19 May Interview: G. Stephen Burrill on culture of entrepreneurship in Wisconsin.
Editor’s Note: G. Steven Burrill, CEO of Burrill & Company was recently in Madison, Wisconsin to honor the UW- Madison students that competed in the annual G. Steven Burrill Business Plan Competition. WTN News had the opportunity to talk with Burrill about the origins of the contest as well as his thoughts on entrepreneurial opportunities and challenges in Wisconsin in this edited interview.
WTN News: Can you tell me your thoughts about the entrepreneurial spirit and culture in California as compared to Wisconsin? Is there a difference in energy level, and the culture of collaboration and competition and how that impacts deal flow?
Burrill: With the risk of being offensive to some people, I think there is a fear of failure in Wisconsin. This is a risk adverse culture. Many of the people that are highly respected in business in Wisconsin are people that started in the mailroom, grew up and became the leaders of their companies over a 30-40 year career. The world that I live in is a world of young people doing different things. They fail, they stumble along the way, they dust themselves off, they get up, and they went on and the learned something through their failures. The Wisconsin business community is less tolerant of failure. You do not get the kind of risk that we see in California, where if I failed people would say, “I am sure Steve learned something and I bet he is a better and more experienced guy now.” In a sense in Wisconsin, if there is a failure people would say, “well you better stay away from them as their idea did not work the last time, so be careful.”
So the tolerance of failure, the acceptance of failure, the willingness to take risk has a lot to do with the differences of the culture. We dare people to be great, and we will help will make it happen. We say, “Do not worry about failure, there are plenty of chances for you to succeed after you fail, versus a culture that is less tolerant of that.
WTN News: Wisconsin has had some real entrepreneurs that formed Kohler, Johnson Controls, Harley Davidson, S.C. Johnson, and others. So there is a spirit of entrepreneurialism in the state that goes way back to the turn of the century and many of these businesses were created by first generation Americans. How can Wisconsin build on those successes and get young people involved in terms of a culture of innovation?
Burrill: Certainly the state was an entrepreneurial state at the beginning of the last century, people located in Wisconsin, they started a family farm, or they started the family businesses and they succeeded. There was a generation that really drove entrepreneurship but much of that was lost over time. I am not exactly sure why. I guess it was more comfortable to just work for someone else and the society and culture changed. So rebuilding that is tricky. I think if you took a snapshot of when I went to school here in the 60s versus today. Entrepreneurship is back! Entrepreneurship is good, and it is exciting, people are interested and that they are trying to find better solutions to problems that exist today across a wide array of things. That is very healthy for business!
Mike Klein: Can you provide me with your involvement with the Business Plan Competition? How did it get started and what is your involvement?
Burrill: I grew up in the 50s and 60s. I graduated from UW-Madison in the mid 60s and this was during the liberal years when objecting to the war in Vietnam made the campus business environment look bad. Entrepreneurship was unheard of and I went on to build a career in California around Silicon Valley-based companies, I realized the power and strength of the entrepreneurial community. I have been a passionate entrepreneur my entire life. It was frustrating to me with how little a spirit of entrepreneurship there was in Madison. So, I decided to try and do something about it. I thought if we could bring together engineering, business, and medical students along with other technologists and actually put money in a contest for the people who do the best job and pulling together a business or a business plan that this would encourage increased entrepreneurial behavior. Now, decades later, it turned out to be a very successful program.
WTN News: How many years ago did this get started and have you made an endowment to fund the program?
Burrill: We started the competition about 10 years ago and I basically funded it to get started. Other people have contributed along the way, which has been helpful, but I am the co-sponsor.
Related articles on the previous winners