How do you define the word entrepreneur? Often, we try to pin down this elusive concept with clichés: she’s a “go-getter;” he’s a “risk-taker”; they’re “innovative” and “dynamic” and “far-seeing.” Entrepreneurs learn from failure, and they don’t accept no for an answer. Entrepreneurs forge their own paths.
James Vena is an entrepreneur. He is not, however, a cliché.
In his youth, Vena did in fact open the customary “all-entrepreneurs-do-it” lemonade stand, but as an 8th grader, he also ran a clandestine casino in the lunchroom at school. The idea came to him after his parents returned with souvenirs from a trip to Vegas, and while Vena was reprimanded for that particular endeavor, he has since gone on to become a leading international strategist with a portfolio of successful ventures. From his first official leadership role in an international trading company, to founding and spearheading multiple global trading platforms, Vena’s expertise spans a plethora of clients, countries and unique stories about the life of a deeply passionate innovator.
Vena insists that his entrepreneurial spirit was an inevitable development. He suggests that individuals cannot learn to be innovative, but rather, innovation is something that entrepreneurs live and breathe; “it’s in their DNA.” At the same time, Vena emphasizes the crucial role of a particular mentor in honing his leadership potential. When Vena was in his early twenties, Sidney H. Scheuer, founder of a million-dollar international business, chief advisor to Eleanor Roosevelt, and chairman of the National Committee for an Effective Congress, saw the latent potential in this young man.
“Entrepreneurship is in their DNA.”
Scheuer encouraged Vena to play a crucial role in developing the Asian sector of a substantial trading business in China, rather than pursuing a more traditional path of becoming a lawyer. It’s clear that Vena is deeply appreciative of the faith his mentor placed in him at such a young age. “It was not only my accomplishments. It was my mentor. This is very important, especially for organizations such as Empower 2 Play. It proves that you do need a mentor and that it’s not just about money; when Sidney became my mentor he taught me a lot of things.”
Yet it is the next part of the story that Vena emphasizes. His mentor, upon seeing Vena’s success in breaking ground in Asia, asked him to leave the company. After experiencing such fast-paced, high-flying achievements at such a young age, Vena could easily have settled into a comfortable routine. However, Sidney taught him that standing still would be a waste of his talents, and that he would need to fly on his own to achieve his full potential. The lesson stayed with Vena throughout the years and stands as a key motivation behind his own efforts to support mentorship and leadership development initiatives for young people.
Many years and successful ventures later, Vena is certainly qualified to be a mentor for entrepreneurialism. He insists that it is not his successful ventures that make him an entrepreneur. Rather, it is an inherent quality and way of seeing that have been honed and developed through the years. According to Vena, the common words often drawn upon to describe an entrepreneur are less important than the real, tangible actions taken by that individual. These are the “thought leaders” who not only see the world differently, but who also have the courage and tenacity to act upon their visions.
With this perspective in mind, Vena has much to offer in the way of advice for those looking to be successful in life, whether as business leaders or global changemakers. One primary idea shapes his advice. This is the concept of “intellectual humility.” Vena says, “Intellectual humility is the ability to know what you don’t know, and more importantly, the ability to understand that everybody you meet can teach you something that you didn’t know today, even if it is just about that type of person.” When we become better listeners and better observers, we stand a greater chance of tapping into our own potential, Vena suggests.
It is for this reason that Vena believes the next important trend in innovation will involve human interaction, face-to-face contact, and collaboration. “All of us have the ability to make the person’s life next to them better,” he says. “The more you pay attention to the human condition, the better off you will be as an innovator and as a success mongerer.”