Sometimes slogging through the muck is the most powerful example a leader can set. Just ask Alan Chambers, the British corporal who walked unassisted for 67 days from Resolute Bay, Canada to the North Pole last May.
Keep walking — it’s a simple concept that held extraordinary challenges for Chambers and his men: windchills of 70 degrees below zero, chronic fatigue and frostbite that forced two of his three teammates to abandon the mission, and thin ice that nearly claimed the life of partner Charlie Paton.
“We walked three miles during the day, and while we slept, the Arctic Ocean current carried the ice pack we were on back one mile toward the Canadian land mass,” says Chambers, leader of the first all-British team to reach the North Pole. “To reach my goal, I literally had to keep walking — and inspire my teammates to do the same.”
Today, Chambers is bringing that message of resilience to the masses through the Keep Walking Fund. Launched by Johnnie Walker Blended Scotch Whisky last month, Keep Walking is a contest of sorts that encourages people around the world to submit, develop, and realize “idea plans” for personal and professional ventures. Chambers — along with eight other leaders and innovators — sits on the board of directors that will ultimately award between 5 and 12 grants, totaling $500,000, to people with great ideas.
Keep Walking is Johnnie Walker’s answer to “Just Do It,” “Think Different,” and “Drivers Wanted” — marketing slogans that have struck a chord with twentysomething and thirtysomething consumers. Although Scotch whisky is hardly synonymous with entrepreneurialism, this idea-driven promotion seems to be a natural fit for the 181-year-old company that emerged from rural Scotland to define an entire industry, says Michael Stoner, senior vice president product group director.
“‘Johnnie Walker’ stands for pioneering progress, and ‘Scotch’ stands for success,” Stoner says. “Young people define success in very different terms than their parents or grandparents. Keep Walking recognizes that success means persisting toward an idea or a dream with conviction and vision.”
Fastcompany.com met with the Keep Walking board last month to celebrate the fund’s launch and to discuss its philosophy. In addition to Chambers, Fast Company spoke with the following board members about the importance of back-to-basics business, the necessity of failure, and current economic cloud’s silver lining.
Camilo Cruz emigrated to the United States from Colombia as a 20-year-old with a high-school diploma and wild ambitions. Twenty-one years later, the author, entrepreneur, and motivational speaker holds an MS in analytical chemistry and a PhD in analytical spectroscopy. He has also founded several companies, including Yupi Internet, one of the most popular Spanish networks of Internet sites.
John Esposito began his career in the wine-and-spirits industry when he took over his family’s retail shop in New York more than 25 years ago. Today, he serves as president and CEO of Schieffelin & Somerset Co., a leading U.S. importer of wine and spirits.
Doug Hall may quote Jack Kerouac instead of Jack Welch, but he’s no business lightweight. A veteran of Procter & Gamble’s brand-management division, Hall now leads Eureka! Ranch, a corporate innovation company with clients including Walt Disney, Nike, and Ford.
Reggie Wilkes is a team player — literally. A former member of the Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons, this professional football veteran is now managing director and partner of GS Capital LP, a venture-capital firm that invests in minority- and women-owned businesses.
What lessons did entrepreneurs learn in the first five years of the new economy?
Hall: In the late 1990s, companies tried to succeed by becoming a first mover and by scoring unlimited funds. Now we know that’s not enough. Entrepreneurs need to master the fundamentals of an idea before building a site or pitching a venture capitalist. They need to demonstrate how, when, and why they can make a dramatic difference through proprietary innovation. They must substitute courage for greed and take dramatic steps into the unknown.
Esposito: The days of low-hanging fruit are over. There are no more quick wins. Today, entrepreneurs must win the old-fashioned way, with real technology, real efforts, and real mission statements. We’ve been living in a fog for the past five years. Two years ago when you asked what made an idea different, you got a 20-minute explanation that was more confusing than it was helpful. Now the elevator pitch is back. Cut to the chase. If you can’t engage me in 2 minutes, then who says you’ll be able to engage customers? If you don’t have the discipline to hone your message, then maybe your competitor does.
Cruz: But let’s remember that the revolution is far from over. We’re experiencing a lull right now, and this downtime should be used to clarify business objectives. Entrepreneurs should use this time to reassess their companies’ mission statements and values. During the past five years, many companies thought that they could charge ahead with governing values and without a guiding vision. They were wrong.
Dwindling dotcoms are being chastised left and right today. Is there a new stigma against failure? Should there be?
Wilkes: I see it this way. Right now, American entrepreneurs are the Philadelphia Eagles playing in hostile territory: the New York Giants’ stadium. The Eagles are down in the last two minutes of the game. The final score won’t tell the whole story. You have to watch the entire game to see how the team reacts to adversity and whether it puts up a good fight. Similarly, failure in business is a bad omen only if a team surrenders without a fight. You must judge a company by more than its stock price to determine its spirit and resolve.
Chambers: I walked to the North Pole last year. Two years earlier, I had tried and failed. I had put three years’ work into a detailed plan that didn’t work. Ultimately, that failure was a blessing, because it forced me to reevaluate and question my strategy. I was able to work on antidotes to the problems that had derailed my original approach, and I bounced back with a stronger plan and a more resilient outlook. Failure is a natural and necessary part of the process.
Esposito: I agree. Obstacles are a fact of life. When one of my former employers merged with another company, my position became superfluous, and I lost my job. I had the same two choices that entrepreneurs have today: keep walking or keep whining. The Keep Walking Fund is working to enable fighters to pursue their dreams. Ultimately, every business starts as a dream. And we must protect thoses dreams.
But surely, every failed company does not deserve a sequel. How do you differentiate the worthwhile failures from the hopeless failures?
Esposito: During Act I of the new economy, many high-profile dotcoms burned through enormous sums of money simply because they could. They failed because they didn’t care about serving their customers well or furthering some greater purpose. But dotcoms represent only a fraction of the entrepreneurial ventures alive in the United States today. Most dreams aren’t dependent on huge sums of money. They thrive on personal conviction. It’s not hard to differentiate the dreamers from the pillagers. And people tend to forgive dreamers’ mistakes and failures because they understand that dreamers’ intentions are good.
Hall: For the vast majority of entrepreneurs, the number-one source of funding is a personal credit card. Those entrepreneurs are the real people — the heart and soul of small business. The Keep Walking Fund is interested in them. We want to provide the spark that will get them going. Whether they fail once or twice along the way is irrelevant. As for the wasteful dotcoms, I think Darwin will do his job and wipe the market free of the scum buckets.
Chambers: I don’t think it’s fair to call every dotcom outright odious. Those people had the vigor and passion to start something. They had the initiative, the inspiration, and the passion to give it a go. If nothing else, they encouraged more people to follow their example and take a leap.
Cruz: As the founder of one of those dotcoms, I must say that it’s unwise to try to evaluate a time period that isn’t over, one that you’re still living in. We can’t talk about the dotcom era with any real finality because we’re still in the middle of it. It’s the media’s job to write about the story happening around us, but it’s the entrepreneurs’ job to live that story. And we can’t let one prevent the other from happening. We must encourage people to dare to change the history of the world, regardless of public opinion or media coverage of the dotcom crash.
So if the dotcom shakeout has not necessarily hurt grassroots entrepreneurs, is it safe to say the recession has had a positive effect on small-business owners and hopeful entrepreneurs?
Cruz: I think so. People don’t learn when they’re riding the tide of success. Only when people fail do they take time to step back, analyze the fundamentals, and ask, “What did we do wrong? What can we change?” If anything, this downturn has forced many companies to put their cards on the table and redefine the game.
Wilkes: This downturn will allow groups like the Keep Walking Fund to dismantle some of the new economy’s unhealthy operating procedures. In 1999, venture-capital firms invested about $50 billion in various firms. Less than 5% of that money went into women- and minority-controlled businesses — which is a scary statistic, especially considering that the United States’ Hispanic, female, and African-American populations are growing and are becoming better educated every day. Venture capital has been awarded based on social and business connections, rather than merit.
As venture capitalists begin to look for cost-effective alternatives during this economic downturn, I think more and more of them will come to appreciate the potential of the women and minorities. In some ways, the Keep Walking Fund is helping to build a level playing field by setting up a market-neutral contest. Race, age, and gender do not factor into this contest at all. The person with the best idea wins. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?
Cruz: In the long run, the Keep Walking Fund won’t make a big dent in the overall business landscape. But history isn’t the result of big dents; it’s the culmination of many small dents and efforts. This is just one effort by a well-grounded company to recognize and encourage leadership, entrepreneurialism, and meaningful dreams. All we can hope to do with the Keep Walking Fund is to give people the opportunity to take that dream one step further. And that means a lot today.
Learn more about the Keep Walking Fund online (www.keepwalking.com).