Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Learning from Pirate Communities - Entrepreneurship

This post is certainly for general-viewing, as it has a relevant, snappy and important message - albeit a rather lengthy one. This post is also a Web 2.0 guide for members of the 2009 CACEE Conference who are participating in Philippe Desrochers's and John Horn's round table discussion: "What do Pirates and the Economic Crisis have in Common?" Enjoy, and make lots of comments to help continue the discussion!

Entrepreneurs love a downturn. And there's no better - or worse - downturn than the one our global economy is wringing us through right now. According to an up-and-coming business publication, the Harvard Business Review, "entrepreneurs look at financial challenges or a recession and, instead of wringing their hands, find ways to innovate and spin them into gold for social transformation." The biggest immobilizer today is fear. Fear to take risks. Fear to innovate. Fear to change. People don't need to possess a natural risk-taking personality to excel as entrepreneurs, either. You can set yourself apart from your competition simply by being adaptable and adept at managing change. Be nimble. Respond quickly to market shifts and the opportunities they might create.

Speaking of market shifts, let's talk about Somalia. In his article, "You are being lied to about pirates," The Independent's Johann Hari examines the circumstances by which many Somali fishermen have been thrust into the world of piracy. After the fall of the country's government in 1991, Africa's longest coastline (Somalia's coast spans about 2,000 miles) has been unprotected. This power-vacuum has provided a perfect opportunity for the international fishing industry to steal Somalia's food supply and use the region as a dumping ground for nuclear waste ("yes: nuclear waste," says Hari - cadium and mercury were also, allegedly, thrown in the mix). Hari interviewed Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, who claims that "there has been no clean-up, no compensation, and no prevention" of such a gross example of pollution. But one can also see how market forces have driven them to think outside the box, get creative, take risks, and work together in innovative ways. In a recent Time magazine article, Ishaan Thardoor argues that "Somali piracy has metastasized into the country's only boom industry. Most of the pirates, observers say, are not former fishermen, but just poor folk seeking their fortune. Right now, they hold 18 cargo ships and some 300 sailors hostage — the work of a sophisticated and well-funded operation."

"But John," you're undoubtedly saying. "What the heck do pirates have to do with the economic crisis and entrepreneurship? Where are you going with this?" Oh dear readers, by this point in the history of The Weekly Gumboot, you shouldn't be so wary of my ability to link, connect and develop seemingly unconnectable ideas, events, facts, and findings. As ideas-man and innovation-guru Franz Johansson outlines, "individuals, teams and organizations can create an explosion of remarkable ideas at the intersection of different fields, cultures and industries." Some of the interesting "intersections" of which Mr. Johansson speaks include, but are not limited to, computers and candy, burqas and bikinis (pictured), locusts and Volvo, and Dr. Martin Luther King and Russian Techno music.

As we connect the entrepreneurial spirit with the service we provide to students and clients around the world, what can we take as the answer to this equation: economic crisis + pirates + CACEE = ? Well, there's only one way to find out. Read on!

Let's examine four tales of piracy that reflect four pillars of entrepreneurship: risk-taking and creativity, knowing the most, personal/professional branding, and relationship-building. Here we go:

Risk taking and creativity in the Gulf of Aden. To quote Stephen Colbert, "it takes balls" to navigate a tiny speedboat nearly 300 miles off the coast of Kenya into the Gulf of Aden, climb aboard a Saudi oil tanker, capture it, steer it into port, and then hold it ransom for $20 million. But that's what happened in November 2008, when a rag-tag bunch of think-outside-the-box pirates captured the Sirius Star and its crew, which was carrying 2 million barrels of oil, 25% of Saudi Arabia's daily output. From the BBC to CNN to Al Jazeera, the world suddenly became very interested in these seemingly small-time hijackers. They did what nobody thought possible and they got noticed. Like, really noticed. Oh, and they made $3 million from the ransom, too.

The takeaway from this story: look for opportunities where you've never looked before (for example, several Canadian mining companies are setting up shop in Mongolia and they need analysts, operations experts and supply chain managers).

Sir Francis Drake knew the most. In the ultimate example of a cross-functional, inter-cultural, and multi-dimensional information interview, Sir Francis Drake gathered enough information from a group of French sailors (Le Testu was the name of their leader - unfortunately, he was caught, tortured and killed following the heist), cimarrones (escaped slaves who had no love for the Spanish), and also from secret English documents that divulged important Spanish trade routes to pillage the Caribbean port of Nombre de Dios. In the end, according to Samuel Baulf, "in gold alone the raiders had seized some 100,000 pesos (the peso was worth eight shillings three pence of English money)...and including gems and what silver they managed to recover, the total value of the haul was likely in excess of £40,000." And here's the kicker: Drake and his boys stole over 15 tons of silver. Drake knew all their was to know about the port, which, Angus Konstam argues, resulted in a watershed moment for the Spanish Main: "attacks by Sir Francis Drake proved Nombre de Dios too vulnerable to pirates."

The takeaway from this story: a recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that the top reason that candidates are not hired out of an interview because they don't know enough about the company; being entrepreneurial means standing out in a crowd because you know the most.

The personal brand of Edward Teach.
Konstam calls Teach - also known as "Blackbeard" - "the most famous pirate of them all." Blackbeard worked hard to establish a fearsome and terrifying image (see his flag, pictured - a demonic figure stabbing a bleeding heart), but, according to Konstam, "no evidence exists to suggest that he ever killed anyone who was not trying trying to kill him." He even preferred marooning a crew to outright slaughter. Sure, other pirates caused more mayhem, captured richer cargoes, more ships, and more valuable prisoners, but Blackbeard has come to represent the pirate genre more than any other. And it has to do with his personal brand: in 1717 a victim described him as "a tall, spare man with a very black beard which he wore very long." He added to his menacing appearance by wearing a crimson coat and and bandoleers slung over his shoulders, but it was the "burning lengths of slow match" woven into his hair that have been immortalized in everything from sailors' tales to the Blackbeard t-shirt that I own. His reputation became bigger than he ever was.

The takeaway from this story: personal branding "expert," Kristie T, points out that 75% of buying decisions are made on emotion and, given that we are exposed to over 3,000 marketing messages per day, it is important to distinguish yourself from the rest of the world. I'll sum it up with a Kenyan proverb: "utu wa mtu ni tabia yake" (roughly, it means "you are the way that others see you.") As you build your value proposition, think about how you want to be seen.

Building relationships with Madame Cheng.
It was 1807 and hundreds of Chinese pirates were looking for a leader. An opportunity presented itself. And on to the scene emerged the greatest pirate in the history of pirates. She called herself Madame Cheng. Madame Cheng was ruthless, wily and charismatic. She could also build relationships and had an eye for talent. As she cajoled and negotiated and charmed her way to prominence in China's pirate community, Madame Cheng took on a young lover; the adopted son of a fisherman named Cheng Pao. And here's the kicker: she made the kid head of the Red Sea fleet, which was the biggest and most important in the Confederation. By 1810, Madame Cheng's pirate fleet was larger than those of most countries navies. Through organization, relationship-building and recognizing top talent, Madame Cheng created a pirate fleet the likes of which no one has ever seen (or well ever again see). And for three years she ran the shipping lanes of the China Sea and Strait of Malacca for decades.

The takeaway from this story: it's an easy one; over 80% of employment opportunities are developed because of who we know, not necessarily what we know. Furthermore, when you have positive relationships with clients and co-workers, they will be excited and eager to spread the word - the good word - about you.

Needless to say, there all several aspects of entrepreneurship - piratical or not - that can be applied to the non-entrepreneurial world of employment.

Practically speaking, by the time this post has been live for a few hours, Philippe and I will have experienced a simply outstanding conversation about the entrepreneurial spirit being applied to finding, securing and developing a meaningful career. Also practically speaking, if you are interested in and/or excited to pass along such ideas to your students and/or clients, strongly consider wrapping your proposal in a pirate package. A veritable pirate pack, if you will. In my experience, kicking off a workshop or a topic in a workshop with a fantastic, out of this world, pop-culture-immersed tale of a famous - or infamous - pirate really piques the audience's interest. Take pirates as a metaphor for student-engagement, people: superheroes, film characters, musicians, politicians, and cartoon characters work well, too. And once you've seduced them with said edutaining strategy, start sprinkling in the career education content (an easy connection, as you can see) as well as some tangible and specific next steps that they can take away from the workshop. Just when an audience realizes that, in fact, they're not actually listening to an amazing story about pirates, but are actually learning about networking, gender-equality, resumes, multi-culturalism, environmental stewardship, or entrepreneurism, well, it's too late. And it's a beautiful thing.

Yes, many - or most - of the pirates are gangsters. No, this doesn't make hostage-taking okay. But this article has outlined some of the ways that these seagoing thugs are dealing with a recessive global economy. "Pirates were the first people to rebel against this world," says Hari. They didn't like the rigour, restrictions and "oppressiveness" of the seafaring alternatives of, say, the Merchant Marine or Royal Navy, so they chose a more independent, democratic and risky life at sea. Recent findings show that in excess of $300 million US in shellfish is being stolen from the Somali coast by illegal trawlers each year. They have no government to speak of. Organizations are dumping nuclear waste in their waters and on their land. Somalia just might be the worst place on Earth.

Kinda puts the global recession in perspective, eh? They don't "fit" in the current economic system, which is probably why the independent Somalian news site, WardheerNews, found that 70 per cent of Somalians "strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence." Some even call them the "Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia"! And we can most certainly call them entrepreneurs.

So, mateys, take what ye learned today and apply it to yer teachin. Being entrepreneurial might just get us out of this economic mess.

- Sir John the Pirate


John Horn said...

How can you apply "this" (entrepreneurial spirit, pirates, edutainment, prezi, intrapreneurship) to your business?

- look again at how to present things in a way that's "edutaining": your own personal story (inspiring) | "simply put, I was interviewing them" | climbing and climbing, more and more responsibility | take away: ask good questions, be interested, know your audience, and "now I help business students do the same thing I did" | role model and street credibility
- Using a metaphor is a great tool (applicable to interests of audience/clients)
- Inspiration from alumni/consultants/guest speakers
- Pick a metaphor that doesn't make you look ridiculous (collaborate with students to build and deliver content and be sure students deliver content)
- Looking for opportunities as service providers in everything we do to get them to think of students' personal stories and help them find what's unique/special/different
- make sure "success stories" are ones with bumps and lessons learned from failure

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