Harvard, Stanford, and MIT Researchers Have Found the Secret to Success

We want to believe that talent and opportunity are equally abundant. Not so, according to this ground-breaking study of 1 million inventors.

Harvard, Stanford, and MIT Researchers Have Found the Secret to Success

There’s a popular quote attributed to Leila Janah, “Talent is equally distributed, opportunity is not.”

We can argue what “equally distributed” really means, but I’d submit that neither talent nor opportunity are equally “available” to all people. In both cases we’re using idealistic thinking of how the world actually works, since both the realization of talent and the opportunity to translate it into value are subject to enormous disparity in social, cultural, and economic contexts.

If you disagree, then it may well be because you operate in precisely the sort of social, cultural, and economic context that affords you the luxury to explore and develop your talents and to then use them in pursuit of an abundance of opportunities. You are living the ideal, while the vast majority of the world is light years removed from it.

When six out of the world’s seven billion inhabitants live on less than $32 a day, both talent and opportunity take a distant back seat to basic subsistence. And even within that relatively fortunate one billion there is still enormous disparity in the social, cultural, and economic context that gives individuals license to invent and innovate.

Which is exactly what a recent study of over one million inventors brought to light. The study not only raises questions about the incredible global disparity in access to opportunity, but it also illustrates the very sorry state of affairs when it comes to tapping the collective genius of human resources in even the USA’s developed economy.

The Lost Einsteins

The study is a fascinating Big Data look at the lives of over one million US-based inventors, using a newly available database that links patent records to tax and school district records. According to the researchers, the study “Track[ed] these individuals from birth onward, [to identify] the key factors that determine who becomes an inventor, as measured by filing a patent.”

Granted that patents are just one facet of how talent and opportunity express themselves, but it is certainly a telltale of how well we translate intellect into value.

The report is an eye-opener. Here are a few of its findings:

  • White children are three times more likely to become inventors than black children
  • Only 18% of inventors are female
  • Differences in ability, as measured by test scores in early childhood, explain very little of these disparities
  • Children at the top of their 3rd grade math class are much more likely to become inventors, but only if they come from high-income families
  • High-scoring children from low-income or minority families are unlikely to become inventors.

To sum it up, according to the authors, becoming an inventor in America relies upon: excelling in math and science, being male, white, and having a rich family. The research does not portray these as subtle factors that result in moderate differences but rather overwhelmingly skewed demographic differences. The report’s authors give a name to these forgotten inventors, who fall outside of the reports demographic mainstream, they call them the “Lost Einsteins.” According to the researchers these are “people who would have had high-impact inventions had they become inventors [and not been part of] the underrepresented groups.”

We can try to assuage our concerns about this inequality by listing the many ways that we are attempting to legislate equality in the workplace, or we can chalk it up to the socioeconomic disparity that is just part of the world we live in. But the research shows that our efforts to raise awareness and close the gap, even in a highly developed economy, are woefully inadequate. For example, at the current rate of increase in female inventors, it would take 118 years to achieve gender equality. Do we really want to accept that there is an inherent disparity of innovative talent between the sexes?

The Ultimate Global Challenge

27 year-old Daniel Gross wasn’t willing to accept the disparity. Gross had the ambition to change it by enabling high-potential individuals who had the intelligence and talent, but who might otherwise not be lucky enough to have the social, cultural, and economic context to be an inventor.

Gross recently established Pioneer, a fund that invests in high potential individuals from around the world. The several million dollars of capital to launch and run Pioneer came from the online payments company Stripe and Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen. Both Andereessen and Stripe co-founder Patrick Collison came from small towns (In Wisconsin and Ireland, respectively) and wanted to foster innovation and invention in areas that might not otherwise be hubs for invention.

“In many ways that is the ultimate challenge of creating a global economy and a global innovation community, to equally distribute both talent and opportunity.”

Pioneer’s model is fairly straight-forward. It holds monthly contests in which winners get a $5,000 grant and travel to San Francisco for a week or more of meetings with Pioneer’s advisors and other winners. The intent is to create the sort of community ecosystem that research shows is most conducive to inventors, and which may otherwise simply be unavailable to these individuals.

So, what spurred Gross to take on this ambitious and non-traditional fund?

Five years ago, when he was 18, and still in school in Israel, Gross decided to submit an idea to the prestigious Y Combinator incubator. His idea was accepted and Gross found himself packing up and moving to the Bay area. Within a few years his company Cue, which developed predictive software, was acquired by Apple. Last year Gross left Apple to join Y Combinator.

In the process, however, Gross realized how life altering that opportunity to be part of the Bay area ecosystem was to his career and wanted to make some version of that experience available to other ambitious and smart people around the world. It’s a simple idea, connect talent with opportunity.

According to Gross, and as reported in a recent New York Times article about Pioneer, “We’re trying to build a kind of search engine for finding great people with talent, ambition and potential,”

Will Gross and Pioneer change the demographics of innovation? Not on their own, at least not in any substantial way. Even Stripe’s Collison said, “It is an experiment, but one that you can imagine scaling up to help tip the scale a bit, so fewer people miss out on opportunity.”

Pioneer’s contribution may be slight, tipping the scale just a bit, but it does draw attention to what may well be one of the greatest but least leveraged opportunities of a globally connected workforce, matching talent with opportunity regardless of location.

Consider that today there are approximately 250 million knowledge workers globally. That’s less than 10% of the world’s three billion total workers. Yet, that 10% results in an inordinate percentage of the overall global economy, by some estimates contributing more than 50% to global GDP. Based on that we could easily double the growth rate of global economic output by increasing the number of knowledge workers by just single digit percentages.

Clearly part of that comes from investment in higher education, but more educated workers do not translate into greater innovation without the ability to match talent with opportunity, which is precisely the ambition of efforts such as Pioneer’s.

In many ways that is the ultimate challenge of creating a global economy and a global innovation community, to equally distribute both talent and opportunity.

Is it idealistic thinking? Absolutely! But of what good is all of our technology if not to enable us to better realize our ideals?

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This article was originally published on Inc.

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Thomas KoulopoulosTom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.

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