Entrepreneurial Walk of Fame Idea Resonates—Although A Few Potential Cracks Have Surfaced in the Pavement

8/23/10Follow @bbuderi

If ever an idea has, um, hit its stride quickly, it’s the one we wrote about last week to create an Entrepreneurial Walk of Fame in Kendall Square to honor local and regional entrepreneurs in much the same fashion as the Hollywood Walk of Fame honors movie stars.

As Xconomist Bill Aulet, managing director of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center and the idea’s originator, puts it: the Boston Celtics have retired the jerseys of greats like Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, and so have the Bruins, Red Sox, and Patriots. “There are people who deserve recognition like that, here in Kendall Square,” he says. And those peoples are entrepreneurs, who like sports greats not only elevated their company (or team), but inspired others—grownups and kids alike—around the world to try to do great things themselves (more on this later on, as the inspiration aspect to the Walk of Fame is extremely important).

Our story drove a slew of comments on our website—including a number of potential candidates for stars to go with the initial list I advanced. It also generated an onslaught of private e-mails, not only to me, but to Aulet and Cambridge city councilor Leland Cheung, who is championing the idea at city hall. A variety of other media, including the Boston Globe (a syndication partner with Xconomy) picked up the story—and today (Monday) WBUR is planning to air a radio interview with Aulet taped in the plaza just outside the Marriott Hotel in Kendall Square where the first stars might be established. “This story has captured the imagination of people,” Aulet says. Agrees Cheung, “It’s really getting around. People love the idea.”

That’s all good news. But along with the extremely positive response, some potential stumbling blocks are arising as people consider the details of making this idea reality. Here’s a recap of what I’ve learned from Aulet, Cheung, our readers, and various sources, including entrepreneurs. Bottom line: it is a great idea, but nothing like this is simple to implement:

—For starters, there’s currently a prohibition in the city against naming things like street corners (a tried and true Cambridge tradition) that extends to the Entrepreneurial Walk of Fame, Cheung says. “The problem is we’re just held up right now with the whole thing…the council right now has a moratorium on naming anything,” he says. This stems from the fact that apparently some councilors went a bit overboard on this naming tradition, Cheung says—to the extent that things were named without much due diligence about who they were being named after (I guess this means my idea for Xconomy Square won’t be going anywhere). Cheung says the council is working to come up with a better system, “so it should be cleared up in the next couple of months.” That’s politics for you.

WBUR's Deborah Becker with Bill Aulet in Kendall Square

WBUR's Deborah Becker with Bill Aulet in Kendall Square

—The Entrepreneurial Walk of Fame idea is nevertheless being advanced in the council’s Economic Development Committee (which Cheung chairs), which could bring it to the full council for approval as soon as early October, Cheung says. The committee’s next meeting is set for 4 pm on September 15 in the main chamber of city hall at 795 Massachusetts Avenue. “Everyone who has an idea should come to the September 15 meeting to hammer things out,” he says.

—The phrase “hammer things out” is more apt than we might have realized at first blush. A good idea spurs lots of other ideas and thoughts—and boy are they coming. Some are from people who might be seeking to grab credit for some part of it (as reader George McQuilken humorously pointed out in the comments), others from those who are genuinely interested in advancing the idea but realize the devil is in the details. Here are some of the biggest potential sticking points, with a few thoughts from local innovators.

Who, exactly, do we want to honor? Is it specifically entrepreneurs, or innovators in general, not all of whom might actually have started or run a company? As Xconomist Tim Rowe, CEO of the Cambridge Innovation Center and president of the Kendall Square Association, commented, “Are we talking about people who invented something important? Or people who led businesses that became successful? Both? Some have argued that Bill Gates has ‘invented’ relatively little, but he certainly is an icon of entrepreneurship.” The overriding consensus of those I’ve heard from is that we should honor entrepreneurs, not, say, great inventors. But clearly defining what/who is an entrepreneur requires some real thought.

Who runs it, and who chooses? How do you establish specific criteria by which to filter nominations—and who administers the process and decides on who gets honored? Is it the city council? (No offense, but if they are already having trouble naming street corners…) A committee of innovators? Are they known publicly, or do they stay private to avoid harassment and lobbying from PR people trying to win kudos for their clients (yes, that has already come up!).

Who pays for the stars? As my colleague Bruce Bigelow, editor of Xconomy San Diego, pointed out based on his days covering Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremonies for the Associated Press, those stars aren’t free. “Somebody has to pay the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. In some cases, it was the studio promoting the celebrityhood of a particular actor. In some cases, the celebrity buys their own star.” Does the city pay? Do we get a general corporate sponsor, or state grant? Whatever we decide, says Robin Chase, a cofounder of Zipcar and also an Xconomist, the Entrepreneurial Walk of Fame can’t be something that you can buy your way onto. If you did, that could create a scandal that would be hard to smooth over, so to speak.

What is the geographic scope? Do we only honor local, Boston-area entrepreneurs, Massachusetts entrepreneurs, New England entrepreneurs? What about Mark Zuckerberg, who went to school at Harvard but brought Facebook to fame in California? Does he get a Kendall Square star, or do we leave him to Palo Alto?

Do we use stars as icons or something else? I really liked Scott Kirsner’s comment about using light bulbs. But then in “light” of the question above about honoring innovators who bring things to market, as opposed to inventors, I thought twice. Light bulbs to me symbolize getting a brilliant idea—not implementing the idea as entrepreneurs do. The idea is really the easiest part of the process. Therefore, I think it is better to stick with stars, or come up with something else.

Where do you put the stars? Is the plaza in front of the Kendall Square Marriott the right place, or too commercial? What about in front of Edwin Land’s house on Brattle Street? Or just all over town, to be discovered? Argues Robin Chase: “The purpose is national inspiration and local inspiration…So you would need to have it in a high traffic area, ideally.” I personally like the plaza idea, but think the stars should eventually spread all over Kendall Square, widening the zone of inspiration.

Where does it go from here? Should we create a Museum of Entrepreneurship or an Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame the same way Akron, OH, has the National Inventors Hall of Fame? Whoa! That is, to keep the metaphor going (kind of), trying to run before we Walk.

I asked Aulet for his take on some of these very questions—figuring why not hear from the horse’s mouth what he envisioned. In his view, the only question that really matters is, Who gets a star? “The issue is how do you choose them—what’s the criteria,” he says. “All this other stuff is minor, like where will it be” or who pays for it.

So what is his idea? “The idea was entrepreneurs who inspired, who not only created great companies, but had a ripple effect to inspire other entrepreneurs,” he says. “It’s not just some guy in a closet creating a great company. What ripple effect did that have as well? To me, Mitch Kapor is just classic. Mitch Kapor inspired a whole generation of people.”

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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