What Does the Future of Entrepreneurship Hold? Recognizing Opportunity and Doing Something About It

Any major event with substantial economic impact and unprecedented shifts in market expectations naturally accelerates change—but a “major event” may be an understatement when history looks back on the global COVID-19 pandemic that has gripped the U.S. and the world since early 2020. Not only is the pandemic causing serious health issues and dramatic loss of life, but its economic impact has been devastating for so many.

However, despite lockdowns, business closures, job losses, supply shortages and other events that directly impacted companies of every shape and size, there also came opportunities that are almost certain to remain a lasting part of the way things operate as we start to recover from the pandemic. Remote interaction (RI), artificial intelligence (AI), big data, a dramatic increase in e-commerce, a rise in entrepreneurial intensity, the re-analyzation of workplace culture—and even drones delivering to the front door—are just some of the things that are likely to be permanent in the new normal.

To get a greater picture of what to really expect, we asked the experts—members of the faculty from each of the nine undergraduate business majors at the Whitman School— to share their insights into the future of the post-pandemic business landscape.

“While everyone agrees that we would all have been better off had the pandemic never arrived, history tells us that the great dislocation brought on by the COVID recession will deliver hardships to many, yet opportunities to others,” says Professor of Entrepreneurial Practice Ken Walsleben ’83 (MAX).

Multiple studies have shown that entrepreneurial intensity has typically soared during periods of economic turbulence, and, having lived through what is arguably one of the most turbulent times in global history, this will probably be no exception.

While many innovative business ideas have and will continue to evolve from the pandemic, there is a catch. “The question lies in who will not only recognize an opportunity but actually do something about it,” Walsleben says.

Companies that existed before the pandemic—like Zoom, Netflix, Instacart and Amazon—certainly caused a seismic shift in how consumers made purchases, as they leveraged the need to keep people and businesses moving forward during difficult times. But, is this a permanent change? That remains to be seen, according to Walsleben, but it is likely. The turbulence caused by the pandemic, as well as the efforts needed to recover from it, will no doubt spike the formation of new businesses in many sectors, including those yet to be imagined. Walsleben also anticipates that millions of Americans who have faced unemployment or underemployment during the pandemic will “finally choose to scratch the entrepreneurial itch they’ve harbored,” while others will opt for self-employment or some form of gig work. This, in turn, may advance the use of temporary or fractional workers in the white-collar service sector.

Entrepreneurial intensity is almost certain to rise, at least in the short term, but how long that will last and what will be seen as permanent change remains uncertain. “Only with the benefit of hindsight will we be able to know exactly how significant this predicted entrepreneurial boom will be,” Walsleben adds.

Scott Klein Weighs in on Post-COVID Environment

Whitman Advisory Council member Scott Klein ’79, president and CEO of LanguageLine Solutions, sees the best of a post-COVID-19 environment as one “no longer undermined by a failure of imagination.”

Despite warnings, he says, the majority of private companies did not proactively create pandemic plans, even while COVID-19 was raging in China. As a result, many companies were “caught flat-footed” when they were forced to switch to a work-from-home model.

Klein’s company created such a plan back in 2014, and, as a result experienced zero downtime when it moved more than 14,000 employees to remote work in March 2020.

“I’ve been fond of calling this past year our finest hour, but, in reality, our finest hour may have occurred seven years ago when we had the wisdom to put a plan in place,” he explains. “A key part of a business’s valuation will be its preparation for the unexpected and its ability to adjust to the next normal.”

Klein also notes that clients have developed a greater level of comfort with virtual meetings, which he anticipates will reduce travel significantly.

“The days of account executives spending half their year on the road are gone,” he says. “This will make everyone more productive, saving time and money while exacting less of a physical toll on our people. The past year has forced us to become an even more flexible, results-oriented business with a much-decreased physical and environmental impact. We expect that this will be the complexion of successful modern business going forward.”

While the history books are not quite yet closed on the pandemic, there are many glimmers of hope and the certainty of change on the horizon. Those who intend to succeed in a post-COVID-19 business landscape will need to plan, adapt, accept and learn from both the painful and the productive lessons they’ve witnessed—all while being open to innovation, entrepreneurial intensity, data-driven decisions and the resiliency needed to continue to thrive.