Zillions of dollars?
- Friday, January 21, 2000
Reprinted with permission from re:generation quarterly, Volume 5.3, written by Helen Lee.
I have just taken my greatest leap of faith. Given the opportunity to begin a dream job with a prestigious Boston-area venture capital firm, I have nonetheless turned it down, in a move that many of my fellow business school graduates consider a sign of pure lunacy. I have chosen to do away with job security because I could no longer deny the call to start my own Internet company.
So, as my former classmates settle into their new positions and exhibit signs of the upwardly mobile (e.g., new mortgages), I have sold my condo, downsized, and begun to establish my business. Yet no matter how much I might believe in the vision and opportunity I see, there are no guarantees, making this even riskier for me than choosing to become a Christian, where a few certain truths form the foundation of my beliefs. In the Internet space, only one thing is certain: there are many, many failures.
One of my former classmates thinks he understands my motivations. Hey, thats great! he says when he hears my news. Now you can make zillions of dollars like all the other Internet entrepreneurs.
But ironically, I have never considered material wealth much of a goal. I am an employers dream: I have a hard time negotiating salaries because they just dont matter much to me. I havent always wanted to be an entrepreneur; if anything, I shied away from business. Profit? Greed? Ambition? None of these words ever applied to me. I spent the six years after graduating from college in the employment or company of a variety of Christian evangelical institutions: InterVarsity, Wheaton College, Christianity Today. With each one, I was sure that my future vocation would make itself known. And yet I found my calling in none of them. I was motivated neither by ministry nor magazine editing. What next?
After moving from Chicagoland to the greater Boston area, I applied to a school well known for entrepreneurial studies. I started my MBA in August of 1997. It was the beginning of a two-year business boot camp that has challenged me in every way possible: mentally, physically, spiritually. Here I was, a person who cared nothing about making money, pursuing a degree designed to teach us to do just that. Once during class, a consultant-wannabe classmate stated what he thought was obvious: We all want to make as much money as we can, dont we? Thats why were here. I had to interrupt. Excuse me, I said, but some of us didnt come here for that reason. From across the room, I could see the amazement in his eyes. A business student uninterested in the creation of wealth?
Perhaps this is why the Internet space is so attractive for me: everyone is losing money! If I do so, it will not only be acceptable, but expected! Joking aside, the context does feel slightly freeing. I can concentrate on what I have discovered does motivate me: the prospect of building from a seed of an idea to reality, a company that improves society in some way. My current focus is to improve processes in the wedding industry, where inefficiency abounds. Obviously, I must find ways for the venture to generate revenue, but my ultimate goal is vision -- and not profit-oriented.
At the rate Internet businesses are currently being started, only one in ten will survive, much less thrive. But if mine is able to break through, I know there is potential for more wealth than I ever imagined. For some people, thats motivating. I, on the other hand, struggle constantly to make sure that it is not. I play mind games: Okay, what if I sell the company one day and walk away with $1 million? $2 million? $5 million? The concept of tithing takes on new meaning when you are operating in seven digits. How I would love to help build a church for a beloved Asian-American ministry back in Chicagoland, or to support all my InterVarsity friends so that they can be relieved somewhat of the demands of fundraising. Noble goals, indeed. But are these the reasons that motivate me to make money? To give it away?
In part, yes. At least that is what I pray for. But I catch myself dreaming otherwise. I used to drive every day by an elegant, stone, ranch-style house whose simple out-ward appearance hid what I knew to be a million-dollar piece of real estate. (The hint of a tennis court in the backyard, complete with umpires chair was a clue.) My inevitable train of thought would be, Maybe, one day, I can live in a house like that. I would shake my head and try to exorcise the errant desire. But the wouldnt it be nice... syndrome never fully goes away, making window-shopping more insidious than innocent.
The older I get the more I realize that my motivations, however idealistic and selfless I want them to be, are tinged (or even saturated) with the impure. Certainly, this has been true for me in other lines of work. Even when I was in Christian ministry, I found myself constantly tempted to serve people in order to make myself appear (as opposed to be) more Christlike. No doubt, there are reasons why the Bible warns against the seduction of money as often as it does. Now that I am in a context where there is a potential, however slight, of actually making money, I see how the lure of it can creep into ones life. Im also beginning to understand why some say that having money creates more problems than it solves.
There are no easy answers here, but I see how important it is for the Christian in business to bind herself even closer to Christian community and to God himself for constant renewal, cleansing, and accountability. Which is difficult if you have been wandering in the wilderness for two years; Boston is a far cry from the evangelical haven of Wheaton, Illinois, and the rigors of school have left me struggling to retrace my spiritual roots. (Quiet time? Sounds familiar...) But thats a topic for another day.
Meanwhile, the early rites of passage for all startups occupy me: solidifying partnerships, finding investors, building my content for the Web site. As the days fly by, I am torn between a phrase Intel luminary Andy Grove coined -- Only the paranoid survive, -- and another phrase written much earlier and sure to endure long after the memory of Grove is gone: The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it, (1 Thess. 5:24). In the end, I know that my success or failure will not be determined by financial measures but by whether I was faithful to the call. Only time will tell.
For more information about Helen Lees company, click here: SmartBride.com.
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