Ida Tarbell was the pioneer of investigative journalism and one of the main “muckrakers” (or reform journalists) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She is most known for her work The History of Standard Oil, an exposé on the business operations of the Rockefeller family, and a twenty-part series she wrote on Abraham Lincoln for McClure’s Magazine. She later became the leading authority on Lincoln’s life after his assassination.
Ida was achieving all of these incredible feats at a time when women simply did not have this kind of impact or voice. Everything she did was a reflection of true independence, disregard for the constraints society tried to impose on women at that time, and sheer drive to achieve her ambitious career goals.
Most people today don’t know who Ida Tarbell was. You may have come across her name in a journalism or politics class but, for someone who accomplished a lot despite the limits on women at the time, it’s surprising she isn’t remembered more.
A lot of Ida’s approaches and choices reveal her industrious approach to her life and work. Here are 4 Entrepreneurial Lessons from Ida Tarbell:
1. Taking risks is a proven path to success
You might describe Ida Tarbell as an epic risk taker. She put herself on the line as she dug into the dealings of some very powerful and influential people to expose corruption. These risks might seem scary, but they are the essential decisions that lead to her success. You might call it her personal brand.
Any time you choose to do something different; something that stands out; something that no one has done before, you are taking a risk. When you choose to take risks in your business, sometimes you’ll win and sometimes you’ll lose, but it’s the only way you can make big changes in people’s lives that will, in turn, help you build a profitable business and continue helping people.
You won’t succeed if you do everything the way someone else before you did it. Through risk, we can find our unique offering and really connect with other people.
2. Learn from the past and let it positively inform your future
Ida Tarbell was very much influenced from her childhood experiences as she saw her father, the owner of a small oil company, overrun and put out of business by monopolistic oil giants like Standard Oil Company. She used this family tragedy to fuel her passion and begin a career in investigative journalism.
You, too, can use your past experiences and passions to create a product or service that people will love and appreciate. When you go out in the world and share your story about why you do what you do, you’ll be a magnet for the right customer.
This passion-fueled approach to business is much more powerful than starting a company solely on the basis that the market will likely buy what you are offering.
It’s more about money and storytelling is important.
3. Don’t let anyone place limits on you
Ida Tarbell lived in Paris and traveled around the world at a time when women simply didn’t do that by themselves. She also opted to focus on her career instead of getting married and having children.
The point isn’t to not get married or not have children, but to not let others’ expectations of you determine your actions.
You will have people in your life who doubt you and not support you in the building of your business…at least not in the way that you would like them to. What really matters is that you are inspired, willing to take a risk and do the work, and that you learn the skills you need to make your business happen.
Do not let the voices of disapproval or doubt get to you. Work that much harder to prove them wrong.
4. Integrate ethics and morality into your business activities
Unfortunately, business gets a bad rap. The few bad ones ruin it for rest of us. Business is a lot different with today’s entrepreneurs and the focus on transparency compared to those who were running the show in Ida’s time. There are still some dinosaurs that have yet to either get with the program or die out, but most of us just want to provide something unique that solves a problem. We want to do good.
Just make sure that everything is done in good faith and run your company with solid values, especially if you have employees looking to you for leadership. Bad behaviors and questionable actions will trickle down and permeate your entire operation. Set the standards and enforce them…or today’s Ida Tarbell might come after you!
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Check out the rest of the Fempreneur Series:
5 Entrepreneurial Lessons from Sophia Amoruso of Nasty Gal
10 Entrepreneurial Lessons from Coco Chanel
6 Entrepreneurial Lessons from Sara Blakely of Spanx
5 Entrepreneurial Lessons from Victoria Tsai of Tatcha