Impact Stories
July 19, 2022 – Economic Progress

“How may I help you?”: Andreas Widmer on The Art of Principled Entrepreneurship

“How may I help you?”: Andreas Widmer on The Art of Principled Entrepreneurship

Andreas Widmer is an associate professor in entrepreneurship at Catholic University of America’s Busch School of Business, where he also is founder and director of the Art and Carlyse Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship. A seasoned entrepreneur and business strategist, Widmer is author of The Art of Principled Entrepreneurship: Creating Enduring Value, a practical guide for doing business in a way that is virtuous and profitable. The book pays tribute to Art Ciocca, pictured above with Widmer. Ciocca took a fledging wine startup and built it into the second largest company in the sector by putting people at the center of his business.

Why did you write this book?

More than two-thirds of Americans are disengaged at work. They can’t wait to get home. Spending that much time at something you dislike damages personal well-being and societal progress. Relatedly, in the students I teach I see less enthusiasm for the American DreamAmerican Dream — the hope for the future that comes from liberty, and knowing that honest hard work will allow me to build the kind of life I want for myself. This vision is inclusive of anyone who shares the vision of the Declaration of Independence, but that is no longer understood or embraced by a majority. I think this hopelessness must be addressed. I wrote the book to tell stories that remind people what business is about and how we ought to act in it. 

What is principled entrepreneurship? 

Principled entrepreneurs believe the economy exists for people, not that people exist for the economy. People are not a means to an end. Art Ciocca distinguished between “creators” and “harvesters.” Principled entrepreneurs are creators. In Art’s business, if he only harvested the vineyard, he would have killed the land. He focused on what was underneath the business, the people, helping them become excellent. That’s how he consistently created value. People were his company’s competitive advantage.

Principled entrepreneurs are not just CEOs; they can also be managers and employees. We impoverish the idea of entrepreneurship if we only think of entrepreneurs as people who start companies. The common thread among principled entrepreneurs is they see and seize opportunities and are concerned with adding value for others. They are highly flexible and don’t stick to a paint-by-numbers management theory. An employee who is a principled entrepreneur would suggest a solution to a problem, not just bring the problem to management. 

How do principled entrepreneurs solve society’s problems?

In 1880, 95 percent of the world lived in extreme poverty. That number is now less than 10 percent. Business is the solution to poverty because the core of business is summed up by the question, “How may I help you?” Businesses are meant to add value to peoples’ lives. In using their personal excellence to help people, principled entrepreneurs also help themselves. Only a market-based system allows people to pursue mutual benefit in this way. 

Corporate culture is one problem employees cite for their dissatisfaction. How do principled entrepreneurs view their colleagues?

There are two ways to view labor: as a financial problem and burden or as a solution. Principled entrepreneurs look at their colleagues and see their unique potential. Principled entrepreneurs are coaches focused on developing long-term excellence, not critics focused on short-term financial results. Principled entrepreneurs also know humans aren’t interchangeable. They build teams of people who complement each other. They’re like conductors, creating orchestras that make beautiful music. This type of culture leads to employee fulfillment and engagement.  

Is there a story from your book that illustrates what you mean?

Two of Art’s employees made a huge production mistake that threatened the future of the company. Art asked if they understood what went wrong. They said yes, so he told them to create a system to prevent the mistake from happening again. Instead of firing these two, he empowered them to be problem solvers. Art showed his employees he would stand by them. He made it okay to take risks and make mistakes (so long as they were corrected, of course!). The company grew because of the culture of excellence and trust. Putting people first is a rational business decision. 

Art’s company also had no sales incentives. No commissions. He didn’t want to push people to sell; he wanted to create a product that customers truly wanted. He focused on enduring value. There are a lot of negative outcomes when companies push people to buy things they don’t want or need, including that employees are always in fight or flight mode. They are being managed with existential fear. Art felt he needed to put people at ease in order to help them become excellent at their jobs. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t demanding, but he gave people high and rising wages so they could count on a predictable income, and counted on their enthusiasm for products they were proud of. 

How can educators help students discover work that will be meaningful to them?

We’ve got to be interested in students’ minds, and their hearts. I was not a great student. It took someone else having faith in me to show me what I could do. I now pay that faith forward. 

As educators, we can help students find their unique talents. My students each start a business. They determine what they want to do by going back to the question, “How may I help you?” They explore what gifts they have that will help them add value for others. We also talk about the character, the “personal superpowers” — will, discipline, creativity — they will need to sustain people-centered enterprises. 

The last chapter of the book is about teaching principled entrepreneurship. As professors, we have a chance to renew students’ belief in the American Dream, shape their character, and start them on a path toward lifelong learning, excellence, and fulfilling work.