Be Inspired | Do Good
Gary Schoeniger was not a name that teachers liked to hear. Gary says he couldn’t make heads or tails of school and only seven years into his education he had already started to tune out. It was this lack of engagement that Gary says “forced [him] to become an entrepreneur.” It was frustration that made Gary leave high school to work in manual labor, and it was desperation that forced him to first test out the waters of entrepreneurialism in the early 1980s. Gary borrowed a ladder from a friend (he couldn’t afford his own), strapped it to the roof of his car, drove around the nicest neighborhood he could find and started knocking on doors. Out of place and afraid of heights, Gary offered to clean gutters for $100. With just one client, Gary made $100 that first day and 15 years later was making 5 million dollars annually, operating a construction management company.
There’s no “biggest challenge” for Gary because everyday is like a catastrophe for an entrepreneur, with “meteors” coming from every direction. He says the best way to deal with the constant challenges is to put your ego aside and admit your weaknesses. He notes that when you can solve a challenge using your strengths, do so. When a situation arises that exposes one of your weaknesses, it’s time to put your pride aside and outsource to experts. For him, personally and professionally, it was “figuring out what I’m not good at and hiring people that are smarter than me to take care of things that I’m not good at.”
To go from managing construction to launching a teaching initiative, Gary had to take a look at the bigger picture. In the early 1990s, he read an article about a man who had lost his job during the recession and how his wife had to work two minimum wage jobs to support their family. “I realized that I could probably help this guy. I could see opportunity everywhere, why couldn’t he?” This single question unfolded to reveal Gary’s passion: Entrepreneurial learning. He realized that “entrepreneurs look at the world differently. If I could somehow deconstruct the entrepreneurial mindset and articulate it to another human, maybe it could be helpful.”
During his quest to discover the clockwork of the entrepreneur’s mind, Gary started conducting interviews. Instead of famous, Ivy-league alumni, Gary interviewed unknown and unlikely entrepreneurs, “the underdogs” to answer his simple question: How do the people in common situations, those with no particular advantages overcome their limitations, seize an opportunity, and enrich both themselves and the community around them? He wanted to specifically reach underdogs because “a young kid at Stanford can invent some new technology and get hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital, [but] it’s not that interesting to me because it seems too far away.” To achieve success, Gary says, “you’re not going to take meaningful action towards a goal you don’t think you can hit.”
Gary says that the core idea of success for these entrepreneurs is a sense of responsibility. It’s my responsibility to discover and implement action that will better my fellow humans. Don’t accept a boss’s definition of what they think you should be doing for the world, find the best way that you can give back and pursue that idea. Many people believe we’ve already got everything figured out, but they fail to realize that the world is changing. This tendency to cling to old ideas that were once successful produces graduates with mindsets not aligned with how the world works today. And finally, success is to have a compelling goal to figure out how to contribute to your fellow man, “I think so many people don’t have that in their life. I feel like so many people go to work to collect a paycheck and Friday becomes the compelling goal.”
So what does Gary recommend doing in order to run a successful business? Just 4 things.
- Create a compelling vision: “Stop to take time to reflect on what you want from life. What does the life you want look like? What are your strengths, goals? How can you help other people with what you’re good at? Self-author and design the life you want, believe in it, and let that guide and motivate you going forward.”
- See problems, frustrations, and challenges as opportunities: “Consider: How many other people have this problem? If I can find the solution, I should present other people with this solution too. Shift the focus away from our own needs to an empathetic view. Reflect on what’s working, what’s not, and what I can do to add value. […] Help people first, instead of second, then you’re more likely to thrive.” If you can solve a problem you’ve encountered, share the solution so others can solve that problem for themselves.
- Don’t be a gambler, be a scientist: “Find something that might be an opportunity. […] Learn how to conduct the smallest, simplest experiment you can to test your idea. You don’t need to go down to the bank and mortgage your house to […] open a business and hope it works.” Don’t gamble on an idea. Put it through the scientific method. Experiment. Test it. Create a rickety, embarrassing, minimum viable product and test it out for a low cost. “You can survive an infinite number of micro experiments, but not multiple mortgage-your-house kind of experiments.”
- Always be learning: “Learn from your experiments and fellow entrepreneurs and always ask questions: Why? Why not? How do I know this will work? What evidence do I have? What am I missing here?”
The Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative works with high schools, community colleges, 4-year universities, economic development organizations, and large corporations. They train the trainers. They train people how to think like an entrepreneur and see the opportunity around them. The Initiative also hosts public training where you can learn how to become a certified IceHouse Entrepreneurship Facilitator.
Gary emphasizes the importance of purpose, of having a goal so personally important to you that you fall asleep thinking of it, “have a goal that stretches you, that requires all of your facilities, that’s somewhat out of reach.”
However, we must be careful to frame that purpose in a way that helps everyone. Gary refers to Martin Seligman, the leader of positive psychology, who has been incredibly helpful at framing his gratefulness practice. Seligman has defined three different lives we can have: A pleasurable life where pleasure is sought only for ourselves and often ensnares its followers into a sedentary hedonistic treadmill. A good life where we discover our strengths and apply them to enrich our own lives. Or, we can choose a meaningful life where we use our strengths to a purpose greater than ourselves and help out our fellow humans. Gary notes that being grateful is a huge component of successful entrepreneurship and in anyone’s mental health toolkit. For those who are interested, Gary has recommended completing Martin Seligman’s Happiness Quiz
Gary has seen his work have a huge impact. It’s what gets him out of bed every morning, “exposing people to entrepreneurial thinking can empower them to do extraordinary things.” He’s learned that entrepreneurs are resilient, creative, and productive because they need to be. They need to be more than themselves because their purpose shines on more than just one individual. Gary narrows down success to putting others ahead of yourself, “When you honestly strive toward helping others, you can find strength outside of yourself.” By thinking outside of yourself, you will accomplish more than a single person can, simply working for themselves.
Listen to the full interview
for more great advice for business owners and entrepreneurs.
Written by: Emma Shulist
Photo credit: The Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative