Ideas Essay #11: Empathy and Entrepreneurism


Here is the latest of Salt’sIdeas Essays: 15 pieces of expert thought leadership on the innovations and ideas that will change the world for the better. Empathy and heartache are often the foundations for the best entrepreneurial ideas, writes Emma Mulqueeny, CEO of Rewired State.

I believe that there are three things we could and should do to encourage entrepreneurism and support those who are broken hearted by humanity’s mistakes.

  • Spot the empathetic child and teach them how to start a business
  • Teach the values and pitfalls of empathy – understanding it will help with the heartbreak and drive innovation
  • Focus on maintaining good mental health and find new and better ways to do so.


I am an empath, a co-dependent; I like to fix things but my heart is broken on a regular basis. I am not talking about relationships with men – although I have a tendency to adore a bad boy – rather that my heart is broken by humanity, more often than it is not.

Being an empath, a fixer, a co-dependent means that I have, for as long as I can remember, been able to walk into a room and know how everyone is feeling. In a conversation I can sense when the person I am speaking to switches off, or disagrees or dislikes what I am saying, as well as knowing when they violently agree. This can work well for some situations but it’s not so ace when the feeling is a negative one. I have a pathological fear of negativity.

I am also one of those people who refuses to accept when something bad is happening. Were a lion to be chewing off my arm, I would refuse to accept that this bad thing was happening and either retreat into isolation and the world of books, or throw all of my energy into fixing the emptiness of the lion that is making him attack my arm. If someone is being a dick, I won’t be the one saying: “This person is a dick”, and walking away, I will try to please them and fix them.

In the same way, if I see something happening in the community or in the world that hurts me or hurts anyone, I want to fix it. And I will carry on trying to fix it even when I am the only one left doing so. I refuse to give up. What is WRONG with me?


Last week I had supper with a great and dear friend, Oliver Harrison, who is also a deeply clever psychiatrist, entrepreneur and health industry leader. I was in despair over my latest series of heartbreaks and asking him how I could fix me, how could I stop this devastation, how can I learn to not care and walk away.


Then we had a long discussion about empathy and entrepreneurism. It is the very nature of that need to not accept bad things and want to break things better that drives many entrepreneurs, especially those in the civic space. So were I to choose to fix that bit of me and move to a not caring version of Emma, I might save myself some heartbreak – but where would my passion then come from?

If you look at a few of the current great entrepreneurs: Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg; they are driven to go beyond just making money, and are passionate about fixing things. Indeed Zuckerberg has had a baby and pledged away 99 per cent of his shares in Facebook, because he wants and needs to fix the world for his daughter, and he believes that he can. The very thing that breaks our hearts is the thing that drives innovation.

We all know that big old businesses are crumbling, the infrastructure of trade is being challenged by the digital renaissance: borders and geographical barriers are far less of an issue in the digital space. Communication is revolutionised – we might not be able to beam our physical selves from one place to another yet, but we can be there through Skype, Google Hangout or Facetime.

The generations coming into the job market now, those I refer to as the 97’ers: who have grown up with social media and know no different, have also grown up with a background of deep recession. Many distrust employment and see self-employment and entrepreneurism as a less risky option. They are also more empathetic as they have had such a broad social life, albeit much of it virtual, through their networks and YouTube. They have also been exposed to far more news and campaigns than any generation that went before them and they understand and value the currency of love: the ‘like’ button.

As my friend, Oli, so wisely said, ‘we need to stop thinking about the Internet of Things and this disconnected world, and we need to start looking at the Internet of People’. Let’s focus on health, mental, as well as physical; let’s focus on empathy and kindness and seek out and train those young people who possess these traits.

About Emma MulQueeny

Emma MulQueeny is the founder of Rewired State andYoung Rewired State; commissioner for the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy; and a Google Fellow. MulQueeny made it on to Salt’s 100 Compassionate Business Leaders in 2015, she’s also been listed on the Wired 100 list.