I had a great conversation this week with someone who runs a community development venture capital fund. We got down to the core with each other of “what brings you to this table?” The table in this case is a fund designed to make money but balance that with growing jobs in the community. We ended up talking about how people get rewarded for hard work and how much luck is involved. I think interestingly we come to a similar place but from different directions: I get the sense he too often has been accused of merely being lucky and not working for what he has. I on the other hand feel I’ve witnessed many people take good fortune as a validation of superiority. The truth is that we’ve both worked hard, and we’ve both had some good opportunities.
The components of success: hard work, inspiration, opportunity. Looking at those as ingredients suggests that merely being exposed to opportunity is enough and that if one doesn’t take advantage of it then there’s either a lack of smarts or a lack of hard work. With that kind of framing it’s automatic to blame the non-achieving individual. But hard work isn’t an addable ingredient like that with a single opportunity. There needs to be infrastructure. When I look at how I’ve developed in my own life, and I reflect on sociology writings I’ve read about ambition and success, one opportunity is not enough. There needs to be a sequence of opportunities at the right time that create a reach opportunity with a reasonable chance of success to reward and thereby reinforce the hard work. That prepares the person to reach a little higher for the next opportunity. Multiple opportunities also give one a chance to recover from a setback. It’s pretty complicated to line up just the right set of learning so we can’t hand out opportunities like prizes on a game show: it needs to be raining opportunities of all kinds for people to get what they need to grow and become the best they can be.
I guess that’s what attracts me to this nexus of private equity and economic development. I want to help create a fertile environment where lots of people get to experiment and develop at lots of stages, not just the well-off, or the married to someone who can support me, or the young pup who reminds the well-off of their younger selves. We need fertile ground and lots of seeds if we want a vibrant economy.