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Mercier Lecture: Dr. Allan Carswell – Entrepreneurs: Born? Or Created?

BEST presented the Mercier Lecture on November 7 featuring Dr. Allan Carswell as the guest speaker, welcoming more than 200 guests at the Bergeron Centre of Engineering Excellence. The Mercier Lecture commemorates Eileen Mercier’s late husband Ernest C. Mercier in an effort to inspire and empower future generations of chemistry students at York with a sense of the possible. We were pleased to welcome Eileen Mercier, without whose support the Lecture wouldn’t have been possible. The audience were welcomed by the Dean of Lassonde, Dr. Jane Goodyer, followed by a brief history of the Mercier Lecture presented by Eileen Mercier and an introduction of Dr. Allan Carswell by the Dean of Schulich School of Business, Dr. Dezsö J. Horváth.

Eileen Mercier at the Mercier Lecture, Lassonde BEST Lab
Eileen Mercier
Dean Jane Goodyer welcomes Dr. Allan Carswell
Dr. Allan Carswell and Dr. Jane Goodyer
Dr. Allan Carswell hosts the Mercier Lecture, panoramic view of the stage and audience
Wide view of the audience and stage
Dr. Dezsö J. Horváth at the Mercier Lecture on November 7, 2018, the Lassonde BEST Lab Lecture Series
Dr. Dezsö J. Horváth
Dr. Allan Carswell and Dr. Andrew Maxwell at the Mercier Lecture
Dr. Allan Carswell and Dr. Andrew Maxwell

The title of this Lecture, “Entrepreneurs: Born? or Created?” as Dr. Carswell observed, is an analog to the argument of Nature vs. Nurture, but what Dr. Carswell included was a keen sense of honesty by admitting just how much chance was involved, and this set a refreshing tone for the evening. Many self-made success story types will speak of their hard work as if through sheer force of will they made the stars align and their business happen. It leaves the image that no matter how hard we already trying we must try even harder if we want success, but worse, it implies that there is an amount of worked hours, or ignored burnout that will guarantee the things you want. There is no doubt that hard work and perseverance are involved in the process, but it forgets that even if you do everything right, you may still not succeed and that there is still a limit to how much one person can do.

This is why Dr. Carswell’s story was so enjoyable. He never set out for success, he didn’t even have the goal of pioneering Lidar. Equipped with a PhD in physics, he was assigned to work on a laser project where he encountered Ontario Hydro and an issue they were having detecting coal power emissions. Pleased with his solution, Hydro contracted him to create truck-based Lidar and instead of creating a general Lidar product, he treated every contract with the same customized approach. As one of our students mentioned “As a young engineering student in the audience, this is the kind of entrepreneurship that piques my excitement, it isn’t about success at all costs, or finding the “correct” way to entrepreneur, he followed a passion, found a problem, created a solution, rinse and repeat, because it kept working.”

It places a realistic frame onto the entire scenario, because the truth behind it all is that we are not going to invent the next Facebook and that isn’t even the right goal. We don’t know what will change the world next, but it’s waiting in the path of someone’s passion, and that’s where we should be directing all of that hard work. Work on what you love and enjoy, what you’re curious about, it’ll give you the unique solution to someone’s problem. It’ll give you a new direction for all that hard work.

Dr. Carswell recognizes that the Nature vs. Nurture question of whether are entrepreneurs born or created is less about someone’s natural or environmentally learned talents and more about whether or not someone will follow the chance opportunities as they occur. To finish, he recognizes the unexpected luck of his success, by spending his retirement giving support and opportunities to the next generation. The kind of support he gives allows young entrepreneurs to follow their passions first so they’ll be ready for a chance later, and that is refreshing.

Dr. Andrew Maxwell, Chair of Lassonde’s Bergeron Entrepreneurs in Science and Technology, (BEST) Lab ended the evening with a Q&A. Questions were submitted from the audience to create a continuous flow. Notable questions were:

  • Do you think it is easier or harder to start a company today?
  • We talk a lot in our workshops about the emotional side of entrepreneurship, can you talk about the passion?
  • It is very realistic to talk about failure, sometimes it is a setback and sometimes it is more permanent. Do you have some advice about resilience?
  • A number of people here are budding tech entrepreneurs, do you have any words or wisdom for them to help guide their journey?

Dr. Carswell was candid that given the educational, and industrial support the image is created that everyone should be pursuing entrepreneurship, but the image is often sold by listing the top 5 wealthiest entrepreneurs. Too often does this come back to the idea of entrepreneurship for the money, as if it is easy, instead of for the passion. You have to draw a clear line of what you are willing to do and ensure you do everything you can until you get there, but it requires determining your limits in advance.

Finally Dr. Carswell said that a good entrepreneur is regularly reviewing themselves and the business, and should be asking these key questions:

  • Why are you doing it?
  • How would you do it?
  • What business are you in? You have to think about why you are in your business at every junction.

Resilience is a skill and you get better the more you do it and so the key entrepreneurial skill is just trying, it’s the first risk, but it primes you for the 2nd, and so on, but from it, you also learn how and when to walk away and onto the next.

Thank you Eileen Mercier and Dr. Allan Carswell for making the Mercier Lecture a great success and an event to remember!