August 4, 2008 9:25 am

Shades of grey that make an entrepreneur

When the dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management approached Lloyd Shefsky to teach entrepreneurship, he was not keen on the idea.

The Chicago lawyer – who started a firm that specialised in counselling entrepreneurs – already had a booming business to look after and his work frequently took him out of the city.

“I told him, ‘What are the odds of me being in town for 10 consecutive Monday mornings?’” Prof Shefsky recalls. “But the dean was persistent. He said: ‘What if we made the class at night and what if it went for five weeks instead of 10?’ Finally, I said I’d try it. And I was hooked.”

Prof Shefsky, a Kellogg faculty member for more than a decade, developed and teaches the Successful Entrepreneurship course. The class, is based on his experience of setting up a law firm and years of advising entrepreneurs and their companies at every stage of their development – from the Fortune 500 corporation looking to expand overseas, to the young person starting out and working from his parents’ garage.

“I tell my students the bad news first – the fact they get an MBA means they are less likely to become an entrepreneur. But the good news is that with an MBA they are more likely to succeed.”

A professor of entrepreneurship and co-director of Kellogg’s Center for Family Enterprises, Prof Shefsky maintains an open-door policy for his students. They sometimes want to talk about the course, but more often they want feedback on their nascent business ideas.

“You can’t be an exuberant, passionate entrepreneur without discipline,” he says. “You have to balance the artistic with the sensibility of business. And that’s not easy. In my course, [students] learn about how to think about that problem. There is no magic bullet, but there are ways of thinking about how to come up with one.”

His greatest challenge, he says, is to help students understand that most of what they have been taught on other business school courses does not apply to entrepreneurship.

“The lessons they have learned are for running big companies and it is really different when you run a small start-up.

“The differences are meaningful.”

He ought to know. As a boy growing up in Chicago, he learned about the business world from his father, a podiatrist, who started several businesses. “My father was outgoing in the sense of always telling me what he was doing and some of those lessons have stuck.”

One of his father’s forays involved selling goods from the boot of his car. He would offer samples to customers and deliver the goods later. His father kept meticulous notes on customers’ preferences and kept careful track of their family events and any milestones that might require an order.

“He told me: ‘When you talk to someone, talk about them, not you,’” he says. “That’s important.”

Prof Shefsky is himself an entrepreneur. In 1970, aged 29, he quit his job as a partner at a law practice to start his own legal firm, Shefsky & Froelich. His firm became increasingly successful and clients started turning to him not only for legal advice, but also for business advice.

“I relied heavily on my instinct. Without realising it, I was the only guy in the room that had a breadth of experience with starting businesses.”

Prof Shefsky, who today remains on counsel at his law firm, wrote a book Entrepreneurs are Made Not Born, published in 1994, which posits that
the characteristics entrepreneurs share are latent in many people and the route to success is by removing the barriers people put in their way.

Prof Shefksy cites Howard Schultz, chief executive of Starbucks, and Elmer Winter, the attorney who in 1948 co-founded Manpower, the employment agency, as successful entrepreneurs who maintained faith in themselves and their ideas.

“They all had experts telling them that their ideas would not work. And they didn’t say: ‘I’m right and you’re wrong,’ but they did their homework and they understood the grey area,” he says.

“It’s not all black and white. And it’s the shades of grey that make entrepreneurs great.”

This is the first in a four-part series on entrepreneurial professors to watch. For other professors to watch, go to www.ft.com/bschool

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