The Rise of the Political Entrepreneur

March 25, 2013

Starting a business has become such an aspiring goal that today there’s not just one but several labels for entrepreneurs.

There are tech entrepreneurs, who start the web-based companies making apps and digital devices consumers use every day. Green entrepreneurs start companies that are built to have a positive impact on the environment, although they don’t always work out so well. Wikipedia even makes mention of “infopreneurs” – a catchy name for people “whose primary business is gathering and selling electronic information.”

Entrepreneurs are even so popular that already well-known financial expert Dave Ramsey has written a book titled EntreLeadership that teaches current and would-be entrepreneurs, “20 years of real world experience with all the sweat, tears and prayers.”

A hot new trend in entrepreneur-isms is the “Social Entrepreneur” – someone who is building a business that considers impact on society its primary ROI. Social entrepreneurs are focused on making a difference, and using business principles to get the job done, outside of the traditional non-profit and NGO world.

In this vein, a new and unique type of entrepreneur is coming to life, bringing a wave of change across the political landscape by disrupting traditional power structures and innovating in a space traditionally defined by, well, tradition.

Traditionally in politics, just a few large organizations have managed the money, grassroots, and influence necessary to win elections or pass legislation. Anyone interested in getting involved politically with any effectiveness needed to join one of these large entities and work their way up, just as a young employee would climb the corporate ladder. For instance, anyone interested in Republican politics was advised to get active in their precinct and then become a precinct captain, a district captain, a county chairman, and potentially a state party chairman.

As campaign finance laws have limited the power of traditional organizations like the parties, however, and technology has given individuals more of a voice in politics and government, individual advocacy has become more impactful. Never before has an individual had such an opportunity to make their voice heard, and many people are now starting organizations to do exactly that. These innovators are a new breed of entrepreneurs – Political Entrepreneurs.

Political entrepreneurs are starting everything from blogs to block parties and taking their message to the masses in new and creative ways. In the tradition of Ed Feulner at the Heritage Foundation and William Buckley at National Review, these new political startups are developing innovative ideas to impact elections and policy, then building business models around them. The concept is emerging so rapidly that two economic professors have just released a new book about social change and economics titled Madmen, Intellectuals, & Academic Scribblers (Stanford University Press, 2013). Their blog?

Colorado, which has become a battleground state in recent years, is seeing a renaissance of innovation as political entrepreneurs develop new, innovative ideas into startups.

Rick Akin and his wife, Jennifer Schubert-Akin, are examples of entrepreneurs who are taking an idea and turning it into innovative activism.

In 2009, Rick and Jennifer were participants in the Colorado-based Leadership Program of the Rockies. Like so many other LPR graduates who have gone on to become successful entrepreneurs in politics and policy, they looked for a need in their community and then set in motion a plan to fill that need.

The need they noticed was a counterweight to the ultra-liberal Aspen Institute, an organization that brings wealthy Hollywood elites and billionaire progressives together to talk about their guilt for being so rich, or something along those lines.

So they established the Steamboat Institute, a Steamboat Springs-based free-market think tank that could provide education about the benefits of capitalism and limited government. As their idea took off, they realized that many conservative leaders in Washington were not only willing to visit Steamboat to speak, they were practically fighting for the chance. So they started the Freedom Conference – an annual event every August that brings in some of the biggest names in the free-market movement. Over two days, speakers present to over 300 attendees on both specific policy issues as well as more broad themes of the free-market and the benefits of a limited government.

Their success was recognized this past February, when Rick and Jennifer received the Leaders in Action Award from the Leadership Program of the Rockies.

Like any startup, Rick and Jennifer have poured countless hours and dollars into the Steamboat Institute. Now as it enters a new phase of growth, they are looking to scale the idea and make it even bigger. As the organization grows, their impact will grow exponentially. Their journey to create, produce, and scale is not uncommon among startups, but it is refreshing energy and innovation within the conservative movement.

Another Colorado entrepreneur making a political impact is Laura Carno. A former Vice President at Wells Fargo, Laura started an advocacy organization in 2012 called I Am Created Equal that shares a message of empowerment to women who are not getting the straight facts from either end of the political spectrum.

“I was annoyed with how BOTH sides of the aisle were messaging to women,” Laura said. “The Obama campaign was telling women that they needed help to be equal. And that they needed to have things provided to them by government. The Karl Rove type organizations were portraying women as emotional and gullible. I decided that I could message to women better than that.”

Today the organization reaches women across the United States. During the recent gun control battle in the liberal-controlled Colorado legislature, Laura spoke out on radio, TV, via her blog, and on YouTube. Her innovative program has connected women with the facts about gun control – namely, it makes communities less safe – and continues to have an impact in major political issues across Colorado.

“Because we have a message with wide appeal, when we hit the right audience, we are able to easily persuade,” Laura said. “It’s been gratifying to hear things like ‘you are giving me a voice.’ It is very powerful to make that connection.”

These are just two stories of political entrepreneurs who saw a need in the advocacy marketplace, started an organization, and began scaling successfully by making an impact on their communities. As political entrepreneurship becomes more and more common, stories like these will as well.

The net profit is a better America today and for future generations.

A version of this article appeared March 19, 2013 online in A Line of Sight.

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