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The Self-Made Mindset

David L. Bodde, D.B.A. ’75, and Poonam Sharma ’99 enrolled at Harvard a generation apart, but the two authors offer the same advice to anyone looking to a launch a business: Expect to make mistakes; they come with the territory.

"You can do everything right and still fail," says Bodde, author of The Intentional Entrepreneur and a senior fellow at the Spiro Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at Clemson University in South Carolina. "But that’s okay. You can be wrong and bounce back." In fact, Bodde says, failure often breeds success by forcing entrepreneurs to use their knowledge and imagination to recover and find the right direction. Over time, he says, "you really do improve your judgment about when to hold and when to fold."

Sharma noticed similar resilience in the subjects she interviewed for her forthcoming book, Chasing Success, which profiles 13 Harvard-educated entrepreneurs, including Boston Beer Company founder C. James Koch ’71, J.D.-M.B.A. ’78; technology visionary Esther Dyson ’72; and Scott D. Cook, M.B.A. ’76, founder of the personal-finance software company Intuit Inc. In Sharma’s view, what distinguishes those who fly from those who fade away is a mindset she dubs "the productive safety net."

Sharma defines that attitude as a core of self-confidence that frees entrepreneurs to act even though they know their efforts could backfire. "They accept the possibility of being able to fail—without telling themselves that they’re going to fail," says Sharma, a past director of the Harvard Entrepreneurs Club. And if others predict failure, true entrepreneurs may listen, but ultimately, they follow their own instincts. Says Sharma, "They don’t need anyone’s approval."