Seeds of success Featured

9:54am EDT July 22, 2002

I was sitting in the bleachers at an east side suburban high school a few weekends ago watching my cousin graduate. While I suffered under the sun’s brutal heat, wondering how long the ceremony would last, one speaker grabbed my attention and momentarily made me forget the lack of shade.

The speaker, a social studies teacher the graduating class had selected, made several observations about the group. Rather than simply impart the worn platitudes usually associated with graduation ceremonies, he warned the students that they should not take their futures lightly.

Many, he predicted, would take their place in the work force as doctors, lawyers, nurses, clergy, accountants and secretaries. But others, he said, would encompass the next great generation of entrepreneurs.

Those people would patent inventions, develop new ideas and processes for business and industry, and build the successful companies of the 21st century.

As I sat there listening, hanging on his every word and quickly forgetting how badly I needed a glass of water, I pondered the veracity of his claims.

Does entrepreneurship come in waves? Or is it simply an ongoing occurrence, with companies rising and falling all the time as they reach — and lose — critical mass?

I gazed slowly across the group of graduating seniors — about 200 of them seated in folding chairs in the middle of the football field — and let my eyes stop every so often to look at their faces. I wondered who among this group would found or buy a company, then lead it to new heights. Did any of these 18-year-olds already have unrealized ideas in their heads? And if so, how early are the seeds of entrepreneurism sown in young people’s minds?

It occurred to me that throughout history, entrepreneurism has been the engine that’s driven our economies to new and higher levels. Take, for example, the Renaissance of the 1600s, the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, or the technological revolution that we’ve seen during the latter part of this century. In every age, people have come along and changed the very way we think about every aspect of our society — from the way we communicate to the way we manufacture products.

With the stock market’s surges over the past decade, one could easily claim we are in the midst of the most significant stage of entrepreneurship in history. The 1990s, not the 1890s, may very well go down as the “Roaring ’90s” when historians finally define our era.

Last month, Ernst & Young announced eight Entrepreneur Of The Year winners culled from hundreds of entries. Twenty entrepreneurs were tabbed as finalists after thoroughly impressing Ernst & Young’s handpicked group of judges.

Flip through this month’s issue of SBN, and you’ll find it difficult not to be impressed with the group of business leaders chosen this year for recognition. Their stories are unique and their industries varied, but one similar vein runs through them all: Each honoree laid everything on the line to pursue a vision each believed would lead to his or her company’s success.

A few, such as Hawk Corp.’s Ron Weinberg and All Wound Up’s Stuart Fishman, appear to have the Midas Touch. Whatever business venture they touch turns to gold.

Others, such as Brewer-Garrett’s Lou Joseph and MAC Trailer’s Michael Conny, had a vision of what their businesses could become, and let no obstacles stop them from achieving their goals.

The eight winners will head to Palm Springs, Calif., in November, where they’ll be part of the Entrepreneur Of The Year Institute and have a shot at national recognition. No matter their fate there, they will most likely find a well-deserved vacation from the daily grind of their companies as a small fruit of their labors.

So as you read the compelling stories of these winners and finalists, think about this year’s graduating high school seniors and recognize that among their ranks are tomorrow’s next great entrepreneurs. The only thing that’s uncertain is just what the success stories will be, and when we’ll get to write about them.