Dennis Hanno

Once you have an idea, I believe in this simple three-step process: take action, learn from that action and build something new based on what you learned. And then repeat.


Dennis M. Hanno is the president of Wheaton College in Massachusetts and the founder and chief executive of IDEA4Africa, which strengthens economic development by mentoring and incubating young entrepreneurs who are addressing community needs while building local businesses. The organization combines Hanno’s interests and experience in making an impact on the world through education and through social entrepreneurship.

Since 2000, Hanno has brought together hundreds of college and university students, alumni, staff and professors to travel with him to sub-Saharan Africa to teach entrepreneurship to high school students, community members, and small business owners.

A vocal advocate for responsible management education, Hanno serves on the board of the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative, a worldwide network dedicated to developing a next generation of responsible leaders. He also plays an active role in the United Nations Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME) movement.

Prior to Wheaton, Hanno held leadership positions at Babson College and the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, earned a master’s degree in accounting from Western New England University, and a Ph.D. in management from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Where did the idea for IDEA4Africa come from?

When I saw how much young people in Africa were clamoring for a different way of thinking about solving problems, I realized that concepts that we employ in teaching leadership and innovation in higher education in the U.S. would be applicable there. I created IDEA4Africa to share the most effective problem-solving and critical thinking skills to high school students in Ghana, Rwanda and Uganda. Our goal is to help develop the next generation of problem solvers, change makers and critical thinkers who will make a difference in their countries.

What does your typical day look like? And, how do you make it productive?

A typical day for me involves spending a lot of time with other people who can help make the dream become a reality. My day consists of hundreds of conversations all focused on the same thing—how we can move the enterprise forward.

How do you bring ideas to life?

For me, the key is recognizing that opportunity is everywhere. Finding opportunities requires looking and listening and asking questions. You need to go through a process of asking, “What would improve my community?”, “What matches up best with my skills?” and “What matches up best with my interest?” Once you have an idea, I believe in this simple three-step process: take action, learn from that action and build something new based on what you learned. And then repeat.

What is one trend that excites you?

I’m excited by the renewed focus and emphasis on experiential learning—that is, learning by doing. All of the work that I’ve done with IDEA4Africa, and in higher education, involves experiential learning and the ways that young people can develop skills that complement what they can learn in the classroom. I really strongly believe in connecting what happens in a traditional class setting with what students can do outside the classroom.

What is one habit of yours that makes you productive as an entrepreneur?

The most important thing that I do is to give myself the chance to think and to learn about what other people are doing. For me, it goes back to the first step in the entrepreneurial process: cultivating good ideas and insights.

I’m always searching for and thinking about new ideas or different ways of approaching a problem. Every day is busy so it can be hard to carve time out to explore ideas, but I view it as my leisure time. It’s how I start the day, and it’s usually how I end it.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Don’t be afraid to take risks. I’ve always been action oriented, but I probably could have been even more action oriented, if I had had more confidence and the awareness that I do today that you really can’t get anything done without taking a few risks. Do the analysis. Figure out what the options are. But then, don’t be paralyzed. Start moving forward with it. The times when you stretch seem to be the times when you find the most opportunity as well as the greatest excitement at what might be achieved.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

A lot of people feel like you can’t do anything without huge resources. I believe the opposite is true: the resources you need will come if you have a great idea and you take action. Figure out how to move in toward your idea, even if you won’t get all the way there. Some of the biggest entrepreneurs, like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, started with little or no resources, but they took action just the same. When they did, it allowed other people to understand their vision and say, “Oh, there’s some merit to that idea.” And then the resources come.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing that you do over and over, and recommend everyone else do?

Keep learning. You can never be satisfied with the level of knowledge you have. You can never be satisfied with what you think you know. The minute you stop scanning the landscape or studying what other people are doing, that’s when you’re going to start to fall behind. Other people are always going to be moving. If your work or your business is something that you’re really passionate about, if it’s something that you’re really invested in, then that should really come pretty naturally to you.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business or your organization?

With any organization I’ve been involved, the strategy that’s been most effective at helping them to grow is to develop good partnerships, and that’s both internal and external. With Idea for Africa, for example, it’s never been an effort to go over and just kind of be our own organization and operate in an isolation of other organizations that were either doing similar or related kinds of things. Idea for Africa, in particular, has grown because we’ve identified government, nonprofit and corporate partners who see what we’re doing and say I want a piece of that kind of thing, and so really surrounding yourself with good partners.

What is one failure that you had as an entrepreneur and how you overcame it.

Early on, it was finding partnerships that was the challenge. It’s hard to just kind of show up and say, “Hey, I’m here. You ready to join me?” It took a couple of years to get to the point where people saw what we were doing and wanted to be part of it.

If there’s a secret, it’s about not giving up, focusing on the long term without losing sight of the small steps of progress along the way. Small, incremental wins can get you a long way. Celebrate those small wins, to remind yourself that you’re making progress and so that others see it, too.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Remember that line from The Graduate? “One word. Plastics.” Today, I think that one word is solar, solar energy on a micro-basis. Infrastructure is a barrier in the developing world. Whether it’s hand held solar or roof top solar, if you think about places like Africa and India where there’s tons of natural solar energy, the market potential for that is unlimited. It’s electricity in your hand. And the market is so there are some really interesting niches out there.

What is the best $100 you’ve spent recently? What was it and why?

Every few months, I buy four or five books that help change the way I think about my work. When I feel stymied for ideas, I’ll go on Amazon and search on keywords for books on topics that I’m interested in. I spend about $100 or so every time, and it changes the way I think about the things that I’m focused on. I’ll probably spend at least that much over the next three months to keep challenging myself, to keep up to date and to think differently.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

I don’t think about it a lot, but there’s no way I could do without Google calendar. It helps me to be productive. As a college president and an entrepreneur, my day is totally governed by what’s on the calendar. If you had asked me 10 years ago, I would’ve been one of those people who would have disdained that kind of existence where every minute is planned out for you, but with so many different things to do, I live by what it says.

What is one book that you recommend entrepreneurs should read, and why?

How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas“, by David Bornstein. I’ve had it for years, and I often assign readings from it for students, when I’m teaching a class on social entrepreneurship or leadership.

What I like about it is that it’s both inspirational and it is full of ideas on how to move into action. I’m a firm believer in social entrepreneurship. It’s such a powerful combination—taking a creative person and empowering them to take action on that creativity. Bornstein’s book is really about those kinds of people. Anyone who wants to be inspired by what we’re capable of achieving with a mission and a willingness to take some will find that it’s a great read.

What is your favorite quote?

It’s from Muhammad Yunus, who founded the Grameen Bank and pioneered the concept of microcredit. “All human beings are born entrepreneurs. Some get a chance to unleash that capacity. Some never got the chance, never knew that he or she has that capacity.” When I work with young people, the first thing that I try to do is dispel that notion that you have to be born an entrepreneur. We all have that capacity in us.

Key Learnings:

  • The most important thing to do is to begin taking action. That’s how you learn and how you will attract the resources needed to achieve success.
  • Don’t be afraid to take risks. Do the analysis. Figure out what the options are. But then, don’t be paralyzed. Start moving forward with it.
  • Keep learning. You can never be satisfied with the level of knowledge you have. You can never be satisfied with what you think you know.
  • Look for partners who can amplify what you do and help your organization achieve success.
  • Read How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, by David Bornstein. It’s inspirational and full of good ideas.

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