Empathy, entrepreneurship & AI

Empathy — the art of listening, understanding and appreciating the perspectives of others — is a key component of the entrepreneurial mindset. It remains critically important even in the face of the evolving capacity of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

In recent months, we have been inundated with rapid-fire news on the expanding role of AI and GPTChat throughout the business world. One area attracting lots of attention is the grand scale of information AI can contribute to the practice of customer discovery. In times past, customer discovery could be a lengthy and laborious process involving hundreds of individual interviews with existing and potential customers.

Customer discovery focuses on understanding the customer and their needs, with the deeper human empathy element zeroing in on actually improving the quality of the customer’s life. AI can be effectively used to achieve step one — listening to the customer, collecting data, finding and analyzing patterns, understanding pain points, and creating customer personas. With AI support, a new venture can be better positioned to “fail faster” and pivot quickly to a different business model.

Steve Blank, the creator of the Lean Startup Methodology and Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship at Stanford University, recently wrote: “As of last week, I now tell all my students that besides Googling, they need to be using ChatGPT to help them build business models and do discovery. They’re already using it to tell them who all the competitors are, and to help them generate alternate business models. And I’ve encouraged that. It’s not a substitute yet, but I think in another couple of years, these classes and the whole first pass of the Lean methodology pipeline is going to be done by machine.”

AI can save the entrepreneur precious time at the outset of a new venture, allowing them to continue refinement of the idea through strategic interaction with a human customer. New ventures must be circumspect in identifying appropriate applications of artificial empathy, such that human judgment is still deemed an important element in the customer discovery process. The entrepreneur would, for example, emphasize human interaction to pursue customer-centered design, including developing a deep understanding of user experiences to better inform prototyping steps.

This approach signifies that AI’s version of empathy alone is not likely to carry the day — human empathy will still have a major role to play. What makes this pairing effective is the layering of human judgment on AI-generated data. The injection of human-centered bigger picture awareness, recognition of subtle nuances and creativity will remain essential.

Considering that human empathy remains central to the customer discovery process, how can students cultivate this essential skill? Entrepreneurship education opportunities are now a mainstay on higher education campuses in Northeast Ohio and throughout the country. Building the entrepreneurial mindset is embedded in these programs, with empathy exercises an important aspect of skill building. Role playing, customer interviews, social impact projects, empathy mapping of customer needs and diversity training are all ways students can practice and enhance their empathic skills for the future. ●

Deborah D. Hoover is CEO of Entrepreneurship Education Consortium

Deborah D. Hoover

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