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5 things the world can learn from KC entrepreneurs


This post originally appeared in Startland News.

This week, entrepreneurship is king in Kansas City.

As we welcome the world to our burgeoning tech hub during Techweek, it’s tempting to think that Kansas City’s startup community is a new phenomenon. But in fact, the names of the city fathers (and mothers) — the Kauffmans, Kempers, Blochs and Helzbergs — that adorn almost every public space in town have entrepreneurial roots that run deep.

The UMKC Entrepreneur Hall of Fame, where the Enterprise Center will be holding our next Venture Lounge event, seeks to highlight this heritage. The Techweek schedule offered a tour of the facility, but if you haven’t yet had a chance to visit, here’s an accounting of the important values that entrepreneurs around the world can look to learn from Kansas City’s most successful entrepreneurs.

  1. Service – Henry and Richard Bloch (H&R Block)

Great customer service was the key to H&R Block’s early growth, but the Bloch brothers’ dedication to service is multi-faceted. During World War II, Henry Bloch flew more than 30 combat missions over Germany, and it was during the war, in letters to his younger brother Richard, that his idea to start a family business was born.

In 1950, the year that the IRS stopped offering free tax preparation, Richard and Henry Bloch were ready. They offered their $5 tax preparation service to customers and quickly became known as “America’s Tax Men.” But that was only a one-time promotion. What kept H&R Block’s customers coming back year after year? Unparallelled customer service allowed the company to retain customers — the key to the company’s surging growth.

  2. Inspiration – Ewing Marion Kauffman (Marion Merrell Dow)

Ewing Kauffman’s story has been an inspiration to many thousands of entrepreneurs. After starting a business seeded by World War II poker winnings, sticking it to his boss, and literally grinding out a startup living (his first pharmaceutical product, Os-Cal, was a calcium supplement Kauffman created by pulverizing oyster shells in his basement), Kauffman built pharmaceutical giant Marion Laboratories (later Marion Merrell Dow) brick by brick and person by person.

One of the things that set Kauffman apart as an employer was the respect that he had for members of his team — every Marion Labs employee’s title was “associate,” regardless of rank or tenure. Kauffman’s leadership philosophy became known as “the Marion Way” and was predicated on providing clear management, organization and measurement, as well as rewarding top performers, treating others as you’d like to be treated and giving back. Kauffman lived that spirit, too.

Today, the Kauffman Foundation inspires people across the country to better our educational system and pursue entrepreneurship as a means of creating a brighter economic future by supporting programs service organizations with grants.

     3. Common Sense – John MacDonald (Boulevard Brewing Company)

In John MacDonald’s own words, he built the twelfth-largest craft brewery in the country by “doing what people have been doing for 7,000 years — trying to brew more, better beer.” And when it’s distilled to that simple explanation, it’s easy to see why pure, simple common sense is one of the forces that has governed his career.

In 2009, MacDonald and his partners discovered that most glass in the Midwest — including 10 million Boulevard Beer bottles each year, were ending up in landfills. They knew that glass was a recyclable material, and tossing it just didn’t make sense. To solve that problem, they created Ripple Glass, a processing facility that turns glass into fiberglass insulation for homes, beer bottles, and other recyclable uses. Although it started in Kansas City, Ripple Glass pickups, like Boulevard Beer, can now be found throughout the Midwest. John, his team and their common-sense approach to business represents the core of the entrepreneurial spirit — solving problems by building a better solution than anyone else.

     4. Pioneering – Lamar Hunt (Kansas City Chiefs)

When you think of Kansas City and pioneers, covered wagons come to mind long before linebackers and touchdown passes. But the Kansas City Chiefs, the National Football League (as we know it) and Major League Soccer can all trace their roots to a Kansas City entrepreneur who created the model for professional sports leagues with a pioneering spirit.

Pioneers are known for taking skills they’ve already learned and applying them in a foreign environment — Lamar Hunt was no exception. When denied access to an NFL franchise in his hometown of Dallas, Hunt started not just his own team, but his own league, the American Football League. But that wasn’t enough — Hunt went on to help found Major League Soccer (and its predecessor, the NASL)

     5. Loyalty – Barnett & Shirley Helzberg

Loyalty isn’t often a virtue that’s highlighted in the entrepreneurial world — perhaps it’s because independence and loyalty can end up at odds. But Barnett and Shirley Helzberg have loyalty in spades — to each other, to Kansas City and even to the neighborhood in which Helzberg Diamonds office was located for many years. Their business and personal partnership helped Helzberg Diamonds grow into a Kansas City powerhouse, and led it through its acquisition by Berkshire Hathaway.

Today, Barnett Helzberg, Jr. spends his time giving back to Kansas City’s developing entrepreneurs as an adjunct professor in the Helzberg School of Management at Rockhurst University, and through the renowned Helzberg Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program. Shirley Bush Helzberg lives out her commitment to Crossroads neighborhood where Helzberg Diamonds got its start by investing in projects that are both remaking the city’s skyline (like the Kauffman Performing Arts Center) and preserving its history (like the Webster House redevelopment).

These people represent just a small sliver of Kansas City’s entrepreneurial success stories and the Midwestern values that have driven their business and personal growth. They represent a vibrant community that is growing faster every day, as Kansas City becomes an entrepreneurial hotspot. While it’s always inspiring to spend an afternoon (or even just a few minutes between meetings) browsing the walls of the Entrepreneur Hall of Fame, I hope you’ll take the time to dig into Kansas City’s entrepreneurial history.

Or if the present day is more your speed, there will be plenty of opportunities to meet those who are working to make Kansas City the burgeoning tech hub that we see today throughout Techweek. The Kansas City tech community will gather again this November during Global Entrepreneurship Week, where local resources will be highlighted. During that week, you’ll have the opportunity to join the Enterprise Center, the Mid-America Angels and the Women’s Capital Connection for Venture Lounge at the UMKC Entrepreneur Hall of Fame.

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