Al Hammond

Being Comfortable With Uncertainty and Other ’Letters’ to Entrepreneurs

I’ve known Ricardo Levy since we were both undergraduate engineers at Stanford, doing problem sets together. He went on to become a successful entrepreneur, co-founding a company that pioneered the use of catalysis to solve major environmental problems, and overcoming many challenges along the way.

But Levy is one of those rare entrepreneurs who is reflective and even analytical about the entrepreneurial process, and he’s written a book reflecting on those challenges, typical of those every entrepreneur faces, and how he solved them. The book, Letters To a Young Entrepreneur, is explicitly a guidebook for young entrepreneurs.

But Levy’s story is more interesting than that, because he grew up engaged with the BoP families that lived around and worked in his father’s small factory (and later when his father died unexpectedly, Levy’s factory) in the outskirts of Quito, Ecuador. And those firsthand experiences with unmet needs and with responsibility for people’s livelihoods color his reflections and insights into the entrepreneurial experience. As such, readers of this blog who are or aspire to be entrepreneurs in the BOP might find this book of particular value. Moreover, Ricardo has told me he welcomes feedback or questions about how to apply his insights to particular situations – in effect, he is offering mentoring, via his website or by email. Follow this link to see more about the book and the advice.

One of Levy’s most intriguing “letters” deals with the role of the entrepreneur in accepting and absorbing uncertainty on behalf of employees, investors, and others who have to place their trust in the organization’s leader. He suggests methods for the entrepreneur to increase his capacity to absorb and be comfortable with uncertainty. Doing this well is critical for entrepreneurial leadership, because carrying the weight of risk and uncertainty on the shoulders of the entrepreneur frees others who are less risk-tolerant to act. But that implicit bond of trust also establishes what Levy calls a covenant, one which the entrepreneur needs to acknowledge to himself or herself and to honor, which in turns draws on the internal integrity and ethical character of the entrepreneur.

This link between the personal values and qualities of the entrepreneur and his or her success as a business leader is not often dealt with in “how to” business books, and ought to provoke some serious self-reflection in would-be entrepreneurs. In a subsequent post I’ll mention some other very practical ideas in this book.