Originally published on BusinessWeek.com.
Sándor was only 23 when the Soviets lined him and his co-workers up against the wall and raised their weapons.
Accused of transmitting anti-Soviet messages from the local television tower, the young engineers desperately tried to explain their innocent intentions: to protect their equipment while the freedom fighters of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution demonstrated in the streets below.
The ashen-faced technicians trembled as the soldiers cocked their guns. Suddenly, an officer burst in and ordered the troops to another location. Sándor's captors vanished as quickly as they had appeared. And he wasted no time on his own vanishing act--emigrating to the U.S.
Sándor began a perilous week-long trek toward the Austrian border. Making the choice to leave behind family and friends, penniless and lacking English skills, he demonstrated what innovators have at the core of their character: the courage to take a huge risk because of their unshakable optimism and faith in opportunity.
Upon arrival in the U.S., Sándor took a crash course in English, talked his way into graduate school, and eventually received a Master's degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a PhD in physics from Harvard University. He has over 50 patents to his name. He is one of the most innovative people I know--and living proof of the American Dream.
Sándor is also my father.
As a child of refugees, I am not surprised that 25% of American startups and 50% of Silicon Valley startups are led by immigrants, according to a recent study by Vivek Wadhwa, currently of Duke University. Perhaps the kind of person willing to start a new venture and the one who is willing to leave everything behind to pursue a better life have more in common than seen at first glance.
For his 75th birthday a month ago, my dad and I traveled to Budapest. I had visited several times in the past, but not in more than a decade. What I experienced this time gave me pause and further insight into the forces that promote--and thwart--innovation.
I have always pictured Hungarians as innovative people. We can thank a long line of Hungarian inventors for important advancements and introductions such as matches, ballpoint pens, helicopters, computer programming, automotive and rocket engines, carbonated drinks, Braille, classical physics, non-Euclidian geometry, and--dare I suggest it--the atomic bomb. Eighteen Nobel Prize winners have originated from this tiny central European country.
But during this trip, I saw a different Hungary.
A Resentful Population
"The economy is in the cellar," the locals complained. "Taxes are too high!" "The leadership is making the wrong decisions!" As reported in the Mar. 27 issue of The Economist, this sentiment is widespread: "Once the local wonder child, Hungary is limping...its economy sclerotic, and its population resentful."
More than anything, it was the uncharacteristic sense of hopelessness and resignation that really shook me. Are these the same Hungarians who stood up valiantly against the Soviets in 1956? The same people renowned for their liberal form of "Goulash Communism" and who comprised "the happiest barrack" of the Soviet bloc in the 1970s and 80s because of their entrepreneurial spirit and capitalist ways? What happened?
There's no one clear explanation for Hungary's current state of affairs. Some point to poor leadership, or the residue of communism in a free market economy, or the culmination of decades of growing debt. But looking through an innovation lens, I see a different reality--one where the people stopped feeling empowered, optimistic, and motivated to invest in a better future. In short, they stopped feeling like innovators.
As I walked along the cobbled streets of Budapest I realized that, as individuals, we cannot wait for others to make the environment right for us. We must live every moment as innovators, envisioning a better world, embracing unconventional ideas, and taking the initiative to make change. For some, like my father, this is as natural as breathing. For others it requires greater resolve. But ultimately it is the willingness to risk failure that drives success.
Now whenever I ponder an opportunity in the face of convention and skepticism, I will remember to look to my father's fearless optimism for inspiration.
Krisztina Holly is vice-provost for innovation and executive director of the USC Stevens Institute for Innovation at the University of Southern California. Holly is a serial entrepreneur with a B.S. and M.S. in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Prior to USC, she was founding executive director of MIT's Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation.