Do Silos Insulate Business Entrepreneurs from Achieving Higher Standards?

 In Thinking About

Silos were a revolutionary innovation that allowed farmers to preserve and store crops from the growing season through winter and dry spells. The word evolved in the 19th century, originally “derived from the Greek word siros” – meaning “a pit to keep corn in.” Later, the word began to explain academic studies, management systems, processes and even mentalities that prevent collaboration, exchange of ideas, and holistic, high functioning systems.

What drives people to create silos?

In fields of academic study or research, a person’s expertise in a particular area is often siloed, allowing them to drill down into the minutiae of a topic. There is the search to explain the unexplained, the interest to solve hard challenges, and the need to complete degrees and publish research that satisfy academic requirements. This can lead to insular knowledge that may not have practical application.

In businesses that are large or have experienced rapid growth, often systems, divisions and jobs become sharply defined and focused to deal with complexity and nuance. The devil is in the details. People and the units and tasks that they support become siloed, which may cause duplication of efforts, conflicting activities or a narrow viewpoint.

Writers, in order to describe, clarify and highlight a topic so that it’s interesting, can also foster siloism. Journalists are seeking to write about topics that are new or shed a distinct perspective on staid subjects. A topic is given historic context, a list of reasons why it’s important, or a series of factors that distinguish, dissect and destroy it. One way writers may do this is by constraining or refining a topic, effectively placing it in a corn pit.

How are entrepreneurs siloed?

An entrepreneur is defined as “1) a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, especially a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk and 2) an employer of productive labor; contractor.” However, academics who analyze entrepreneurship, businesses who train and invest in entrepreneurs, and writers seeking to shed new light on the topic, have chosen to silo entrepreneurs into different groups. Some silos are related to industry (food, tech), others race or ethnicity (of color, latino), or gender (male, female, LGBTQ). There’re also silos that distinguish social entrepreneurs from business entrepreneurs.

So what?

There are certainly good reasons to segment particular groups of entrepreneurs in order to identify the particular challenges they face and opportunities they can access. However, I think there is a hidden, negative consequence when siloing social entrepreneurs from business entrepreneurs. It’s not a negative for the entrepreneurs themselves or the investors that invest in them; but rather it’s a negative for the planet and society. Why?

Because it fosters an environment where business entrepreneurs create and build companies, products and services that are not held up to the same scrutiny and standards as those created by social entrepreneurs. It makes it acceptable for investors to fund companies based purely on projections of monetary ROI without addressing the long-term costs on physical environments and communities. It means that, despite scientific evidence that the planet and societies are suffering, unsustainable products and services will be brought to market as essential must haves that are absolutely not needed.

A must have that’s absolutely not needed

A good example of this status quo approach is the development of Juicera, Inc., the company that launched a state-of-the art, at-home juicer making cold-pressed juice from pre-packaged and cut produce. This digital wonder product eliminates buying, preparing, making and cleaning up the juice making process for people who want to drink juice at home. The machine is WiFi enabled so it can be controlled by a cell phone. Investors forked over $120M and the juicers were priced at $700 (now $400). The pre-juice is delivered to the owner in mostly recyclable packaging and costs $5- $8 per packet. Post-product launch, two Bloomberg journalists taped a video showing a woman easily squeezing a packet with her bare hands to create a glass of juice in less than a minute, effectively rendering the juicer unnecessary. Organic, healthy  juice is great, as is recyclable packaging, so sustainable components were added. But, at what cost to the consumer and to the environment? This product was developed with the bottom line in mind, with sustainability dabbed on like post-it notes, but it certainly wasn’t held up to the same standard that a social entrepreneur’s company would be held to.

An additional question

One of the first questions asked of all entrepreneurs is, “What problem will you solve or gap will you fill with your product or service?” Another question should immediately follow: “In order to solve the problem or fill the gap, what harm and costs will be caused to the planet and society?” The ability to answer the first question is and always should help set a standard to live up to for entrepreneurs. The second question raises the bar for all entrepreneurs and starts the process of shedding the silo surrounding business entrepreneurs.

In our blog, Walk the Talk, I’ll be highlighting the companies and activities of entrepreneurs who are contributing to create a healthier, more resilient planet. I’ll be posting stories about women entrepreneurs because that’s the target audience for Scale it Up! Sustainability Training for Women Entrepreneurs. I won’t be siloing business entrepreneurs from social entrepreneurs. I believe that every entrepreneur’s business ought to be held to the same standards and those standards should be higher than they currently are. Can you imagine a world where the consumers, customers and investors all valued entrepreneur’s new ventures for their social, environmental and economic contributions?  That would be a world where the primary purpose of a silo would once again be to hold grain.

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