As a girl growing up in Ghana, Mary Spio never dreamed that she’d become an entrepreneur. At 16, she left Africa alone to pursue better opportunities in America. She lived with a host family to complete high school and worked at McDonald’s to make extra money. At 17, she used her first computer. Since then, she became a rocket scientist at Boeing with several patents to her name, pioneered digital cinema technology for film, launched a dating site, One2One.com, and is the CEO of Next Galaxy, which specializes in virtual reality. In her book, It’s Not Rocket Science: The Seven Traits of Game-Changing Entrepreneurs, she distills key ingredients for successful entrepreneurship, no matter what your background.
To be a game-changer, she says, “You’re delivering something that only you can add to the world,” whether it’s a transformative piece of technology or a pivotal piece of art. You must own a singular niche and be the best at it—whether it’s designing shoes or editing books. Here, the seven traits of the successful entrepreneur and how to deploy them.
Let yourself dream of what is possible: Whatever you complain the most about, that’s the problem you’re here to solve. That frustration will drive your passion and creativity.
Trait 1: Unbridled Creativity “Let yourself dream of what is possible: Whatever you complain the most about, that’s the problem you’re here to solve. That frustration will drive your passion and creativity,” she says. “I love asking, when you dream or wonder, where does your mind go? Where your mind goes, that is where your heart and feet should go.”
Trait 2: Radical Passion “Think about political leaders or social justice warriors, and ask yourself: What makes a person say, ‘I’m willing to put my life on the line for something?’ That’s what radicalism is about. You need to stand for something,” she says. You don’t need to die for your company mission—but you need to be willing to sacrifice and stand up for it, no matter what.
Trait 3: Active Compassion Spio considers this “capitalism tied to love, or solving problems for other people. Think of that amazing restaurant where people have their souls and stomachs fed. Those chefs want a piece of happiness for someone else, and they provide a solution. Or look at Facebook, which feeds our most innate need to connect. It gives us the love we crave.” The trick, she says, is finding a problem and identifying where the hurt is, then providing a solution. “As my dad used to say: ‘In the final analysis, people are remembered either by the problems they solve or the problems they create.’” How will you make people feel better?
Trait 4: Obsessive Focus “Think of that guy from Forrest Gump who knew every type of shrimp: barbecued, sautéed, et cetera. To unveil genius, you need to have an anthropological understanding of your field. You should be the foremost authority on whatever is your area of service.” Whether it’s computers or pottery, make yourself synonymous with your field of interest.
Trait 5: Relentless Hustle “People talk about overnight successes, but overnight successes come well prepared and are waiting for the right opportunity,” says Spio. For instance, Spio is a voracious reader about everything having to do with space. She always has been, at the expense of trips or hobbies (and sometimes, she says, haircuts). Invest in your passion.
Trait 6: Extreme Audacity Be brave enough to go after your dreams, despite negative people and potential attacks. Spio says these people have Ph.D.s—“pull him down”—degrees. “If you aren't audacious, you won't succeed. Successful people aren’t afraid to make risky decisions. Dare to do what you believe in.”
Trait 7: Pit Bull Tenacity Lastly, envision your end goal, and reverse engineer from there. Believe, says Spio, that your ultimate success will happen “no matter what,” as long as you’re envisioning the result. “The mind is like a magnet or a hard drive. We have to calibrate it and tell it, ‘This is going to happen.’ Then work backward to do what it takes to get there.”
If you get bored, you’re not doing enough, she says. Never stop taking steps that propel you toward your goal, whether it’s traveling to your professional mecca (Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Washington); taking a class; or learning a new skill. “If you’re moving forward with tenacity, you’ll never be bored,” she says.