth of the Entrepreneur series is based on research conducted by Michael Chodos, former fellow with the Case Foundation and currently at the Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation at Georgetown University, with contributions from Aaron Coleman, former Case Foundation intern.

In our first deep dive into prevalent entrepreneurship myths in our culture, we’d like to tackle one of the biggest of them all – that all successful companies emerge from some solitary “moment of inspiration” in some solitary place. The idioms and the imagery – “light bulb moments” and garages where “it all started” – are deeply seeded in the narrative of what it takes to be an entrepreneur. Take a minute and think about the classic tales. It was in the garage that Steve Jobs invented the personal computer. It was in his basement that Alexander Graham Bell uttered those famous lines upon inventing the phone, “Watson, come here! I want to see you!” And Isaac Singer toiled away alone as he built the sewing machine from scratch.

All white men. All idolized for their solitary contributions to society. And all seen as having a stroke of genius while working by themselves in complete isolation. In our nation’s version of entrepreneur mythology, this magic takes place in the garage where the lone inventor works.

This myth is not only talked about in entrepreneurship circles, but even marketers have started using the “great things happen in a garage” sentiment to sell products. For a good example of this, watch the Cadillac ad below:

But it turns out the myths of the garage inventions and the lone inventors are more fiction than fact. Steve Jobs didn’t invent the personal computer in his garage – nor did he start Apple alone. Steve Wozniak pulled the first Apple computer together by tinkering with circuit boards along with a group of friends at the “Homebrew” computer club run out of a bicycle shop in Palo Alto; Jobs convinced him they could sell it.

And what we don’t hear about Bell’s invention of the telephone is that he built his version of the first telephone based on decades of similar designs from others. There was a wealth of knowledge and work on behalf of other brilliant individuals that contributed to Bell’s truly remarkable invention that altered humanities communication forever.

Singer has a similar entrepreneur experience with the invention of his sewing machine. While he’s credited with the invention, he built his work off of decades of incremental inventions by other engineers and designers. At least eighty patents for designs and working machines existed before his first patent was filed. In fact, he was successfully sued for infringing oth­ers’ patented designs.

This “teamwork disguised as individual successes” phenomenon is rarely talked about in mainstream entrepreneurship stories. It leads us to idolize the individual instead of analyzing the team and process that made the idea come to fruition. Steve Johnson, in his book How We Got to Now, takes a deep dive into six innovations that were highly collaborative and involved in how they developed. He discusses inventors like Bell and Thomas Edison, who we think of as lone innovators who had a stroke of genius, and breaks down the real life process that led to inventions that changed the course of history. Thomas Edison gets the credit for inventing the light bulb, but his “light bulb moment” was actually a much more common iterative process of building off the successes and failures of others in the space.

Entrepreneurship requires work, drive and guts; however, what these four changemakers’ stories reveal is that developing the idea and building the product or service requires the knowledge and contribution of both present and historical peers and networks. It requires the diversity of ideas and perspectives of many pioneering men and women who come together to build on both past and current work, while creating a support system that uplifts an entrepreneur and propels a business.

As research shows, the most successful ventures involve teamwork. A 2013 report published in the Harvard Business School Review (HBR) found that companies with leaders who possess both inherent diversity (gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation) and acquired diversity (robust and varied business and life experiences) were, “45 percent more likely to report that their firm’s market share grew over the previous year and 70 percent more likely to report that the firm captured a new market.” And HBR isn’t alone. Forbes, McKinsey and Company and Scientific American have all published articles and studies that reinforce the theory that greater inclusivity breeds innovation and growth. When we look at the historical facts of great innovations like Apple and the telephone, we see that their success was based on teams. And we see that diverse teams produce greater returns for their investors.

So why do we keep lifting up tales of solitary entrepreneurs from privileged backgrounds working in suburban garages as the ones to emulate? And why do we hold so dear to the idea of lone rangers having singular moments of discovery?

The history and the future of entrepreneurship are full of interesting and diverse characters and stories of great teamwork – and much more interesting than the myths and the models that continue to dominate the narrative. The most powerful ideas are really borne out of a “village”, more than they are happened upon in a rare “aha moment” by a single entrepreneur working in the isolation of their garage, dorm room or basement. Changing that narrative to better reflect reality has the potential to actually make it a reality for more people, in more places, from more backgrounds.

Join the conversation on Twitter at #Ent4All and be sure to check out the full Myth of the Entrepreneur series!

Steve Jobs: A Life of Innovation and Inspiration

Yesterday evening we learned that Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple and one of the most inspiring innovators of our time, had lost his battle with cancer at age 56. Perhaps appropriately so, devices he created were often the channels through which news of his passing flooded social networks, text messages, and email inboxes. The Case Foundation has made supporting innovative and disruptive technology a priority, as well as the impact it has on citizen engagement and philanthropy. Steve Jobs was a trailblazer in his field, and whether you are an iPod, iPad, iPhone, or Mac user – or not – one thing is for certain: his imagination and passion for technology has changed all of our lives, in some way or another. And, whether it’s a voiceless child with autism able to communicate through an iPad or a group of disenfranchised citizens able to amplify their voices and mobilize action through an iPhone, Steve’s genius has sparked social innovations with revolutionary impact. To honor Jobs’ achievements and contributions to society, we’ve collected reflections from some Foundation team members, including Jean and Steve Case.

“Thank you, Steve Jobs, for all the ways you shared your genius. You were a true dreamer, innovator, entrepreneur, and the impact you made on this world will be felt for generations. You will certainly be missed.” – Jean Case

“Steve Jobs was one of the greatest innovators of our generation and truly changed the world. Steve’s legacy is not just about the iconic, innovative products Apple has come to represent but his legacy is also about the idea of American entrepreneurs building great companies that can change the world. He embodied the unique entrepreneurial spirit that makes America great, and his legacy will live on for generations.” – Steve Case

“Since I’ve been glued to my iPhone today, it’s impossible not to clearly see how Steve Jobs has impacted my life. He not only had incredible vision but understood that the best marketing comes from delivering great products and experiences.” – Allyson B.

“I remember my first Apple experience on Apple IIs in middle school playing Lemonade Stand and Oregon Trail, then just two years ago switching from Blackberry and becoming a full blown iPhone addict. Steve Jobs’ genius shows up in my life everyday and has changed the game – and raised for the bar – for how we connect, engage and entertain all around the world.” – Michael S.

“From his persona to his products, Steve Jobs inspired me in countless ways. Thank you to Steve Jobs for dreaming what the future could be and daring to make it a reality.” – Emily Y.

“Steve Jobs was a true innovator and dreamer. But unlike many of us, he never gave up on his dream, and because of that he is a true inspiration to me.” – Samantha N.

“Steve’s death reminds me of two truths: 1) Design matters and 2) Cancer sucks. Thanks for putting a ding in the universe, Steve.” – Chris F.

“Steve Jobs was an incredible innovator, thinker and above all a dreamer. He will be sorely missed but his work will be felt for many more generations to come.” – Amanda L.

“It’s amazing what an impact Steve Jobs’ creations have had on our lives, from the functionality, to the design, and in the way that it’s become a lifestyle choice instead of just a fun tool. Steve Jobs’ commitment to his products and his customers is an example for all entrepreneurs. It wasn’t just about making money – it became about YOU, the user, in a way that had never been done before.” –Jenna S.

“Steve Jobs was a creator who turned his visions into reality, and in doing so, he changed the world. Lesson learned; chase your dreams no matter what.” – Stacey W.

“At some level, the work of Steve Jobs has touched every person in the United States. Soon enough his work will have touched every person in the world.” – Will G.

“Steve Jobs and his company’s approach to innovation and technology have played an important role in how we think, communicate, create and share information today and in the future.” – Stephanie V.

“The first time I ever touched a computer was just about 20 years ago – it was an Apple. My family today is a Mac family, with devices that allow me to wave hello at my two little girls on a tricycle adventure while I’m away at work, and enable my husband to run his business. Mr. Jobs was an incredible man who did indeed put a ‘dent in the universe’. His creativity, diligence, and passion not only produced fabulous products but perhaps more importantly opportunity for an increasingly broader scope of people.” – Louise S.

“Apple’s innovation has affected the way I do so many things in my life. Steve Jobs leaves behind an incredible legacy and one that has impacted many of us on a very personal level.” – Molly P.

“Steve jobs was not just an innovator within the computer industry, he was one of the industry’s creators. His accomplishments did not just shape lives; they shaped the history of the world.” – Josh T.

“Believe it or not, I am still on my original iPod, which I bought to replace a Discman. It’s just stunning how a strong vision can, overnight, change your perception of the technology you can’t live without.” – Kate A.

“Steve Jobs always thought outside the box. He could always ‘Think Different’ and encouraged us to do the same. He will be greatly missed but the impact he made will never fade. ‘Here’s to the crazy ones.’” – Erich B.

“Thank you, Steve Jobs, for your amazingly high standards, genius vision and absolute passion for design. A few short words won’t describe the impact you’ve had on all of us – so I’ll just say thank you for transforming our world … for generations to come.” – Brian S.