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The Missing American Entrepreneur

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

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.

As I watched, it struck me how painfully long it had been since I had heard the political leadership in this country inspire Americans with reminders of our country’s – and our citizens’ – greatness in the face of difficulty, and the entrepreneurs’ part in that greatness. If the average American’s ignorance about entrepreneurship is troubling, lack of understanding of American entrepreneurship at the political level is potentially catastrophic. Understanding America’s unique ability to start and grow successful businesses, and the vital role those businesses play in our liberty and prosperity, is critical to the development and implementation of public policies that foster rather than thwart entrepreneurship.

But our policymakers show no such understanding. Never in my lifetime has the national conversation about business been so one-sided and so negative. The “greed” meme now permeates every level of discussion about business, all the way to the top. Like many others, I have been struck by the ignorance and overwhelming hostility President Obama and his administration display toward enterprise, private industry, and the free market. Evidence of this abounds, from the disregard for contract, securities , and bankruptcy law, to comments like “boot on the neck” and “whose ass to kick,” to threats leveled at businesses if they dare to communicate with their employees, stockholders or policyholders .

This hostility has dismal consequences. First, the president’s decision to populate his cabinet with virtually no one having private sector experience has stymied economic recovery efforts. The president and his team seem astonished that runaway spending thrown at highway construction projects and other public sector initiatives has not stimulated the economy, or (most significantly) produced jobs. Someone having even rudimentary experience with actual enterprise development could have told them that (and many did).

Worse, crass displays of loathing toward business quickly translate to resentment of ingenuity, discouragement of initiative, and demonization of aspirations. In short, there is lack of appreciation of the American entrepreneur, who is hovering in the background, however unacknowledged, in all of these conversations, and who seems to exist for our present political leaders for no purpose other than to be a scapegoat.

“Business is bad,” or some version thereof, has been chanted for so long that is has taken on the form of a creed. Our founding documents rejected the establishment of a state religion. But politicians in this country have elevated themselves into a perverse ecclesiastical hierarchy, demanding adherence to a warped ideology of sin and salvation where aspiration is greed, accomplishment is exploitation, and expiation can only be achieved through payment of ever-larger sums of money in taxes as a secular version of indulgences.

Few will undertake the risks of entrepreneurship in such a climate. And yet the ongoing viability of our nation’s economy is dependent upon a significant percentage of us doing exactly that.

We are just 30 days away from a pivotal election. It is essential that we elect leaders who understand and appreciate the role of entrepreneurship in economic success.

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