Len Schlesinger says that the past two years as the president of Babson College in Massachusetts has been “an absolute gas.” The huge smile and breathless pace he brings to the position are only outmatched by the tenacity with which he adheres to the Babson motto: The Educator for Entrepreneurship of All Kinds.
“Many people would think this is a bold statement to the point of being outrageous,” Schlesinger says of the motto, “but this is our time. If we don’t seize it, we will spend the rest of our lives regretting the missed opportunity. Entrepreneurial thought and action is at the core of much of what ails the world.”
Babson is consistently ranked number one in entrepreneurship by U.S. News and World Report. And Schlesinger says there’s a good reason for that and it relates to the broad scale “democratization of entrepreneurship” the college is committed to. Entrepreneurship, he says, is not an exclusive concept relegated to Inc. Magazine, Fast Company and self-congratulatory books. Nor is it about “hanging on with finger nails from a crevice, towing piles of debt and failed personal relationships behind you.” Anyone can do it.
“Millions of people are self-defining themselves out of the universe of entrepreneurism and that’s tragic,” says Schlesinger. “The fact is, entrepreneurial thought and action can be codified and taught to anyone.”
This upbeat sense of urgency has served Schlesinger well in his long career on both the academic and private sides of business. In addition to teaching at the Harvard Business School for 20 years, he has held executive positions at Limited Brands and Au Bon Pain. He has also authored or co-authored nine books and numerous articles on organizational management. He currently is co-authoring a book on applying entrepreneurial thought and action beyond business to every aspect of life.
Schlesinger says he thrives in new situations where he has to figure things out quickly because the world is changing fast and he’s keeping pace. He says he’s so productive because he has a short attention span: “At the end of the day, on the things that need to get done, my orientation is to get it done before it’s not interesting,” he says.
His drive and motivation to try new things are a result of his natural curiosity combined with the unconditional support given him by his parents when he was young. Both of his parents were Holocaust survivors who “completely lived through their children,” he says:
“They reinforced whatever confidence I had, probably to the extreme. I was given lots of latitude to do lots of things when I was younger without someone looking over my shoulder critiquing everything I did. So when I got to college, there wasn’t much I thought I couldn’t do.”
This unbounded sense of potential saturates every part of Schlesinger’s personality. To say he is full of life is an understatement, and he expects the same liveliness from others. He believes in “stretching people.” That’s why he’s determined to have every student, staff and faculty member he can find at Babson pitch in and keep the college moving forward at a vigorous pace.
Just don’t show up unless you’re ready to play. Only “naïve organizations” try to get everyone on the bandwagon, but Schlesinger says you only need a large enough critical mass to get things done. “What I’m looking for is an emotional connection that spurs behavior,” he says.
Perhaps this is why BIF and Babson have such an affinity for each other.
This year the organizations embarked on a new partnership to create an Entrepreneur Experience Lab to accelerate the design of new entrepreneur support solutions. Schlesinger says that, by developing a deep and ongoing understanding of the experience of entrepreneurs, new insights will be found to guide the next generation of programs and policies at Babson. “It’s about providing an authentic voice to those entrepreneurs who drive new venture creation nationally and globally,” he explains.
With so many people today paralyzed in the face of large-scale problems and high degrees of uncertainty Schlesinger says the imperative for the entrepreneur is to just plain do: Start with the means, not the ends; define affordable loss; network like crazy (with people you like); and leverage contingencies. “There’s a whole way of thinking about the world that doesn’t include fantasizing about an 85-page business plan and 12-year forecast spreadsheet.”
It turns out, says Schlesinger, the construction of networks that drive entrepreneurial ventures looks exactly like a crazy quilt — fabric scraps that come together into something beautiful. “It’s radically different from what many people think to be the construction of an entrepreneurial enterprise. And we need different methods and approaches to support this new type of construction.”
He points to a research study of 50 successful partnerships. Forty-two of them started with people who got together and had no idea what they wanted to do. “All they knew is that they liked each other and wanted to do something,” he says.
Indeed, that’s just the kind of emotional connection that drives us all.