Entrepreneurship lessons from Nana: Social venture part of grandmother’s legacy

This is a guest commentary from Sara Cochran. Hear from other Missouri business leaders In Their Words.

Entrepreneurship is not just for business anymore! Nor has it ever been, really. An entrepreneurial mindset and process applies to all areas of life to bring forth creative ideas, benefitting economies, individuals and communities. I remind my students of this so often they probably want to throw something at me. While the process of being an entrepreneur can seem daunting, having an entrepreneurial mindset, according to leading scholar Donald Kuratko, simply means having “the vision to recognize opportunity where others see chaos, contradiction, and confusion.”

When we think of entrepreneurs, we often call to mind persons like Oprah, Steve Jobs, Maxine Clark or Mark Zuckerberg. While these high-growth founders are certainly inspirational, they don’t actually represent the majority of entrepreneurs. Further, this type of list means we often overlook those who are applying the entrepreneurial process in other areas of life beyond a startup; they often practice civic entrepreneurship, which represents both the “spirit of change and the spirit of community,” making civic entrepreneurs vital to our communities.

With the recent passing of grandmother, Mary Bray Cochran, or “Nana” as she was known by her grandchildren and most of the community alike, I was reflecting on her life and impact on me, my family and our community. While reading her obituary, I noted just how entrepreneurial she was, something I had never really considered. She learned the entrepreneurial spirit in the same way many entrepreneurs do – from her parents. Her father founded Earl Bray, Inc. in 1935, a startup short-haul trucking company that then grew into Bray Lines, Inc., a long-haul trucking operation that prospered for nearly 50 years. Nana helped with the growth and operations of Bray Lines as an internal adviser along with contributing her input to several other entrepreneurial endeavors. Perhaps the most noteworthy was her role in the founding of the hospital auxiliary in Cushing, Oklahoma. As I reflected on Nana’s life and gathered more information about this civic social venture, I identified three themes: a problem, solution and opportunity; resources; and collaboration and leadership.

Problem, solution and opportunity
Mary Bray (center) first learned entrepreneurship from her parents, Clara Smith Bray (left) and Earl Bray. | Courtesy of Sara Cochran

In the summer of 1976, community members recognized a problem: The Cushing Masonic Hospital, a nonprofit organization serving the surrounding region, was struggling to stay afloat with rising labor costs. They came up with the solution of providing volunteer labor, seeing an opportunity to establish the Cushing Masonic Hospital Auxiliary.

Using the social opportunity assessment tool created by Jill Kickul, a professor and author specializing in social entrepreneurship, an idea can be assessed for its social value potential, market potential, competitive advantage potential and sustainability potential. For this social opportunity, we will focus on its high social value potential. The opportunity met a social need, to keep the hospital’s costs low enough that it could remain open and provide health care for the surrounding area. It had an achievable impact in that the auxiliary members were able to fulfill the need. And it had community support, with the charter members and others who showed up to form the organization.

The auxiliary was made up of all women and provided services to the hospital in transporting patients between departments, operating a “cheer cart” with items for patients, as well as managing a snack bar and gift shop to generate funds for the hospital. Over the years, the organization has given more than $500,000 to the hospital after the first gift of a blood testing FibroMeter just six months after founding. The auxiliary has seen changes due to HIPPA and other regulations; however, it is still a thriving organization operating the snack bar and gift shop.


Any startup – for-profit, nonprofit, high-growth, or civic — has to leverage resources. Blake Mycoskie, the founder of Toms Shoes, advises social venture founders to be resourceful without resources and make what you have count. This group of women did just that. They had the resource of people who were willing to help the community and skilled in various tasks needed for this venture. Nana contributed her recipes for chicken salad, egg salad and tuna salad, which are still used today. They relied on the Stillwater Hospital Auxiliary to provide insight on forming such a venture as well as bylaws. And they received financial contributions from various community members.

Collaboration and leadership
The Cushing Masonic Hospital Auxilary formed in response to budget woes at the local nonprofit hospital. | Courtesy of Sara Cochran

The auxiliary required collaboration among its members and between its members and the hospital and community. Nana and her mother-in-law, Rebecca Whitaker Cochran (Grandma Becky to some of us), hosted an organizing meeting in Nana’s home that was attended by 16 women, including my other grandmother, Charlaine Davis Anderson.

As serial entrepreneur Jenn Houser states, there are six behaviors to look for in co-founders: possessing the right skills; taking a hands-on approach; using positive problem solving; leaving egos at the door; sharing similar attitudes toward values, goals and risk; and caring deeply. It took a special group of women to undertake this endeavor, all possessing special traits to complement the team. A few of these women agreed to be charter members and formed a board, with Nana serving as the founding president.

When I visited with Lou Griffin*, the current manager of the snack bar of the Hillcrest Hospital Cushing Auxiliary, she said my grandmother’s leadership style reminded her of a quote she recently heard through P.E.O., a women’s philanthropic organization of which they were both members, but derived from a quote originally attributed to German literary figure Goethe. “If we take people as they are, we make them worse. But, when we take them as if they were what they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.” This quote rang true of my experience of Nana, and it is how she led the organization in its founding, expecting much out of the members for the good of both the people and the community. She continued to serve this organization for nearly 40 years. Over the years, many community members – now also including men – have served in various roles for this organization, all upholding the founders’ vision and continuing to serve the health care needs of the Cushing area.

I hope you will look around your community for problems and solutions, recognize opportunities, pull together resources, collaborate and lead. You, too, can be a civic entrepreneur with lessons from Nana.

*Special thanks to Lou Griffin, current Manager of the Hillcrest Hospital Cushing Auxiliary Snack Bar and longtime family friend, for her help in gathering information for this article.

Dr. Sara L. Cochran was formerly director of entrepreneurship initiatives for the University of Missouri System, interim director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and an adjunct professor for the Trulaske College of Business at the University of Missouri. She recently started a new role as a clinical assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Indiana University. Sara has a special passion for educating women student entrepreneurs and appreciates the strong women in her family who demonstrated an entrepreneurial spirit and shaped who she is today.


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