Babson President Looks For American Entrepreneurial Spirit

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For much of the past 20 years, Wellesley's Babson College has been ranked the nation’s No. 1 school for entrepreneurship studies. But as America finds itself jostled by a growing tumult of rising foreign economies, Babson is also looking abroad to see if the greatest entrepreneurial energy now lies outside the United States.

Leonard Schlesinger, president of Babson College (Courtesy)
Leonard Schlesinger, president of Babson College (Courtesy)

Leonard Schlesinger, Babson's 12th president, is the school's foremost ambassador. He's a tall man who waves his hands in bigger and bigger circles the more excited he gets about a topic. But the genial hyperbole is backed by a genuine passion he has for spreading what could be called the gospel of a Babson entrepreneurial education.

Radio Boston's Meghna Chakrabarti spoke with Schlesinger about the health of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the U.S. and Massachusetts, challenges to the value of a college education, and about Schlesinger’s own career that includes stints at Harvard Business School, Au Bon Pain, and as Chief Operating Officer for Limited Brands — a massive company that includes Victoria’s Secret, Bath and Body Works and La Senza.


  • Leonard Schlesinger, president, Babson College

[Responses have been edited for length and clarity.]

Meghna Chakrabarti: Were you hired straight into a managerial position after graduating from Columbia Business School?

Leonard Schlesinger: No. The vast majority of the people went to work in New York banks. I wanted to work in a factory. I got hired by Procter & Gamble and was sent to Green Bay, Wisc., to be a first-line supervisor in a paper mill. It completely shaped my life. I had a level of arrogance that was associated with having two Ivy League degrees and an MBA that allowed me to think I was pretty cool.

I remember one event like it happened this morning. It was 1972. It was the first night when I was supervising on my own. The entire crew walked off the job and into the break room. And I discovered that I didn't know about the world and how it worked. It was 3 A.M. I called my wife. And I said, "All these people walked off. They're laughing. What should I do?" And she said, "Why did they walk off?" And I said, "I was annoyed in the way in which they were organizing themselves [for an equipment change in the plant]. I went to a fork truck to show them how to cut 15 minutes off their time. And since it was a union plant, and I touched equipment, they all walked off."

My wife said, "You might want to go in and apologize." I walked into the break room and I said, "I clearly understand exactly what I did. It won't happen again, and could they please come out and do their job." The message had been sent that I had my job, they had their job, and the question was, how could we figure out how we could do our jobs together? I could have never learned that in college. Never.

You've written in The Economist that you see a flowering of entrepreneurial energy around the world. Do you not see a similar growth here in the United States?

I am seeing pockets of it. I'm seeing a political process that's making it increasingly difficult and an economic environment that doesn't lead to day-to-day optimism. I see the roots of entrepreneurial activity in the United States, but I see the opportunity and the energy being global in nature.

In 2010, the U.S. Small Business Administration's Office of Advocacy released a report ranking the entrepreneurial environments of 71 nations. The United States ranked third, behind Denmark and Canada. The 2010 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor found that US entrepreneurial activity fell from almost 11 percent in 2005 to 7 percent in 2009. Are you troubled by these findings?

Yes. Historically, at the national level, when we talk about start-ups, we have an idiosyncratic bias towards large technology enterprises. The emphasis on that excludes millions of people who have ideas outside of that space. There are also lots of people who think that engaging in entrepreneurial activity in the face of an economic downturn is trivial. There's not an orientation right now that allows people to believe that they can exercise some sort of control over their reality. I want to celebrate people's energy being devoted to entrepreneurial activity of all kinds.

The rest of the world seems to be catching up to the U.S. model for entrepreneurship? Could America risk being beaten at its own game?

Other countries have a long way to go. But there's a risk. One of the ways you can confront that at the local level is to manufacture a portfolio of local heroes. People can look up and see more than Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. They can actually see someone whom they can dream of growing up to be, who has actually taken a step and done something in their own environment, in a way that's familiar to people. Right now, we're trying to recreate that in the United States and it's really hard work.

Babson College recently launched the Global Consortium for Entrepreneurship Education, a series of partnerships with foreign governments and schools that will spread Babson's brand of business education globally. One of their main projects is in the United Arab Emirates, where Babson is designing the curriculum, hiring faculty and managing the development of the Abu Dhabi School of Management. What does Babson stand to gain from such foreign partnerships that it cannot have with domestic partners?

First, we're not spreading the Babson gospel. This is not the Americans going to some third world domain, building a school and leaving. There's a 2030 Emirates plan [set out by the Emirates government]. They have a 92 percent ex-pat workforce. They have no local human resource system and a level of assets that doesn't exist in the United States. There's a here and now need to prepare the citizens of the Emirates for an Abu Dhabi that is strikingly different than the one that exists today. We want to bring a spirit of entrepreneurial methods, work with them and create in Abu Dhabi a model that works for them.

It's a global world. The notion of an ethnocentric view of partnering with a portfolio of institutions just for the United States belies the reality of the world we're part of. We're trying to create an environment that helps people train for the world they're going to be a part of. I'm not training people to just working in Massachusetts, or just the United States. I'm training people to work in a global economy. If we don't, woe is us. That requires understanding places and people in the world who are experiencing materially more growth than we are in the United States.

How do you assess the health of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Massachusetts?

It's pretty good and getting a lot better. Most of the critiques you read in the media about Boston being awful and San Francisco is just great, it's just silly. There's an East Coast-West Coast thing. We're different. Different assets, different emotional events in our history. There's no question there's a younger, technology heavy, small start-up orientation in San Francisco. But the issue is not about the entrepreneurial ecosystem, it's more about quality of life issues. And there's no question that the business community has got to recognize that while there's a huge economic driver from having thousands of students here, there's a shocking waste of value added in allowing them all to leave [Massachusetts] when they graduate.

There's a final question I've asked every college president who's been on Radio Boston. The price of a college education. In Babson's case, tuition, room and board for the 2011 academic year is $53,730. What's your argument that it's worth it?

There's no rational way to argue it. I say $54,000 across 14 hours a week people are in classes doesn't make for a very good deal. We have to be in the business of intentionally designing 168 hour experiences. We've already done this. Our first year students are in teams starting businesses. We give them all $3000 and that starts an experience that lasts most of their four years. But we can do a lot more.

I'm not arguing that college is not for everybody. But it is not a waste. Everybody has the capacity to be an entrepreneur. We can teach that here. Everybody should be encouraged to practice it. Everybody should be connected up to opportunities for mentorship and support in their communities. And in an ideal world there would be substantial access to capital. We can deliver on the first three parts.

This segment aired on August 17, 2011.


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