A group of entrepreneurial students are creating the University of Pennsylvania campus virtually on Minecraft, including Wharton's Huntsman Hall (pictured here), built online by student Quinn Robinson (screenshot: Damian Owerko)

Thinking Like an Entrepreneur in a Time of Crisis

The coronavirus pandemic has left us all with a heap of uncertainty. Endless cancellations and postponements, from school classes, sports games and proms, to graduations and internships, have created a new world view where our hours, days and weeks look very little like they used to. What’s more, it’s difficult to plan anything when you don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

This reality we’re living resembles that of an entrepreneur, or somebody who is starting a business. “Extreme uncertainty faced by most start-up companies is closely related to the situation we are currently in,” says Serguei Netessine, Wharton’s Dhirubhai Ambani Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship and vice dean for Wharton Global Initiatives. “The outcome of the innovation process is very hard to predict, which is why my favorite quote here comes from boxer Mike Tyson: ‘Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.’ Start-up founders get repeatedly ‘punched in the face’ by market realities, customer responses, competitors, and so on.”

Many of us are absorbing the blow right now, and it is sending us off course. An entrepreneurial mindset will help us to adapt. “Start-up founders try to stay agile and react to information as it comes,” adds Netessine, whose daughter Victoria, a high school senior, has had to respond to change in the past several weeks. “In these times of extreme uncertainty…we need to be ready to change the direction depending on how the situation evolves.”

‘A Lens of Hope and Change’

Flexibility is key in this time of uncertainty, and so too, says Tyler Wry, is creativity. “An entrepreneurial mindset is about embracing a pain point as an opportunity to create novel and productive solutions. This may result in a business idea, or it may not: the important thing is that entrepreneurs don’t just sit back and accept the status quo,” notes Wry, who is a Wharton associate professor of management. “Entrepreneurs tackle adversity though creative thinking and experimentation… they actively look for solutions and approach problems through a lens of hope and change.”

“Look at this time of being confined and restricted from your typical opportunities not just as a crisis and a problem, but also as an opportunity to experiment.” — Lori Rosenkopf, Wharton Management Professor

Students at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, have been creating the Penn campus on the virtual platform Minecraft, after the COVID-19 crisis forced them to continue courses remotely (see photo with article). The plan is for students to log on and be able to experience some of the traditions that they’re missing in-game, like Quaker Days for accepted students. Penn student Damian Owerko, a co-creator of the Minecraft campus, told Business Insider, “The pandemic not only separated our student community but also caused widespread anxiety. I hope that this will prevent people from feeling isolated.”

Like these students, entrepreneurs do something different, stresses Jax Kirtley, a Wharton assistant professor of management who studies early-stage entrepreneurial firms. “Entrepreneurs aren’t just identifying solutions, they are figuring out how to enact them and ensure that people can, and will, gain value from those solutions. To think like an entrepreneur in a time of crisis, don’t just think about which tool could solve the problem, think about how you can get that tool into the hands of the people who will create the most value with it.”

How specifically can high school students put these entrepreneurial lessons into practice while at home? Time is your most precious asset, suggests Lori Rosenkopf, Wharton’s Simon and Midge Palley professor of management, who has studied how to be an entrepreneurial manager in a larger company — so, developing an entrepreneurial mindset in a different context.

“In this time when our social activities are switched to virtual, we have more time for learning,” notes Rosenkopf. “What kinds of skills do you want to develop beyond structured schooling? You can even use your time socializing not just to commiserate with friends, but to develop some skills in a group way. For instance, try to build some kind of app that is going to solve a need.”

Experimentation and Empathy

That learning will often involve trial and error, just as it can in entrepreneurship, says Rosenkopf. “There’s buzz around the lean start-up mentality, which is all about experimentation to see what will work. Now you actually have the time to experiment,” she observes. “Look at this time of being confined and restricted from your typical opportunities not just as a crisis and a problem, but also as an opportunity to experiment with different ways of behaving and different operating procedures or routines. What’s a way you can maximize your personal performance under these admittedly challenging circumstances? It might be about what you eat, balancing creative and productive time, or even figuring out if it’s better for you to sleep late or get up early.”

Rosenkopf also encourages high school students with an eye toward entrepreneurial action to apply one of the key principles of design thinking, a process companies use to figure out innovative solutions to problems of all kinds. “It’s a great time to practice empathy,” notes Rosenkopf. “How are others feeling? How are your friends? How are your parents? If you can put yourself in their shoes, understand how they are feeling and think about their needs, then it’s only a short step to figuring out how you can help them. Maybe that’s building an app, getting groceries for a neighbor, or unifying needs in the community where you live. Maybe those kinds of things can scale? How can you build them in a bigger way? You need to understand your users and empathize with them if you want to develop a product and think like an entrepreneur.”

Ultimately, says Netessine, it’s important to stop assuming that your old way of life is the best way forward. “This is unlikely to be true for a while,” he says. “Keep your mind open to changes. Who says drum lessons or yoga lessons can’t be done over the internet? Sure, it is unusual for most people in normal times, but times are not normal now.”

Conversation Starters

What are four qualities of an entrepreneur that you can use to help you navigate the "new normal?"

Do you feel you've already developed an entrepreneurial mindset since you have been spending more time at home? How? Share your story in the comment section of this article.

What is empathy and why is it an important quality to have as an entrepreneur and in business? Use the Related KWHS Stories and links to explore the topic.

12 thoughts on “Thinking Like an Entrepreneur in a Time of Crisis

  1. This article resonated with me personally, as during these uncertain times, the need to find creative solutions and be innovative has impacted my life greatly. I have been taking weekly drum lessons for nearly six years, and due to the outbreak, my drum teacher is unable to visit my home. As the article mentioned, it’s unusual for most people to have drum lessons online, but the circumstances foster pioneering ideas. Last week, I set my laptop on an extra, unused drum stand, with the webcam facing the set. Through this setup, my teacher and I were able to effectively communicate, and even compare sheet music. Resourcefulness and creativity in an entrepreneur will transform the hardships of this world into value for the people who need it most.

    1. I see that you like playing drums and you have found a really good way to tackle the issue of not being able to see your teacher face to face.

      Entrepreneurs need to see what opportunities appear and how they can take advantage of them. Or at least make something useful out of the situation. I have a friend who is really good at singing and playing music and I proposed to her if she wanted to make a small concert, online, one night. After all, I have hear about many people who’s concerts got cancelled due to COVID-19 and listening music is always a good way to spend your time. We both talked to people we knew and invited them to join in if they wanted, make song suggestions… It was quite a success.

      I wanted to share my idea and propose to you to do the same. After all, it’s a good way to spend your time with people you know, as well as even meet people you didn’t know from before.

    2. I similarly had an unusual experience with my school music lessons and had a singing lesson virtually! It is impressive to see the initiative you took to organise this lesson and it represents the desire to use this gift of time wisely.

      As mentioned in the introduction of this article our world has quickly been turned upside down by this black swan event. My squash team had been competing since September and managed to qualify for the most important tournament of the season but unfortunately, due to COVID-19 it was cancelled. Although it was disheartening for my friends and I, it was understandably even worse for those in the grade above us who had lost their last opportunity to represent the school. Even with all of these cancellations and ‘indefinite postponements’ some of my friends still maintain the belief that they will be able to attend their final prom or graduation. Perhaps it is this hope that is motivating us and helping us mentally push through a time where you cannot escape negative opinions or news.

      As you have showcased in your drum lessons, this is still an opportunity for us students to further enhance our learning and dig deeper or experiment in fields that we have a passion for. We are truly privileged to live in this day and age where thousands of free online courses and lessons are available to us with no added hassle. I think in this time it is important to remain busy and be actively interested in something in order to ensure that the constant bleak news does not take over our days. The entrepreneurial mindset of constantly overcoming adversity is inspiration that many of us should consider at this time.

      As you interestingly pointed out, the ability of entrepreneurs to push through these hard times and change the livelihoods of those most vulnerable is admirable and will be a key defining factor in this unprecedented period. However, I might add that the empathy that an entrepreneur has as Prof. Rosenkopf pointed out will also be crucial in this time period. Although some of us may have the resources and ability to use this time to further our learning or help develop ideas with the end goal of helping society, there are many members of our society who have to first take care of themselves. The mental health issues that come with constant negative news stories and limited social interaction is a significant problem for some and being able to help those without the resources to protect themselves in these times will be a true test of our society’s progress.

    3. There goes the age-old saying, “make the best out of every situation.” Your improvising methods to continue drum lessons alongside your teacher is a good example of this. I full-heartedly agree with your statement that “resourcefulness and creativity in an entrepreneur” will ultimately take them far into the business field. Although simple and widely known, it is a foundational pillar for setting for success in any field or situation. Being able to be productive regardless of the environment correlates with a strong work ethic, as well as taking advantage of perhaps the not most optimal situations.
      Take the ongoing Coronavirus outbreak for example. Despite quarantine, it is important to use this invaluable opportunity for self-reflection and growth. Personally, I’ve been doing a variety of activities. I’ve begun to invest more time in programming, as well as prepared for my upcoming AP exams. I’ve taken up dance, which was something I would have never expected myself to do. Essentially, I found that there was a newfound, rare opportunity for self-improvement that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Regardless of the activity, however, the underlying mindset of being productive, regardless of the situation is key to entrepreneurship. You being able to rebound from such a unique situation is a prime example of this.

    4. I really agree with Charlie’s last sentence, “Resourcefulness and creativity in an entrepreneur will transform the hardships of this world into value or the people who need it most.” I believe that this can be connected to another economic depression, the Great Depression. Prior to the 1930’s Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse was not very appealing to most people because it resembled a rat like rodent and as a result it was not successful. When the Great Depression hit Mr. Disney and his fellow creators made light of situation and re-invented Mickey Mouse. They made him look younger and much more friendly. A playful cartoon was exactly what people needed to escape the hardships that they were living. By doing this not only was Disney successful, but so was America because this little sliver of happiness is what they needed to get through the hard times and persevere.

      A common saying is that “necessity is the mother of invention” and I think that holds true in every facet of life no matter the situation, from people needing optimism in the Great Depression to people needing basic medical supplies during the present day COVID-19 epidemic, when there is a problem people will work to fix it. This can be seen with people making home-made ventilators and medical masks out of their garages when there is a world wide shortage. Entrepreneurs are used to being at a constant disadvantage and will work their hardest to succeed; there is no problem too big that someone with an entrepreneurial mindset can not fix.

    5. Hi! I love the part when you mentioned that “the circumstances foster pioneering ideas.” Although there is coronavirus, it is even more important to have the confidence and right mindset in order to overcome this crisis.

  2. Using our newfound free time to explore new interests and apply our creativity is an invaluable opportunity, especially considering how busy day-to-day life is. While this mentality applies to many of us, it’s important not to turn this into a requirement. People struggling with mental illnesses are stuck in unsafe environments without their support systems, victims of domestic abuse are alone with their partners, and underprivileged families are struggling to eat three meals a day. Some may not have the opportunity to tackle new problems, as they can barely make it through the day. Encouraging entrepreneurship is not a bad thing, but it’s morally irresponsible to claim that a lack of entrepreneurship indicates stupidity and indolence. Let’s inspire others to explore their interests, while understanding that not everyone has the privilege to do so themselves.

    1. Naman, I myself can testify to the abundant newfound free time as a high school junior with mandatory daily tasks stripped down to the bone and without the need to endure long hours of commute or the ability to cheer for my school sports teams. Personally, I’ve tried to take advantage of my free time by establishing a regular fitness routine—I don’t have the easy excuse that I have no time anymore—and staying in touch with my friends online through video chat games. It’s times like these when a simple direct message checking in can have such a profound impact on our mental health that we have to spend more time caring for ourselves and those around us.

      While I see where you’re coming from Naman, I don’t believe that the article was expecting everyone to apply the entrepreneurial advice directly, nor do I believe that it was talking down to those who are not entrepreneurs in these harsh times. In fact, I think the article was trying to do the opposite, to try to encourage people to build each other up. The tips for entrepreneurs were merely a vehicle of reinforcing the need to adapt. As Lori Rosenkopf mentions, we should see this crisis as an opportunity for us to connect and socialize more online or perhaps learn a new skill. The article juxtaposes Rosenkopf’s advice with another piece of his wisdom that recommends high schoolers to take “entrepreneurial action” and to apply empathy, “one of the key principles of design thinking.” Those who are more privileged can apply empathy to help those struggling through entrepreneurial endeavors such as innovating interactive group message groups or organizing fundraisers to aid local communities. Naman, it is our duty and everyone’s duty as fellow inhabitants of this tumultuous blue marble to lift ourselves up, to extend a hand to those who you mention are suffering due to newfound circumstances.

    2. While I agree that due to personal circumstances, it can be more difficult for some people to apply an entrepreneurial mindset than others, I think that an entrepreneurial mindset can benefit everyone.

      If we look at Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it would be ideal if everybody was at the top and could apply entrepreneurial mindsets to help each other during this crisis. Of course, this is not the case — it’s unrealistic to expect that everybody will develop an app or become a leader in their community. However, those who have not met their more basic needs still benefit from entrepreneurial thinking. As Wry says in the article, “The important thing is that entrepreneurs don’t just sit back and accept the status quo”. Everybody should take responsibility for themselves and act to solve their own problems. Entrepreneurial qualities like resiliency and creativity are versatile and can help everybody in solving their own problems. Once peoples’ basic needs are met, they can then focus on applying entrepreneurial thinking to help others.

      The key takeaway here, which has been only reinforced by this pandemic, is that, ultimately, people are the entrepreneurs of their own lives.

    3. Naman, this comment is so powerful and important! I was deeply inspired by your consideration and empathy for individuals who are not able to easily adjust during these unprecedented times. Nearing the end of this article, it was mentioned that our advantage of time gives us an opportunity to practice empathy more often, and that is exactly what you expressed throughout this comment. With that being stated, maybe entrepreneurship could be used as an effective tool to combat inequality along with other issues we face today. We don’t necessarily have to only use it for our own benefit but we have the decision of developing productive mindsets so as to help those who are the most impacted by this pandemic; whether this be programming an undetectable app for domestic abuse victims or helping organize meal plans for underserved children by contacting local schools. As for our own personal gains, this time, especially for entrepreneurial minds, is such precious time to develop previous skills or learn new ones. By combining both aspects of productivity and empathy, entrepreneurs have the chance to come out of this pandemic with new, innovative solutions to problems that occurred prior to this crisis.

    4. Everyone wants to change the world. Everyone tells themselves they want to make the world a better place. But not everyone is successful in this endeavor, in fact, a minuscule minority of people are ever recognized for their impact in this vast world. So I ask myself what sets this 1% apart from all the others? Is it solely because they had the privilege and resources to get them to the top? Cases such as Oprah Winfrey, Narendra Modi, and Benjamin Franklin would beg to differ. Surely these people were not forced into their impactful positions let alone hand-fed their success. These people had genuine passion, they had motivation far outside of their ego and their self-image, these people are what I think of when I think of an entrepreneur. Someone who forged their own path and faced adversity head-on, not compelled to make a difference yet not handed down the opportunity to do so either. While extraneous factors such as money, privilege, family, and opportunity do and will always play a factor in one’s ability to have a voice, entrepreneurship is the ability to get to where you want to be and do the things you want to no matter the variability and no matter the adversity. For this reason, I myself aspire not to be like one of these wonderful, strong, and impactful human beings, but to be oh so different from them and make my own unique difference; only then can I call myself a true entrepreneur.

  3. I personally think that as this pandemic progresses the qualities that users of service and customers of products look for drastically change.

    (1) People are looking for companies and startups with resilience. They want to know that you are still able to provide your goods and services as in intended. Many companies with global supply chains have had major issues with supply and transport of their goods. Companies with local production ties such as Origin USA in Maine, are able to produce all their existing items plus produce items tailored to the situation such as ppe. They were able to accomplish this by using local labor and local raw materials. I personally think this will be a much larger business model as we move on from the pandemic.

    (2) More than ever people are wanting trust. When it comes to an infectious disease people become borderline paranoid with what they are doing and consuming. An example on how trust is playing out in the entrepreneurial covid world is the production of homemade masks. Many people did not own a facial covering before covid. A massive market opened with the new demand. Supply of medical grade masks was extremely strained and therefore there was a needed replacement. We saw many companies come out with new masks products, but what we also saw was an increase in home produced masks. Masks produced by your neighbors, friends, cousins, and brother&sisters. We saw the world turn from lemonade stand to covid supply stand. And what I believe was behind the massive success for these homemade masks was the level of trust between the buyer and seller. People knew what they were getting and know that the producer would ensure quality. This trust drove sales and is something that can be tapped into in the future.

    (3) Community. Community regardless of its appreciation or popularity is the backbone of society. A pandemic can bring lots of harm but it can also bring many great awakenings. Covid has made many people lose their jobs or maybe even a loved one. People are starting to turn to the community as a support system. We see people having driveway social distancing picnics, rooftop sing alongs, balcony tennis. These are events that wouldn’t normally happen, and wouldn’t happen without a community. The question is, how do we tap into this sense of community to better it? We see Facebook groups on the rise and apps like Nextdoor gaining a massive market share. Frameworks, goods, and services of the future must be able to tap into these platforms and markets and keep the community held tight.

    Personally covid has really shaken up my life. I live in Maputo, Mozambique in Southern Africa, but I was evacuated by the embassy and am now in Houston. It is really heartbreaking to be away from my school and my community. However community is something we take very seriously at AISM. We take a handful of days out of the school year to build partnerships with the community. We work with the deaf school, orphanages, hospitals, run blood drives, host events, produce sustainable farms, build schools and community centers, teach street safety, protect the environment, and much more. As community connections External Affairs President, I quickly capitalized on the situation and built a community connection portal that allows students to stay connected! We are also in deep discussion with the community on how we can strengthen our partnership. We are working with soup kitchens to bring food to the homeless and recently homeless of Mozambique, stocking blood centers, ensuring farm stability, putting out informative resources, and much more. We all need to do our part to not only maintain our safety, but the safety security of our community.

    Hope you and those around you are safe and well.

    – Rylan

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