May 11, 2021

Graduating as an Underdog Can Be a Good Thing

By: Sarah Williamson


Students earning their college diplomas this year face a sea of uncertainty. While hiring predictions are up from where they were in 2020, they are still not back to pre-pandemic levels. Hands-on internships were (and still are) limited. Job searches and interviews are virtual. It’s enough to make a new college graduate feel like an underdog — and that can be a powerful secret weapon.

Over the past 25 years, ELI Founder & CEO, Gary Schoeniger, has spoken with hundreds of successful individuals who have no particular advantage starting in their careers. In fact, they’re not brilliant or amazingly creative, not from privileged backgrounds, not rising stars in the academic world. Often the deck seems to be stacked against them. 

Schoeniger wanted to know what made these folks tick. He thought there must be some common factors among people like these:

  • A blind man named Jim Stovall used a cassette recorder and old VCR to develop a way for visually impaired people to “watch” television.
  • Dawn Halfaker, a young soldier who lost her right arm in Iraq, became a consultant working to save lives on the battlefield.
  • Frank Magwegwe went from homelessness on the streets of Johannesburg to become the CEO of several large corporations.
  • Sirena Moore Thomas and her father, Ted, started a successful cleaning business with $200 and some used office equipment they found in the trash.

The one whose story moved Schoeniger the most was Clifton Taulbert. Taulbert was born to a teenage mother in a poor cotton community in the Jim Crow South who grew up to become a successful author, lecturer, and entrepreneur.

Lessons from underdog entrepreneurs

So, what did these individuals have in common? 

Schoeniger found that they all had an entrepreneurial mindset. In other words, they understood that by solving problems for others, they could empower themselves. 

Here are five other characteristics shared by “unlikely” entrepreneurs:

  1. They have a compelling goal. They are striving towards something positive on the horizon. Entrepreneurs have a vision for a better future and do not allow their circumstances to dictate their future. Instead, they make choices about a future they wanted to create. 
  2. They see problems as opportunities. Rather than thinking about themselves, they look at the world through a different lens – not just doing what they are told, but always trying to go above and beyond to make themselves useful to others. And, by solving problems for others, they derive meaning and purpose from their work. 
  3. They do more than talk – they are willing to try. They learn to micro-experiment, always trying to find ways to improve things. To be clear, they are not reckless gamblers. They act more like detectives following clues. Their willingness to experiment enables them to tease out latent opportunities that are present but not otherwise visible.
  4. They are always learning. They have a sense of curiosity about the broader world around them. Therefore, it drives them to be lifelong learners whose understanding of the world is constantly growing, shifting, and changing. 
  5. They never give up. Entrepreneurs have a high degree of resilience, which ultimately enables them to transform their adversity into an advantage. They all come from challenging backgrounds, yet they also look at those challenges as the source of their strengths. 

Among the most potent lessons Schoeniger learned from the underdog entrepreneurs is that we are not here to serve ourselves. Nor are we here to serve “the man.” Rather, we are here to serve others. We are here to figure out how we can leverage our talent, interests, and abilities in ways that benefit others. 

This simple formula enables ordinary people to rise above their circumstances to create more meaningful and prosperous lives. 

Takeaways for new graduates

Search for the intersection of your interests and abilities and the needs of your fellow humans. By doing so, you will not only empower yourself; you will enrich the world around you. 

Also, you do not need to be in a powerful position to overcome adversity and make life better for your clients. 

Make no mistake—you are sure to face enormous challenges along your journey. Yet, as you will find, the truest obstacles on the road ahead are self-imposed. 

We believe that the future belongs to those who can think like an entrepreneur. 

Finally, one of the most valuable lessons to learn from underdog entrepreneurs: You are more powerful than you imagine. But the only way you are going to know is if you try. 

Adapted from Gary Schoeniger’s commencement address at Pierpont Community & Technical College in Fairmont, West Virginia, on May 7, 2019.