Having worked in entrepreneurship education for ten years, I’m no longer surprised how little attention the actual founder of a company gets in the national conversation about business and how few people really understand such a person. We talk about “business” as if it were a disembodied life form: “small business,”“big business,” “international business.” But there is precious little discussion about the American entrepreneurs who launch businesses: who they are, where they come from, what motivates them, what they risk, and most importantly, what they contribute to our way of life. The entrepreneur is simply missing in this conversation.
This gap is astonishing and unfortunate. Without an understanding of the American entrepreneur, there is widespread ignorance of our distinctiveness as a nation, our ingenuity, our liberty, our basic decency, or our prosperity.
By way of example, one of the most commonly-held misperceptions is that entrepreneurs are motivated by greed. That is a myth. Most entrepreneurs are motivated by a passion to solve seemingly intractable human problems, or meet deeply felt human needs. Some of our multinational corporations were started by people who believed that the average person should have soap, shoes, a roof over their heads, affordable food, fruit in the middle of the winter, the ability to communicate with far away loved ones, and more recently computers and other access to information.
Those passions are what drive the entrepreneur, and carry him or her through the risks, setbacks, and outright failures along the way. Entrepreneurs tinker with ideas, and they take the risks associated with pursuing those ideas. If they fail, they lose. If they succeed, we all win – with new or better products and services. And yes, the entrepreneur has the potential for phenomenal financial success. But that success is directly tied not only to the efficacy of the entrepreneur’s solution, but also to the ability to grow the enterprise around that solution -- it is growth that creates the jobs and investment opportunities that enable others to profit from the entrepreneur’s success.
Some weeks ago, I saw this reflected in an episode of The History Channel’s series, “America: The Story of Us.” Entitled “Boom,” this episode traced (among other things) the Hamill brothers’ novel use of a rotary drill in oil derricks, Henry Ford’s inspiration to mass-produce cars that were reliable and affordable for the average American, and William Mulholland’s system of aqueducts and dams that provided water for a newly burgeoning Los Angeles. This is the story of America: ingenuity, engineering, and entrepreneurship in the face of seemingly intractable problems.
Laura Hollis is an Associate Professional Specialist and Concurrent Associate Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame, where she teaches entrepreneurship and business law. She is the author of the forthcoming publication, “Start Up, Screw Up, Scale Up: What Government Can Learn From the Best Entrepreneurs,” © 2014. Her opinions are her own, and do not reflect the position of the university. Follow her on Twitter: @LauraHollis61.