The term failure is often treated like a 4-letter word — one that would make your grandparent’s blush. No one wants their children to be failures when they grow up any more than a mentor wants their charge to crash and burn. The world over there is a clear predetermined pathway for what success looks like that has informed cultural norms, societal goals and individual aspirations. In some countries, this means acing state exams and taking a preordained path to becoming an engineer, doctor or lawyer. In others, it means taking the mantle of a family business and perpetuating a legacy. Sadly, in far too many countries, it means confining women to non-economic traditional roles, leaving a world economy that can only fulfill half its potential. If there is any true failure, the economic underrepresentation of women and the inequity versus their male peers is it. The fear of failure is locking up countless dreams and the aspirations of millions of people in the vault of regret. In business and politics, failure most often means the end of the line and an ignominious defeat.
For others, especially in the world’s vibrant entrepreneurial community, failure is not only an ideal to aspire to, it is a badge of honor — the very war wounds that separate serial innovators from mere tinkerers. While the concept of failing forward has been popularized in recent years, a subtler and perhaps deeper point of reflection is needed. For one, failure is derived from the French word faillir, which means almost, denoting a certain trial and error, as in almost making it. It shows an embrace of risk-taking and action rather than defeat. So, truly successful entrepreneurs (yes there is a French word for that!) are not naturally endowed with panglossian success. Rather they are repeat failures – a proxy for people who repeat the prior attempt while making small course corrections. The best of breed are almost stubborn to a fault at this process – and it is a process akin to the scientific method. It is hardwired in their DNA. It is worth recalling that Steve Jobs, now deified around the world as a transcendental business leader, was fired from Apple. He was also a well-documented interpersonal “failure” for his often intolerant demeanor and not suffering fools lightly.
This unbending commitment to progress even through failure is what sets risk-takers apart. On the road to success, failures are the guardrails that keep us on track. This is a particularly important metaphor for early stage firms and entrepreneurs to embrace – for the car they are building may not have the usual safety features of the fancier vehicles being driven by their corporate peers. This subtle aspect of the culture of entrepreneurship is perhaps its most important. In many countries around the world, the F of failure is like wearing a scarlet letter or worse like being branded with the hot iron of public and familial rebuke. This casts a heavy societal yoke on aspiring entrepreneurs leaving incalculable economic opportunity un-ventured and therefore un-gained. Success through failure is an indiscriminate process that recognizes neither gender nor resources. It is not idealistic to believe that anyone, anywhere can achieve their dreams and become truly transformational. Look at Malala Yousafzai’s incredible rise from the ashes of hatred and fear of educated women the Taliban visited upon her. From her improbable beginnings to a global platform, she reminds us all that adversity like failure is often a figment of our imagination. Countries with preordained bright paths of ‘success’ are often the least likely to embrace entrepreneurship and economic participation for women resulting in waning competitiveness and growth.
There is a reason Silicon Valley is a thriving place — although women are woefully underrepresented. While all of the preconditions for entrepreneurship are not export products, the most important ingredient is the easiest to translate, namely attitudes towards failure. Entrepreneurship is all about attempts — repeated, foolhardy whole-hearted attempts at something, no matter how fanciful or mundane, whether for profit or purpose. Clearly the best entrepreneurs think of failure as an iterative process closer to its French roots, rather than a conclusive one. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, each failure is merely the end of the beginning. The true end of an endeavor is an individual choice to give up and not one that can be imposed on an entrepreneur by societal pressure.
Pragmatic entrepreneurs see their choices not as a hobby (although you can certainly tinker), but rather as a means to an end — an imperative to survive. Nowhere is this truer than the vibrant entrepreneurial scene taking root across Africa. From Nairobi’s tech entrepreneurs, with breakthroughs like Ushahidi and BRCK, a venture-backed mobile internet platform, to the Continent’s growing array of incubators and hubs, like AfriLabs, led by Tayo Akinyemi, Africa’s burgeoning entrepreneurial ecosystem is hatching uniquely African responses to market opportunities — rooted in age old maternal survival instincts. Critically, these responses are increasingly equitable across gender lines, countries and industries. In traditional societies, particularly matriarchal ones, women are the strongest thread in the economic safety net. Promoting the ideals of failing forward, equality and entrepreneurship can unleash the other half of the world’s potential.
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