Ten Lessons Learned from Lucille Ball, Entrepreneur

I Love LucyAs I got caught up on my reading this morning, I was amazed how many column inches, pixels (and a Google logo) were dedicated to what would have been Lucille Ball’s 100thbirthday.

The more I read, the more I was reminded that the Lucy we all loved (even my kids LOVE I Love Lucy reruns) was more than a gifted comedienne – she was a remarkable entrepreneur.

Note I didn’t say “woman” entrepreneur – simply because it would be inappropriate to compare her to only females in the business world. Few – men or women – compared to Lucy while she was breaking invisible barriers and building what can only be described as an empire.

So, with thanks to Entrepreneur magazine, the Los Angeles Times, LucilleBall.com and others for the factoids, here are my Top 10 lessons learned from the woman billions know  simply as “Lucy”…

1. Perseverance

Many think of Lucy as a “young-ish” wife in her television sitcom. However, despite working with megastars such as Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and the Marx Brothers early in her career, Lucy didn’t realize her passion (some might say obsession) for becoming a superstar until she was 40 years old.

2. Find a Niche

Her stints in modeling, movies, and radio never raised Lucy above “B-player” status. In 1950, however, Lucy recognized television as her technology-driven avenue to stardom – a niche where she could not only excel, she could pioneer in a leadership role.

3. Innovation

Lucy’s ability, along with her husband Desi Arnaz, to innovate is legendary. From creating the “sitcom” formula (using three cameras rather than one; filming in front of a live audience), to using “real” film for a television show, to pioneering the multi-billion dollar “rerun” industry through syndication – no single person contributed more to the television industry.

4. Invest in Yourself First

When network executives balked at Lucy’s insistence that Desi play her husband in I Love Lucy, the two formed Desilu, the first-ever independent production company. They spent $5,000 of their own money to create the pilot of the series – with no guarantees from the studio that the show would be purchased – or cast with Desi in the lead role if purchased. When CBS did pick up the show, Desilu insisted on keeping the rights to the show, also a first in television history.

5. Set the Pace; Let Others Chase

Rather than conform to then-standard industry practice – and despite the New York setting of the show – Lucy insisted that I Love Lucy be filmed near her Southern California home. Less than a decade later, nearly every prime time television show followed suit – and Hollywood quickly became the entertainment capital of the world.

6. Be Humble and Brave

My favorite quote from Lucille Ball, from Rolling Stone magazine: “I am not funny. The writers were funny. My directors were funny. The situations were funny… What I am is brave. I have never been scared. Not when I did movies, certainly not when I was a model and not when I did I Love Lucy.”

7. Diversify

Although Desilu produced a string of hits in the sitcom genre including the Dick Van Dyke Show, My Three Sons and The Andy Griffith Show, Lucy knew her company must diversify to maintain their status as market leaders. Television stalwarts such as Mission Impossible, The Untouchables and Star Trek – which all became entertainment juggernauts for decades – were produced under Lucy’s leadership.

8. Keep a Fresh Personal Brand

In 1962, Lucy bought out former husband Desi, becoming the first (and only) female head of a studio – and once again rebranded herself as an industry powerhouse. However, not everything Lucy touched turned to gold. Her return to television in 1986 was crippled by failure to produce a “new” version of Lucy. After being on television for decades, the show landed just 8 weeks.

9. Never Too Late to Start a Family

In today’s society, especially among women entrepreneurs, we talk a lot about “work-life balance” – and many perceive Lucy as a pioneer in this area. At the time, Lucy’s decision to have children in her 40’s was nearly unheard of – and an inspiration to many women who wanted to create a career and also enjoy a family.

10. Leave a Legacy

Not only are reruns of the original I Love Lucy show still run religiously on cable networks, Lucille Ball has inspired many entertainers, including Carol Burnett, Julie Andrews, John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Debra Messing and a host of others who cite Lucille Ball as a major influence in their careers. (We should all be so lucky to inspire others.)

I suppose it is easy to think of Lucille Ball in black and white as the “Vitameatavegamin” girl, or to remember her suffering through one lowly job after another as Lucy Ricardo. On her 100th birthday, however, let’s remember the colorful images she brought to us as an innovator – and entrepreneur.

We love ya’ Lucy!

Guest Expert:

Deb Babbitt is co-founder of YouTern and a lifelong mentor advocate. In her spare time, she is an Aerospace Engineer, a mother and grandmother.

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