Purpose and entrepreneurship

Or what I learned from Bill Novelli at the Thoth Awards

I recently attended the Public Relations Society of America’s Thoth Awards Gala at the National Press Club. It’s a popular annual event that honors the best public relations work in the Washington, D.C. area.

The awards are often presented by PR luminaries, and this year was no exception. At one point in the program, Bill Novelli stepped up to the podium to say a few words and present an award. Co-founder of Porter Novelli and the former head of AARP, Novelli has been described as one of the most powerful men in Washington.

But you wouldn’t know that by looking at him. He’s unassuming, soft-spoken and, with a balding pate, not particularly powerful-looking. He looks more like a professor, which is what he is now at Georgetown University.

So of all the things he could have said to the movers and shakers in the PR world, what did he talk about?

Having a purpose in life. Wow, I thought. Not only did that strike a personal chord with me, but it got me thinking about what purpose looks like in a business setting.

Novelli is known for his social causes, and he and Jack Porter pioneered social marketing back in 1972 before any of us even knew what it was. Novelli left his company at age 49 to put into practice what he has always preached. He’s worked on trying to fix the mess that is our national health care system, served as executive vice president of CARE, led the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and more recently was CEO of the 40 million-member AARP.

While at AARP, he wrote Fifty Plus: Give Meaning and Purpose to the Best Time of Your Life. In that book, he described how many Americans are finding “meaning and purpose in their lives by doing something to help others…by contributing to the common good.”

I particularly like his discussion of entrepreneurship:

There are lots of ways to make a difference. I talk to young people about entrepreneurship. By that I mean taking initiative, acting like your own boss, maybe taking the plunge and actually becoming your own boss. I tried it with Porter Novelli and liked it a lot. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids was also a start-up. The J.W. Marriott company began as a husband-and-wife-operated root beer stand. But being an entrepreneur doesn’t just mean setting up your own shop. We can be entrepreneurs in any setting…I tell young people that they should try thinking of their group, their work team, their volunteer activities, or whatever they’re part of as though it were their own company or organization and their own money. How would they do things if that were the case? In the same sense, we can all be entrepreneurs for change. After all, it is our country. Let’s be bold and make things happen.

At the Thoth event, I met a young account executive just starting off in her career. She was excited because a public service campaign she had worked on won an award. As she explained to me how the campaign saved lives, I could tell she had a real passion for her work. I couldn’t help but think that there might be another Bill Novelli in the making.

What a difference purpose can make in your work and your life! Let me know what makes you come to work each day. Hopefully it is more than to collect a paycheck.

P.S. In my own thinking on the subject of entrepreneurship, I like to make the distinction between ownership and entrepreneurship. It’s a distinction that is worth considering as one contemplates starting a business or changing careers. As Jun Loayza puts it on his blog about start-ups, “Entrepreneurship is not a career, it’s a lifestyle.” But I’m getting ahead of myself. More on that in a future posting.

This entry was posted in Entrepreneurship, Purpose and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Purpose and entrepreneurship

  1. Chrisalyn says:

    Excellent post! I really liked the advice to younger individuals. And, I agree that there is a difference between ownership and entrepreneurship. I’ve always thought that a person would need to take ownership of their life in order to be successful in entrepreneurship.

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