Gallup CEO: Entrepreneurship Key to Economic Growth

Identifying business talent a focus of annual Robert P. Maxon Lecture.

March 18, 2015

By James Irwin

Gallup CEO Jim Clifton was speaking to a group of presidents of American research labs—“NIH and NASA, really good people,” he said—when he posed a question he said goes to the heart of America’s economic future.

“These are outstanding Americans. They’re brilliant,” Mr. Clifton said Tuesday at the George Washington University. “I asked them, ‘How many of you, in your labs, have inventions that just need business models?’ Every hand went up.”

Speaking at the 16th annual Robert P. Maxon Lecture, Mr. Clifton said a focus on identifying and developing promising entrepreneurs could be key to creating markets for American innovation and improving the country’s flagging Gross Domestic Product growth rate, which has declined in the past two decades to roughly half of what it was in the 1950s and 1960s.

“We finally have an issue that both [political] sides agree on: unemployment and GDP growth,” he said. “But what if the answer is entrepreneurship and not innovation. What if we have an oversupply of innovation?”

Mr. Clifton, for one, believes that might be the case. America, he said, has become an expert at developing brilliance. Ask any state in the union for a list of its 1,000 brightest 11th graders, he said, and the list can be produced. Gifted intellectuals attend the best colleges in the world. Musical and artistic prodigies audition for coveted slots at the world’s elite performance companies. Top athletes are sent to training academies. The country prides itself at nurturing these gifts, he said, and that creates piles of innovation in technology, media, entertainment and intellectual property.

“We know brilliance. We know where all the point guards are—no point guards are left behind in this country,” he said. “What we don’t have is the intentionality in developing entrepreneurship. So we have a great big pile of innovation and a little bitty pile of entrepreneurship because we leave this to randomness to be developed.

“If you ask those same states for the 1,000 kids with the most unusual ability to build a business, they don’t have that list.”

A focus on treating budding, natural entrepreneurs the same way we do star athletes or intellectuals could provide a boost to the country’s future economic growth, Mr. Clifton said. The trick is finding them. Much like a talented artist, it isn’t hard to identify someone with a gift for business. Social entrepreneurship endeavors, like Lemonade Day, he said, can provide a forum for showcasing and developing young skill. Colleges and universities can play a role by creating forums for people with exceptional talent, similar to what Juilliard does with music, “where it’s really hard to get in and you have to demonstrate you have exceptional ability to create a customer,” he said.

“Right now we have a philosophy that anybody can become an entrepreneur,” Mr. Clifton said. “If you think that’s true, you believe anybody can be in the NBA. We all have gifts we can develop infinitely. If we can make [identifying business talent] intentional, and we can—with testing, with increasing the awareness of where and how we find them—we can identify them.”

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