When was the last time you asked, “Why are we doing it this way?” — Hal Gregersen

Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center

Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center

From Harvard Business Review

During a time when many retailers are struggling, business is booming at Target. But it wasn’t too long ago that the discount retailer’s future didn’t glow so bright. When CEO Brian Cornell took the reins two years ago, he inherited a company that had been struggling for years, taking far too few risks, and sticking too close to the core.

Since then the world has fallen in love with a far edgier Target, which has expanded its offerings through collaborations with such power brands as Lilly Pulitzer, Toms, Neiman Marcus, and SoulCycle, and updated product lines that break the status quo, like its latest gender-neutral kids home brand Pillowfort. But Cornell didn’t start right out of the gate making any big changes like these. Instead, he took time to carefully contemplate his approach, listen to his team, and ask questions.

At the MIT Leadership Center, I recently spoke with another leader, Guy Wollaert, chief exploration officer at Loggia Strategy & Design, about similar experiences he encountered at another highly visible brand, Coca-Cola. During his 20-plus year tenure with the global beverage brand, most recently serving as its chief technical and innovation officer, Wollaert made it a point to seek — and surround himself with — new ideas and people who challenged him to reflect and question first, then act later.

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Making the Middle Matter – Trish Cotter

MIT Sloan Entrepreneurship Lecturer Trish Cotter

From Xconomy

Call it the problem of the middle—the middle states and the middle class—two groups that have struggled with problems that, while they are inexorably linked, are different all the same.

Historically, most of the venture capital in America has been active on the coasts, leaving a vast portion of the country without seed money for innovative new startups. At the same time, the Midwest has suffered from a loss of manufacturing jobs and, as a result, has in some ways failed to flourish in the same ways as other parts of the country. And, of course, there is no shortage of news articles outlining the many struggles facing the middle class, in general, in America.

“We live in a fractured society,” argues MIT economist Peter Temin in an MIT News article on America’s two-track economy. “The middle class is vanishing.”

According to Temin, America now features two sectors: an FTE sector, where people who work in finance, technology, and electronics tend to thrive, and a low-wage sector, where workers often struggle. The middle class, traditionally an area of national strength, is starting to disappear. Moreover, the FTE sector, overwhelmingly focused and fixated on both coasts, has for a long time neglected investment opportunities in the Midwest.

Venture capital—specifically venture capital aimed at the oft-ignored middle states—could be part of the solution. The central part of our country is often ignored as an ideas hub. Most accelerators, venture capitalists, and startup programs are focused on a few key cities on the east and west coasts. The Kauffman Foundation, known for its emphasis on education and entrepreneurship, recently published an article focusing on both the middle class and the middle states, asking: “Is the Middle the New Edge?”

It states: “The middle ground is too often dismissed as unremarkable, when it is truly necessary. The middle should be appreciated as an admirable place to be – where people work together to solve big problems and move our nation forward.” Read More »

False news spreads online faster, farther, and deeper than truth does — but it can be contained. Here’s how. – Sinan Aral

Sinan Aral, MIT Sloan David Austin Professor of Management

From Harvard Business Review

In March of 2018 President Trump’s tweets claiming that Amazon pays “little or no taxes to state & local governments” sent the company’s stock toward its worst monthly performance in two years. Trump had his facts wrong — and the stock price has since recovered — but the incident highlights an unsettling problem: Companies are profoundly vulnerable to misinformation spreading on social media. Unsurprisingly, the mainstream media has focused primarily on whether false news affected the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But the truth is that nobody is safe from this kind of damage. The spread of falsity has implications for our democracies, our economies, our businesses, and even our national security. We must make a concerted effort to understand and address its spread.

For the past three years Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy, and I have studied the spread of false news online. (We use the label “false news” because “fake news” has become so polarizing: Politicians now use that phrase to describe news stories that don’t support their positions.) The data we collected in a recent study spanned Twitter’s history from its inception, in 2006, to 2017. We collected 126,000 tweet cascades (chains of retweets with a common origin) that traveled through the Twittersphere during this period and verified the truth or falsehood of the content that was spreading. We then compared the dynamics of how true versus false news spreads online. On March 9 Science magazine published the results of our research as its cover story.

What we found was both surprising and disturbing. False news traveled farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in every category of information, sometimes by an order of magnitude, and false political news traveled farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than any other type.

The importance of understanding this phenomenon is difficult to overstate. And, in all likelihood, the problem will get worse before it gets better, because the technology for manipulating video and audio is improving, making distortions of reality more convincing and more difficult to detect. The good news, though, is that researchers, AI experts, and social media platforms themselves are taking the issue seriously and digging into both the nature of the problem and potential solutions. Read More »

The average age of a successful startup founder is 45 – Pierre Azoulay

MIT Sloan Assoc. Professor Pierre Azoulay

From Harvard Business Review

It’s widely believed that the most successful entrepreneurs are young. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg were in their early twenties when they launched what would become world-changing companies. Do these famous cases reflect a generalizable pattern? VC and media accounts seem to suggest so. When we analyzed founders who have won TechCrunch awards over the last decade, the average age at the time of founding was just 31. For the people selected by Inc. magazine as the founders of the fastest-growing startups in 2015, the average age at founding was only 29. Consistent with these findings, Paul Graham, a cofounder of Y Combinator, once quipped that “the cutoff in investors’ heads is 32… After 32, they start to be a little skeptical.” But is this view correct?

Our team analyzed the age of all business founders in the U.S. in recent years by leveraging confidential administrative data sets from the U.S. Census Bureau. We found that the average age of entrepreneurs at the time they founded their companies is 42. But the vast majority of these new businesses are likely small businesses with no intentions to grow large (for example, dry cleaners and restaurants). To focus on businesses that are closer in spirit to the prototypical high-tech startup, we used a variety of indicators: whether the firm was granted a patent, received VC investment, or operated in an industry that employs a high fraction of STEM workers. We also focused on the location of the firm, in particular whether it was in an entrepreneurial hub such as Silicon Valley. In general, these finer-grained analyses do not modify the main conclusion: The average age of high-tech founders falls in the early forties.

These averages, however, hide a large amount of variation across industries. In software startups, the average age is 40, and younger founders aren’t uncommon. However, young people are less common in other industries such as oil and gas or biotechnology, where the average age is closer to 47. The preeminent place of young founders in the popular imagination may therefore reflect disproportionate exposure to a handful of consumer-facing IT industries, such as social media, rather than equally consequential pursuits in heavy industry or business-to-business sectors. Read More »

Commentary: the BlackRock letter sets ambitious goals. Here’s how CEOs can meet them – Robert Pozen

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Robert Pozen

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Robert Pozen

From Fortune

Should public companies focus on earning profits for their shareholders, or should they serve broader societal needs? Larry Fink, the head of BlackRock, the largest fund manager in the world, recently issued a letter to company CEOs stating: “Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate.”

Yet the same letter tells public companies that they should adopt a strategic plan with “a path to achieve financial performance.” The letter reconciles these potentially conflicting objectives by pushing companies to pursue “long-term value creation” rather than short-term profits. In other words, they can enhance their long-term financial returns to shareholders by serving the needs of other stakeholders—even if this lowers short-term profits.

While BlackRock was trying to sensitize companies to their social responsibilities, the letter could undermine the accountability of corporate directors to their shareholders. CEOs could hypothetically justify any decline in annual earnings by claiming they were serving all stakeholders in hopes of increasing long-term financial results. How will shareholders later assess whether these stakeholder-focused policies actually resulted in higher financial returns? And does the long term mean five, 10, or even 20 years? Read More »