REJOINDER TO LISA SUENNEN @ VENTURE VALKYRIE: Innovation vs. Entrepreneurship in Russia


Lisa Suennen has to be commended for her excellent overview of the fun and optimism we participants in the Skolkovo conference felt (I was honored to be among the speakers) while learning about the states of entrepreneurship, health IT, and telemedicine across the Russian Federation.  But as some of my former professors might have said, one element absent from this discussion — in the interest of keeping it “non-meta” and sticking to journalistic reportage – was the “normative” question.

That is to say, what some might call the “moral” question (though I think that word carries too much baggage).  In short, would we be wrong to ask-and-answer the question of whether entrepreneurship in Russia is progressing as it “should”?  If the country is indeed striving to inculcate a culture of innovation, is that even a “good thing”… or perhaps not?

I’m not  being comical or rhetorical; there is no latent James Bond-style reference here, nor the silly intimation that intrepid business-building across the former USSR will lead to missing nukes and hidden undersea fortresses.  Rather, it’s a question of cultural readiness, and that one that seems fair: Everyone knows that the Old World’s universities remain among the world’s best.  But have Russia and her neighbors instituted the informational (read: transparency), financial, legal and regulatory, security, and even human-collaborative, etc., structures that are conducive – if not critical – to the growth of a self-sustaining entrepreneurial ecosystem?

Lisa asks, “Was the vibe and smell of innovation present or was it really the vibe and smell of entrepreneurship—a bunch of guys trying to answer an already defined question that many are seeking to answer similarly, but willing to take significant business risk while doing so?”

Let’s push the question further: If the “bunch of guys” is indeed willing to take the business risk, are mechanisms in place to reward their gumption…or will they be, in effect, outlaws who bucked the system and unexpectedly (or not?) find themselves on the outside looking in on a system that cherishes the idea of disruptive innovation but actually prizes the equivalent of “mass intra-preneuership”?  That is to say, might they be cast as “mavericks” within a dominant operating system…and isn’t such a paradox anathema to the big, World-Changing Ideas that turn into fortunes for founders and societies alike?

Here’s an ironic corollary: Americans flatter ourselves to think that “we would never be so closed-minded” as to the color and shape of innovation. But is that true?  Do two investment bubbles during one decade of the 21st century—first, the dot-com / new media frenzy, then the app explosion that is more recently but not necessarily more profitable or long-term healthful—suggest that we in the U.S. look for ideas that fall far from the central mean…which is to say, of course, the common and rabble-ish average?  Do we prize and honor innovation as much as we think we do…or again, as we should?

Or do investors and entrepreneurs alike prefer to huddle on a cliff’s edge, pending one charismatic Lemming with a Powerpoint and a Profound Professional Pedigree who points  toward the Next Big Thing (which turns out to be, in this admittedly gory example, either the ground or ocean tide)?

The Skolkovo conference was excellent in both theory and theater.  But “borrowing” (I’m being kind) the X-Prize criteria does not an X-Prize competition make.  Amid the conference sessions and presentations, I was reminded of something my wife sometimes says when I push her to engage on topics of political economy: being of Mexican descent, she has been know to wax nihilistic about the idea that “there are some jobs [native-born] Americans simply don’t want to do” – such as cleaning motel rooms, picking strawberries, driving taxis.  [NOTE: I disagree with her presumption of Americans’ self-important haughtiness, though when she presents the argument in more nuanced detail than I have here, she does make a compelling case.]

Is it OKAY for Americans to shun particular jobs?  On the one hand, to answer in the affirmative sounds snobby and bigoted.   On the other hand, it also ensures that there are plenty of jobs available for others seeking economic opportunity even at the expense of comfort, glamour, or (sadly) basic pride.  I felt myself wondering similarly whether – and more interestingly, why – Russian “needs” to be innovative in a manner similar to the United States.  The arguments in favor of entrepreneurship are clear, especially when it comes to upward mobility, social service expansion, and a general improvement in the average quality of life within a given society.   But to justify a pursuit of intense innovation is more tenuous, since that road is pocked with transformative concepts that couldn’t find funding.

(I think, for example, of a business-school friend who has literally invented a cure for malaria.  But he wasn’t able to find anyone to fund it in Pittsburgh, PA, and had to divert along a simpler path in the interest of paying rent.  Such a tragic loss for both him and much of Africa.)

Lisa highlights arguably the most critical of questions: Does Russian NEED “innovation” to boost its cache within the knowledge and technology economies of the future.  Would it suffice—might they be better off?—merely embracing, empowering, and enhancing the sorts of ubiquitous entrepreneurship  that self-made businesses large and small (such as the physical trainer she cited) have fueled the American economic engine?   “Entrepreneurship”…as distinct from “innovation.”

Most sons and daughters of the Stars and Stripes will stipulate that creativity and passion are virtues; consider what Goethe said: boldness is magical indeed. So why build the novel from scratch, rather than finding ways to change the world, live well, enjoy work, and cultivate a fortune using tools and techniques that solve problems but do so without reinventing each wheel?


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