Posts from an Emerging Leader: Risky Business — Entrepreneurship and Reframing “Risk”

October 22, 2015


This blog is part of a ten-part series capturing my experiences as part of the 2015 Lead NJ Class, which follows the monthly two-day seminars our class participates in over the course of one year.  For the next several weeks I’ll be posting a blog every Monday up through my graduation in early December 2015. You can read it here and in occasional posts on the Dodge Blog. 

I’ll be honest: I’m pretty risk-averse.  As a leader, I’ve always thought I should have control of the operation, to know how and when to act.  If something looks risky, I want more information, more context by which I can judge my next move.  I don’t just say, “I don’t know – let’s jump in and find out!”  So, yes, I’m risk-averse.

Kacy O'Brien
Kacy O’Brien

At least, I thought I was – until hearing Mukesh Patel speak. Mukesh is an entrepreneur and co-founder of JuiceTank – Somerset’s innovation hub/co-working space.  Mukesh visited my Lead NJ class during our April seminar on New Jersey’s economy, along with a number of preeminent NJ business people and representatives from business-oriented organizations, including representatives from the NJ Economic Development Authority, Choose New Jersey, Panasonic, NJ Sports and Exposition Authority (the folks who worked on the Superbowl), and the Healthcare Institute of New Jersey, among others.

Each of these individuals helped to paint a picture of some of the major industries that make up New Jersey’s economy – biotech and pharmaceuticals, tourism and entertainment, technology, and aerospace and defense. Many of these industries have changed significantly over time and the concentration of each of these industries in our state have waxed and waned.

Mukesh showed us a blank spot – and a bright spot – for potential growth in New Jersey’s economy: where are New Jersey’s entrepreneurs? Clearly, there are some entrepreneurs working in the state, but not a high concentration, and when they are concentrated it’s usually in urban areas. How then, can this area for economic growth be tapped?

As a self-described serial entrepreneur, Mukesh decided to try something crazy – founding an innovation lab in the middle of suburbia, in a state that is no longer known for its science and technology innovators (like Edison and Bell Labs).

Well, sure (us risk-averse people think) – he’s an entrepreneur and must have some specialized genetic mutation that keeps him from hyperventilating at the thought of such an enterprise failing, right? But what about the rest of us who tense up when we even think about the amount of money, time, and personal relationships that would be wasted if a venture failed?

“We overestimate risk and underestimate the potential of people,” says Mukesh, and there are two big ticket items to keep in mind when you’re on entrepreneurial ground:

  1. THE TEAM:

A great team can take a mediocre idea and work it until it becomes a great idea, says Mukesh. A mediocre team won’t be able to move an idea forward, so if you’re building a team to launch an idea or you’re thinking about becoming an angel investor, then invest in the people involved and trust them, not necessarily the idea. Ideas fail constantly, but if a team can take those failures, learn from them and improve upon the idea, then you’ve got something that works.


Unless the idea is to use human beings as the newest electrical conductor, you’re on much safer ground than you might think. Really, no one dies. Yes, money is at stake. Yes, identity and personal esteem can be at stake (if you’re not careful about your investors or the team you invest in). Mostly, the risk is not nearly as high as we perceive it to be.

Take it from Mukesh: he has survived lightning strikes to two different homes, an earthquake, a disastrous car crash that most people would not have walked away from, and being stuck at the epicenter of a seven-tornado storm. Entrepreneurship doesn’t hold a candle to those things in terms of risk.

When I had time to digest the lessons Mukesh shared with us I began to realize that I’m not nearly as risk-averse as I thought. In my past work as a theater producer – essentially a project manager that connects the budgeting process with the artistic process – every new show is a risk. It’s a new team of people, the challenges are unique to the play, and the design process has to go through many iterations to meet both artistic and budgetary standards.

So how do I handle that risk? I have always worked collaboratively to assemble the best teams possible. I’ve trusted their ingenuity, creativity and innovative problem-solving when budgetary or time or personnel constraints have put pressure on the artistic process. I’ve marveled at how the creativity and effectiveness of the productions have skyrocketed as a result of having people with individual expertise and a collaborative mindset in the same room together bouncing ideas off one another and prototyping their ideas.

Even when things are a mess, when tensions are high and time is short, when I’m quietly terrified that the show may not be ready for audiences, I trust that my team will work together to achieve an artistically fulfilling and successful production – and the vast majority of the time that’s exactly what happens.

If I am able to work in an entrepreneurial mindset in the theatre world, then what’s stopping me from taking those same principles and applying them to other projects and other areas of my life? Maybe, by reframing what it means for me to feel entrepreneurial as opposed to what I thought entrepreneurship entailed, I can be a stronger leader because I’m no longer scared by the idea of entrepreneurship. (Remember: ideas fail all the time!)

Maybe, if we can start to think about all the little ways in which we can be entrepreneurs and investors in our daily lives, we can start to take risks that will lead us in new directions. If those of us who lead – at whatever level and in whatever space – can reframe risk, perhaps we be able to make NJ a more creative and innovative state.

Kacy O’Brien is the Program Manager at Creative New Jersey, a statewide initiative dedicated to fostering creativity, innovation, and sustainability by empowering cross-sector partnerships in commerce, education, philanthropy, government, and culture, in order to ensure dynamic communities and a thriving economy.

This blog is part of a ten-part series capturing Kacy’s experiences as part of the 2015 Lead NJ Class, which follows the monthly two-day seminars her class participates in over the course of one year.  Topics range from policy to the economy, to education, arts and culture, energy, criminal justice and healthcare, with a focus on New Jersey’s current state and its future. Kacy gratefully acknowledges Lead NJ and The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation for their support of her participation in the 2015 Lead NJ program.