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The Entrepreneurship Coach

Working with startups showed Ernesto Sirolli how anyone can have more impact: Shut up and listen.

by Sally Helgesen

Ernesto Sirolli has spent 30 years helping people find the resources they need to start businesses and make them thrive. He and the people he’s trained have been instrumental in launching more than 40,000 enterprises in 250 communities and 25 countries. Curiosity, commitment, and the willingness to spend time in some of the most remote locations on earth have given him unusual insight into what successful entrepreneurs do well. Above all, he advises business leaders to shut up and listen.

  

 

In fact, “Want to Help Someone? Shut Up and Listen” was the title of Sirolli’s TED Talk in 2012. Originally delivered at a regional TEDx in rural New Zealand, his presentation was posted to the main TED website and garnered nearly 2 million views, bringing worldwide attention to his work. Speaking in heavily accented Italian, and in his characteristic tone of wry simplicity, Sirolli recounted his early experiences working for an Italian NGO that specialized in economic development. After earning his laurea di dottore in political science from the University of Rome—the highest graduate degree offered in Italy at the time—he set off in the early 1970s full of idealism to work in impoverished communities in Algeria, the Ivory Coast, Kenya, Somalia, and Zambia.

“Everything we touched, we killed,” he says, evoking slightly nervous laughter from the TED audience. “Every project we did, every single one of them, failed.” He describes, for example, how his team decided to teach Zambians how to grow food in the beautiful fertile valley where they had always lived as pastoralists, shepherding animals but planting nothing. The team imported seeds from Italy—tomatoes and zucchini—but the locals didn’t seem interested. The team tried to pay them money, but there was little in the valley available to buy. Finally, the NGO started importing whiskey and beer in order to coax the men into the fields. “We kept thinking, what is wrong with these people?”

It soon became apparent. The tomatoes appeared on the vines, huge bursting fruits that put the most bountiful Italian crops to shame. The team members were joyful, but the next morning they awoke to find every single one of the plants gone. Hippos had swarmed up from the river and begun gorging. The Italians ran to tell the Zambians what had happened. “Of course,” said the people. “That’s why we don’t plant in the valley.”

Why didn’t you tell us?” asked the Italians.

“Because you never asked,” came the response.

The experience was painful. “I thought we Italians were good people, and I wondered how we could fail so badly,” says Sirolli. “Was it for these ‘results’ that we had hooked the community on whiskey and beer? So I began looking around at other projects that had been done in Africa—by the English, the Americans, the French—hoping to get ideas. And I realized, at least we fed the hippos. Other million-dollar projects just left rubbish behind. Everywhere I saw the same problem: Our well-intentioned efforts failed because we didn’t listen to the people we were trying to help.”

Challenging Entrepreneurs to Succeed

The story of Sirolli’s experiences in Africa is told in his book, Ripples from the Zambezi: Passion, Entrepreneurship, and the Rebirth of Local Economies (New Society Publishers, 1999). Now used as a text in many community and economic development courses, Ripples offers three essential messages about economic development. First, all effective development ideas need to come from local people rather than “experts,” no matter how well-meaning or informed these experts might be. Second, most efforts to motivate people are fruitless; rather, those trying to help local enterprise must wait until entrepreneurs ask for help, then connect them with the resources they need. And third, entrepreneurs should never be encouraged to act in isolation on their dreams, because doing so will increase their chances of failure and cause them to question their own capacities.

This last concept is important and informs Sirolli’s ideas about development and the nature of enterprise. With a methodology developed over years of challenging real-world conditions, Sirolli is pushing back against what he sees as the all-too-prevalent myth of the celebrity entrepreneur as go-it-alone individualist. “Instead of writing biographies, the business media is often publishing hagiography: hero stories about geniuses who do it all on their own,” he says. “But when you look at the real story, whether it’s Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Sam Walton or [Thomas] Edison or the owner of a chain of dry cleaners, you see none of them did it alone. They all had [groups of colleagues] who could do the things they couldn’t do. The way it’s presented is very dishonest. My work now is to oppose this fake mythology and show that enterprise really succeeds when the right people come together.”

Itled Sirolli to cofound the Sirolli Institute, a global social enterprise in Sacramento, Calif., that is dedicated to revitalizing communities by fostering entrepreneurship. In Sirolli’s view, this is a calling of the highest order. If communities devastated by industrial decline or isolated from global supply chains are to flourish and create sufficient jobs, local entrepreneurs need to succeed. Young people, he notes, are particularly inspired by a vision of responsive, grassroots growth, of going where they can and working with what they find to create products and services of distinctive value. Supporting them and helping them find what they need to thrive is the essential first step to healing communities.

Sirolli’s method for supporting such endeavors involves training “enterprise facilitators” (EFs) in each locale. These are individuals who work for either the community or a development agency and whose sole mission is to help entrepreneurs identify and find needed resources. He has trained about 185 EFs, located around the world. “These people don’t work for me, and they don’t work for the people they help,” he says. They work for government agencies or companies committed to local development, which pay them directly. “For most of them, it’s a full-time job.”

Making the Business Beautiful

 

Sirolli at Leading the North, an economic development conference, in Fort MacMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 2014
Photograph by Amber Bracken

On a bright afternoon at a Starbucks just outside downtown Sacramento—where Sirolli and his wife and business partner, Martha Sirolli (executive director of the institute), live—he is waiting to meet an entrepreneur. He rarely works directly with entrepreneurs anymore, and he seems to welcome the chance to exercise his skills directly, as a college president might look forward to teaching a class.

“There are two rules for enterprise facilitation,” he declares. “First, your relationship with the client is sacred and entirely confidential. Second, you treat the client as an adult. That means the client gets to decide whether and when to act on what you discuss. It’s not your role to monitor how that person is doing or hold him or her to a timeline. For that reason, you never call the client, you only call the client back. To be passive is the foundation of this work, and that’s why it’s difficult. It takes discipline to resist the impulse to do, to tell, to solve, to intervene.”

He adds that he trains facilitators to be conscious of every gesture. They must signal that the facilitator is someone to confide in: a resource rather than an authority figure. “You meet your client in a coffee shop, not an office. You don’t take notes during the meeting. You sit shoulder to shoulder and get the client to draw something and then look at it together. [These signals] create a feeling of collaboration.”