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Contributing author Harsha Kodali, FG14

A palpable curiosity could be felt at the Ritz-Carlton on April 25, 2013 as members of the Tufts community gathered for the spring event of the Tufts Financial Network Speaker Series. The topic, “The Imagination Crisis: Are the Days of Revolutionary Innovations Over?,” tackled innovation and its prospects, their profound and far-reaching consequences for the world and the professional and personal interests of the students and alumni in attendance.

The day’s panel featured experts with wide-ranging experiences across the Boston region and the world, including Navjot Singh, Senior Partner at McKinsey & Company and Head of McKinsey Boston; Lynda Applegate, Sarofim-Rock Professor of Business Administration and Head of the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School; and Steven Koltai, A76, FG78, E12P, Managing Director and Founder of Koltai & Company and Serial Entrepreneur and Former Senior Advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the U.S. State Department’s Global Entrepreneurship Program. Moderating the forum was the Senior Associate Dean of International Business and Finance and Executive Director of the Institute for Business in the Global Context, Bhaskar Chakravorti.

The panel touched upon the defense of present-day innovation, with Professor Applegate sharing the theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” in which she described innovation as a process marked with points that spur a stream of innovation from a single dramatic impact. For example, innovations such as the cell phone were followed by commercialization that led to mobile apps and mobile money. “I think the pace of innovation is faster than it has ever been,” she added.

Mr. Koltai described innovation as cumulative and a “basic human function,” that is inherent in a portion of the population. He warned that the prototype for entrepreneurs are not “Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey and John Mackey – the gurus and the heroes of America today,” but rather, those that “face tremendous adversity… without the proper enabling environment,” and yet still succeed. Drawing on his experiences in the Middle East during the Arab Spring, he agreed with Applegate that the pace of innovation was accelerating and fears of its demise were over-wrought.

According to Applegate, at Harvard Business School they define entrepreneurship as “the relentless pursuit of opportunity without regard to the resources currently controlled.” Entrepreneurs, she asserted, are “opportunity-seeking as opposed to simply thinking about how to manage today’s assets,” but at a certain point need resources to thrive, as well as the encouragement to take risks without acting reckless. “People are afraid to think big…” she said, adding that, “I don’t think it’s an imagination crisis, I think it’s a confidence or a courage crisis to be able to start out on that journey.”

Mr. Singh, countered, arguing that the issue is not monetary, but rather lies in an educational system that punishes those that think “out of the box.” According to Singh, “we as people should be unconstrained and we should be imagining,” whether one has the resources to pursue their idea or not. “No one can stop you from thinking of a big idea…And you should not be afraid to share those big ideas,” said Singh.

Education remained a theme of the conversation as Applegate and Koltai affirmed Singh’s point. Specifically referencing the Tufts $100,000 Business Plan Competition, Koltai said that entrepreneurs need financing, and not only those that operate in difficult environments. Financing must not be simply contained to the developed-to-developing world relationship; rather, financing freedom and the adoption of innovations should be encouraged through a global free flow of information.

Risk-taking and failure prevailed as almost essential to the entrepreneurial process, with Singh citing Japan as “a society that does not allow risk-taking and a society that does not allow failure,” adding the number of small companies that start and fail in Japan is very small. He argued that the formula for innovation and its creation is simple and it is cultural, and can be assisted by a form of education that enhances society’s willingness to take on risks.

The day’s takeaways from all three panelists supported the notion that innovation is an ecosystem: one that encourages those that are willing to take risks, and furthermore, supports entrepreneurs through their failures as they adapt their methods to accommodate investment. Koltai summarized this idea by repeatedly highlighting the commonality among audience members—a shared interest in innovation and a relationship with Tufts was shared by all. This relationship, he noted, allows innovators to sense the backing of a community, such as Tufts, and to take risks that lead to innovation.

To view the video of the April panel in its entirety, please click here.

Contributing author Harsha Kodali is a first-year Master of International Business student at the Fletcher School, where he focuses on international finance and banking and development economics. Harsha has experience in the fields of financial services and international development. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and International Relations from Claremont McKenna College.