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Every entrepreneur has passion, energy and hope, but these qualities alone do not suffice. You also need a clear and prescient vision for a need in the market that your product can meet. Essentially, you need to find a blank space and a brilliant way to fill it.
More than four decades ago, I discovered my own blank space. I loved my life as a teacher of art, music and writing in public elementary schools, and helped my students see that these subjects were as essential to human invention and problem-solving as science and math. I became so passionate about this pedagogical approach that I dreamed of creating an entire university devoted to creative invention.
But how would this new college stand apart? What need would it meet, that every other art school in the US wasn’t already meeting? I pored over course catalogs, curriculum guides, studies on art and design education. I reached out to friends in higher education, considered my own graduate and undergraduate education and where it had been lacking. I interviewed alumni from prestigious studio programmes. What do they wish their alma maters had done differently?
“I wish they’d taught me how not to be a starving artist,” more than one person sardonically offered, with a laugh. My attention was piqued. They spoke fondly of their educational experiences, all the technique and languid studio days, but mourned how their professors taught them nothing about how to monetize their talents into a sustained creative career. Here was my blank space. I would create a new university that prepared students for creative careers. Our motto: No starving artists.
In 1978, this was heresy. To marry the words “creative” and “career” in a college course catalog was unthinkable back then. I carefully crafted our mission statement for prospective students and families, and 44 years later, while This statement has been refined (a word here, a clause there), its essence remains remarkably the same: to prepare students for creative careers.
SCAD has grown to three locations on two continents and is one of the largest art and design universities on the planet. But what hasn’t changed is that we’ve never wavered from our mission statement. This mission informs every decision we make. We don’t add new programs just because they’d be fun to teach or because they’d look prestigious and appealing in the catalog.
How to find your mission
Once you’ve articulated the need your startup will meet for your client, you’ve got to check every new idea against that mission statement.
As an example, look at Reese Witherspoon. Now in her 40s, Witherspoon noticed the roles she was being offered were woefully condescending. She saw a need for a studio that wrote, produced and created intelligent, entertaining content for women. With this in mind, Witherspoon started her media company, Hello Sunshine, with an equally crystalline intention: to change the narrative for women in film.
Witherspoon’s company creates films, TV shows, and podcasts that “put women at the center of every story.” Hello Sunshine’s wild success — Big Little Lies, The Morning Show and Little Fires Everywhere, among others — are critically acclaimed, top performers among the streaming services they live on. The company is valued at $900 million, because Hello Sunshine fast to its founding intention, refusing to accept the status quo that sidelines women holds in entertainment. Her studio meets an urgent need, producing powerful stories about women, for women, by women.
Leadership presents a series of decisions. Through choices and actions, we create our realities. If you want to lead successfully, you must first recognize the blank space in the market and how your enterprise will fill that space with elegance and invention.
As you design your destiny, I encourage you to think about what may seem deceptively simple: that resonant phrase, packed with punch, that maps your mission. Just as every word in an essay must support its thissis, every element of your business must propel your vision forward. Find your voice. Meet a need. See the blank space and fill it with your whole heart.