And the Purpose is . . .?

My purpose here at Illinois State University is to spread entrepreneurship across campus. I’ve struggled to engage young women students and women business leaders in the community in the classes and programs. The more I talked to colleagues and looked into research regarding entrepreneurship, startups, and innovation, the more glaring became the gender gap. This always bothered me, but around the holidays, I decided to do something about it.

Purpose is Central

Since the holidays, I’ve been a networking tornado – blasting through LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and any other outlets possible to connect with women who have experience with entrepreneurship and innovation and wouldn’t be shy about sharing their honest feedback. It has been extremely easy to get hundreds of women to spend 20 or 30 minutes chatting with me. My secret? I let them know I want to empower young women through education, and that since I’m a dude I am clueless about how to do that effectively, so I need their guidance. That vulnerability and humility and transparently sharing my purpose seals the deal. These women have all sorts of perspectives, from different industries, roles, generations, geographies, and any number of other differentiating factors. A few things are common to most of the feedback I have received.

The one thing every single woman has urged me to do is to focus on purpose

They urge me to get young women to think about their purpose (generally and specifically to any number of slices of life’s pie)

They urge me to encourage young women to own that purpose, and to share that purpose with anyone and everyone.

They urge me to facilitate young women connecting with others around their purpose.

Purpose has been on my mind lately, and I couldn’t be more excited about the possibilities that presents me.

The Purpose of Education

Education needs a purpose. Administrators could be so much more effective if they focused on purpose first and outcomes second (and less on quantitative results and more on qualitative results). We as educators need to re-examine our purpose.

Why are we in this career? Research? Teaching? Service? A paycheck? Seriously think about it. I’m here to impact young people and help them uncover and get started down their desired career path.

Students could improve their experience if they explored their purpose for continuing their education. They choose to be in college, they choose which college. They make daily choices to engage with their educational experience. To what purpose? Owning that purpose would create much more impactful moments. I’ll bet that would leak into the educators’ experience and the administrators’ experience, and would begin to infect these stakeholders’ purpose.

What About You?

What’s your purpose? Think about it. I mean really think about it. Think beyond specific roles in your life (as a parent, spouse, employee, boss, leader, whatever). Think holistically. Why are you here? What, really, is your existence about? Think beyond the “what do you want you epitaph to be” sort of exercises. Dig deep. Get uncomfortable with yourself; be vulnerable. Own your purpose, whatever it is. Then live it. The world will be better for it. Your world will be brighter for it. The impact will be awesome!

I’d love to hear what your purpose is, and to help you accomplish your purpose. Share by commenting here, or by emailing me at

36 thoughts on “And the Purpose is . . .?

  1. Your focus on “purpose” appears to be similar Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle (“Start with Why”). I too teach entrepreneurship and I use these concepts to help my students define their mission.

    You are right on target and I applaud your efforts!

    1. Chip – yes, it is similar to Simon’s perspective with starting at why. It is such a powerful way to approach life’s important decisions and perspective.

  2. Doan, when we spoke about women entrepreneurs I really wasn’t sure where you were going with your questions. Entrepreneurship, and the associated gender gap, has nearly been talked to death; yet the challenges persist. I wondered then if another course was the answer, and frankly, thought it was not. What has come from your conversations is not the expected educational program but something of substance; a question, which is (in my opinion) where learning starts.

    People often ask “What do you do?” but seldom do they ask “why?” I, and I suspect others, let myself be defined by what I do when that doesn’t represent who I am. My purpose, my intent, speaks more about me. But even in my own head I don’t think that way. Now, that you’ve put it in front of me I will. Thank you!

    1. Thank you so much, I’m so glad you see something of substance here. I am trying my best to make sure that my efforts do not just add a drop in the ocean, or even a ripple, but are a part of a tidal wave that create some disruptive force.

      It really is all about the why. The how, the who, the what, the when aren’t even close to as important, but will all fall into place after figuring out the why. It indeed is very easy to be defined by any combination of these other questions. It takes courage and resilience to stay defined by “why”.

      So what is your purpose? Your why?

      1. Why is ‘the why’ important, I ask only somewhat rhetorically? Is it because the answer we discover through investigation, consideration, introspection and reflection leads not only to ‘knowing’ our (temporary / fallible ?) sense of purpose … but because such knowing, so derived, can sustain our personal drive … and that leads to outcomes. Now if we can collectively open our minds to a variety of not only acceptable, but desirable outcomes (i.e. not just those prescribed by our various institutions), then possibilities are practically endless. That said … what processes can ‘we’ use to help students and other people discover their purpose?

        1. I would say the question provides access and drive to uncover the answer which provides purpose which enables results which create impact. I think we need to encourage and enable students to find and own their questions, to learn how to investigate and develop their answers

  3. It is somewhat of a cop-out… I am 33 and I am still struggling to find purpose deeper than the roles. I love my family. I love my boyfriend. I want to be a great mom to those already amazing kids and I want them to know that they can be anything at all and do anything they want. They can choose to live the life that they desire and I’ll cheer them on 100%. I want my life to be an example, one that teaches of a road that perhaps should not be chosen. I want my past to teach my children lessons as it has me. I want all the shitty stuff I’ve come through to have been for some bigger purpose, more than just the fact that I persevered and walked through fire to get to the other side. I’m still in the midst of several of those damn fires. But. That’s where I am stuck. I don’t know what, where why, how. And right now I am grasping for the next thing. My job is engaging, enjoyable and I learn a lot. I love the creativity that I get to have and the ideas I can make into reality if only with a little further training/understanding and then a whole hell of a lot of passionate pursuit. I am a networker, but lately this “i know someone” thing has felt like a real smack in the face when the person I know doesn’t follow through. I am the one left with mud on my face. I want the relationships I have to be strong and deeply rooted, not superfluous and filled with holes. I want to make an impact but it doesn’t have to be heard the world around.
    Thanks for your post. I apparently needed to get that off my chest and I don’t really know what to make of it all. I think its time to spend the sleepless nights in my journal again.

    1. Melissa – glad it prompted you to get things off your chest. I think we all want our past to not be in vein, to be a part of the lessons we can pass along to our children (if we have them). I certainly struggle with that as my past has had serious dark moment and some decisions that created a horrendous karma deficit! I owned those decisions and those moments, decided I needed to pull value and strength from them, not hide them from my son when he’s ready for them, and dig into why I went down those roads. Our past is a tough thing to work through for sure.

      You want to make an impact. You want to have strong, meaningful relationships. You want to be a great mom (you already are by the way just by your concerns mentioned above). This is all wonderful, but it doesn’t really get to the purpose of you. These all represent the what, basically. Step back and look for the why. It’s there, and it will help you put those sleepless nights behind you 🙂 Happy to help you however I can

  4. I think my purpose is to better myself in any way I can. So, career-wise, it is to reach my highest potential within that field. This will hopefully produce a product that will showcase this potential self and inspire others to do the same in their field.

    1. I would challenge you that your purpose is much greater than you think. You start to touch on it – about inspiring others. The product, the potential is valuable – it’s the outcome of your purpose, though. If you unearth your purpose and figure out why you’re on your path, then the product you create and the inspiration you deliver will be more impactful, will attract a wider audience with more passion, and will ultimately provide considerable energy. Find the purpose – keep digging!

    1. Absolutely – ideas are the easy part, but ideas that align with purpose are damn hard to uncover. Finding that purpose first will make it easier to come up with ideas that really resonate, which then make it easier to attract resources

  5. In the developing world purpose seems yo be overshadowed by survival. Businesses are started for survival. It almost seems a luxury to pursue purpose.

    1. So then the purpose is survival. I don’t think those need to be separated, and in fact shouldn’t be. In certain parts of the world, people struggle for the basic necessities, to achieve basic needs. That’s the purpose, day in and day out. I do not know this from experience of engaging with these communities and cultures, but can see that the purpose is a very basic and pure one: survival. So how can I help with that purpose? How can I use the network of educators and entrepreneurs to help people working toward survival achieve that purpose?

  6. My purpose is to remake higher education into a customer/client/community-centric industry, starting with the business school. We are currently obsessed with products such as research output, degree programs, facilities, graduates, endowments, rankings, and accreditation. If we centered instead on those we really serve and strive to meet their needs, we could measure our success in terms of their satisfaction instead of our own.

    In helping our students to find community/client/customer needs that they get joy from serving, and problems that they are passionate about solving, we help them find their vocation. According to Dr. Subhash C. Sharma, Vedic vocations were not related to heredity, which is what most Westerners think of when the hear about the caste system. “The ancient society recognized the importance of all. Irrespective of one’s skill or background, there was a place for him / her to participate actively and make useful contribution. ” ( John Calvin argued that for Christians, choice of vocation is based on a divine calling and that every calling was therefore to be honored. Dutch Calvinist immigrant farmers Iowa plowed their fields wearing their Sunday suits because they wanted to demonstrate that all work was a form of worship. The Islamic view appears to be similar – your career should help the Ummah and be consistent with Islamic practice.

    Career in this view is never for selfish accumulation of wealth. The economists’ view that everyone must act in his or her own self interest cannot be sustained when you work toward a true purpose. Sometimes we don’t see where we were meant to go until we have gone down many paths that appeared to be dead ends. It is especially rewarding to find out later that these were all building blocks to a higher level of purpose that was not clear at the time.

    1. I’m with you Jim! My entire existence here at ISU is based on the students and their experiences. How can we collaborate for the greater good here?

  7. Thanks Doan, good question. What do you recommend if you’ve been given an incredibly clear sense of purpose to help transform the business environment back into one that is again conducive to the spirit of entrepreneurial capitalism, small, family business and economic freedom which made this country great, but few respond to or support your work with the exception of blind reviewers at entrepreneurship conferences who encourage you with scores of 5/5 for significance to the field?

    1. That’s a tough one Richard. Always appreciate your help here at ISU, and like the great perspective you have and the energy you bring. I would suggest not trying to work through such academic channels. The journals are great, but the audience is wrong I think. They aren’t going to respond with any sort of action or get you any sort of traction. I think a better route is more of a community focus. Work with communities to enable and encourage that small business, family business environment. Get that noticed, get that traction. Build those sort of ecosystems (like in Brad Feld’s Startup Communities book) and the education world will start to take notice. But trying to work with the education world will beat you down because you’re not going to see the sort of action-oriented response you’re looking for

  8. As a fellow male I think that its great you have such passion for empowering women. You’re a hard worker and I hope to see your endeavors become as successful as possible.

  9. This is great Doan. Thanks so much. I’ve been thinking about purpose a lot lately too. I think purpose can be what gets us through the failures (I love that “failure” is on your blog banner). I’m in that place right now, trying to figure out the next step. It’s dark and scary but what gets me through is holding to that purpose – especially when the goals aren’t working out. Thanks for the reminder – very well said.

    1. Thanks for the encouragement and kind words Isa. It can definitely be a dark and scary place, but sharing it can bring much needed light and energy. So what is your purpose? What are you thinking next steps are? Anyway I can help?

    1. Awesome – thanks for sharing that. Do you know what you’re great at? Do you know what sustains you? Do you know what moves and drives you? Can I help you find one or more of those, or figure out how to take the next steps toward alignment?

      1. Hi Doan
        Thanks for this. My experience as a lecturer is a little different relative to women. Most of the females in my classes seemed to have a better grasp of entrepreneurship than the males. That may be because I introduce the topic as entrepreneurship being a mindset instead of the normal understanding of entrepreneurship being simply about starting a business. This mindset allow individuals to be creative and innovative in both the social and economic environment both as entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs.
        To bring it home to them, I asked them to reflect on the activities of their mothers and grandmothers, who in my opinion were excellent entrepreneurs – with very little money and scarce resources, they were able to raise their families, manage homes and even have full time jobs. They were excellent planners, managers, negotiators, communicators and resource providers; producing, growing and molding some of our great leaders. Having this understanding I tend to get the “aha” moment.
        I also agree with you on “purpose”. This is the first step which allow us to have of own “internal locus of control”

  10. Well said…knowing your, “why?” can be very meaningful. It gives you intention. It gives you direction. It gives you alignment with the ultimate destination you are aiming for throughout life. Good stuff…

  11. My purpose is to help others achieve their full potential, usually by connecting them to others. I’ve thought about it a lot and what I seem to be good at, and get enormous pleasure from, is seeing the potential in others, and pointing them towards opportunities, people, resources that will help them achieve that potential. Teaching at university fulfils that purpose for me.
    I’m in my 50s and I’ve been through very dark times in the past few years as the institution I work in has become (and continues) dysfunctional and places little value on teaching. I doubted my ability and saw myself as inferior to entrepreneurship colleagues who had started and grown their own businesses. Even so, I couldn’t help but notice that the students still came back to me for advice or just to catch up just as much as (sometimes more than) those colleagues.
    Finding medication that worked for me has allowed me to rediscover the joy in teaching. I’m still snowed under, but teaching re-energises me rather than draining me and I’m even believing I’m good at it.
    Now, as to purpose in general – it’s at the centre of the “growth” subject I teach, and students, male and female, but particularly female, really get it. After all, if your business’s only purpose is to make money, how does that make you different from any other business in the world? I think it’s essential for entrepreneurs to think early and think hard about the purpose of their business and the values that they want it to embody. It will help them to identify and screen out the employees, customers and suppliers that will not be good for their business. It will also help them build a business that renews their energy more than it draws on it, because it will be a business based around their authentic self, rather than trying to copy a model created by someone else.
    Thanks for opening up this discussion.

    1. Susan – sounds like you have a good handle on your purpose, and deliver that effectively. It’s ashame you’re not supported, but then again, seems like you are by the ones who matter (students). How can I support you?

    1. Thanks Michael – the encouragement for this kind of post is so necessary! I find great inspiration for thinking and sharing along these lines from your Forbes columns – keep up the great work yourself

  12. Hi Doan. As I work with you on the “Women in Charge” leadership series, I get more and more inspired by your direction as an educator and the great community you are building. So hi everyone. I would like to offer a book to read for inspiration. It’s called “Give and Take.” The author is Adam M Grant, a professor at Wharton.

    What he discovered through lots of research, is that what he terms “Givers” start off behind “Takers” and “Matchers” but, over time, they end up becoming more successful than the others. It’s sort of like “The Tortoise and the Hare.” The Tortoise is behind in the beginning and yet wins in the end.

    I think that is like what people are feeling when they try to become successful in business. They are torn between their desires to succeed and they passion to give. When they give it takes longer. I found that to be the case in the last two decades I have been an entrepreneur.

    After reading this book though I realize that my passion is as a giver and that there are a lot more people like me out out there, like you, Doan, and like the others in this exchange. I have created a process for teaching people how to take their giving passion and accelerate their success by understanding the science of networks and turning it into a process. My purpose and passion are now really aligned. Thanks again for this inspiring post.

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