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Annual Report: Culture of Risk Taking

Some divers take a big risk and enter shark territory outfitted only in their regular SCUBA gear, ready to take on a life-threatening situation. Photo Barnaby Dorfman via Flickr.

Over the next several weeks, we’ll expand on each of the items that are to be included in the inaugural “Silicon Prairie Annual Report,” which we’ve described as a “look back at the previous year in the Silicon Prairie region, taking into account such metrics as company formations, product releases and developments, investment and M&A activity, and community building.”

Today, I’m starting with the first of the “Six Tenets of Entrepreneurial Ecosystem,” which we will be measuring in the report:

  1. Culture of Risk Taking
  2. Wild, Almost Naive Ambition
  3. Access to Capital
  4. Big Companies Techies Can Spin Off From
  5. Universities
  6. Vibrant Social Scene

The tolerance for risk taking on the Silicon Prairie is a popular topic in the circles that I run in (for example, see our post from last November: Culture of Risk in Omaha). Des Moines, for instance, is a town built around insurance and banking. Many of our largest and most recognizable employers, such as Nationwide, Principal, Wellmark and Wells Fargo, are leaders globally in those industries who just happen to be known more for risk mitigation than they are for risk taking. Omaha, with its Woodmen of the World, Mutual of Omaha, and First National Bank of Omaha is in the same situation.

That prompts the question in this context: How does the region’s history in risk mitigation effect entrepreneurship and innovation?

It’s hard to quantify but there is a palpable belief in our entrepreneurial community that it has an adverse influence on the willingness, desire, and comfort level of would-be entrepreneurs from making a go of their idea and instead they continue to work for someone else.

(Photo: While some take the plunge into open waters, others enter the arena in a protected cage. Photo by Philip Kahn via Flickr.)

Here’s one example: I recently interviewed Brad Dwyer, a 22-year-old entrepreneur whose startup Hatchlings, Inc., is one of the most successful recent tech startups to launch in Central Iowa. His startup is so successful that he left school at Iowa State University without graduating to concentrate on it full-time. In his words, it would have been “almost irresponsible” to continue to devote attention to his studies and forgo working on the opportunities that his business presented. 

Dwyer also gave me his thoughts via email on the Culture of Risk Taking topic:

We need to change our mindset. Especially when you look at the student population there’s not a whole lot of excitement about startups. The dream job of most engineering students here is to work for a huge corporation (Caterpillar/IBM/Microsoft/Lockheed/Cargill, etc.). Contrast this with a tech-hub like Silicon Valley where you hear a lot more people talking about starting the next Facebook/Google/Microsoft. This is a mindset that we need to work on changing.

We’re not advocating a mass exodus of engineering students from our universities or from the staff at places like the aforementioned Wells Fargo and Woodmen and other large employers in the region like Union Pacific and Pioneer Hi-Bred. These businesses are important to what makes up our region; many of them employ our family and friends and they have put a definite stamp on the what makes our community the place we choose to live in. We do, however, think it’s best for the Silicon Prairie to also be a place where a passionate individual is willing to take the risk to innovate and the culture must back that up.

That leaves one big question: How do you, the Silicon Prairie community, want to measure our Culture of Risk Taking?

Please leave your thoughts on benchmark criteria for this tenet or your thoughts about risk-taking in the comments below.

While you’re at it, take a few minutes and nominate someone who you know is influencing the region’s Culture of Risk Taking in a positive way for our inaugural “Innov8 Awards.”

> Nominate an individual for an “Innov8 Award”