Preaching the gospel of Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship is the new economic gospel, offering its disciples the promise of redemption in the form of freedom from the dull, plodding and ultimately meaningless work that characterizes an old-fashioned “9 to 5.”  Don’t get me wrong.  Few would disagree with the notion that a life spent as a wage slave to a dead-end job in a large corporation is a wasted life, or at least, a slow, painful endurance contest to retirement.  I, myself, loathe the cynical “bare minimum” attitude of employees and executives who populate bureaucracies, both from the perspective of a customer and as a former employee.

So what’s the problem with celebrating entrepreneurship?  People who cling to a vision and end up running a profitable and successful business are awesome.  Like watching elite athletes compete, when I meet successful entrepreneurs who have spun straw into gold, I feel humble and honest appreciation of the hard work, focus and self-sacrifice that went into making the impossible look effortless.  Earning money by selling a solution to a customer problem with honest hard work and ingenuity is the foundation of a satisfying and well-lived life.

Here’s the problem with entrepreneurship as the new economic gospel:  it’s a risky path to economic redemption, one that most of its disciples will fail to complete.  We celebrate the notion of entrepreneurship without acknowledging that successful entrepreneurs are as gifted, lucky and rare as winning Olympic athletes.  The gospel of entrepreneurship sells the dream that all of us are capable of carving out our own prosperous path as long as we’re tenacious enough.  The gospel of entrepreneurship, when swallowed whole, would have you believe that we’re entering a brave new post Fortune 500 era, that economic salvation is available to those who embrace entrepreneurship.

By uncritically embracing entrepreneurship as the foundation for our future economy, we are preaching and believing a fairy tale.  A growing number of Americans are living below the poverty line ($30,000 a year for a family of four).  Roughly half of Americans have nothing.  Literally.  Their debts exceed their assets.

As I attend conferences, workshops and events about entrepreneurship, despite my appreciation for people who succeed in building a new business, I find myself wrestling with an uncomfortable thought:  what if the gospel of entrepreneurship is merely a cloak to hide the painful, deeply disturbing fact that secure, good old-fashioned 9 to 5 jobs — drudgery as they may be — are rapidly become a thing of the past?

I once had a boss who taught me that if there’s a significant problem in your organization, never gloss it over when communicating with upper management.  Otherwise it’s like smoothing wallpaper over a gaping hole in the wall:  the same problem is going to continue to dog you later on or perhaps get even worse.  My former boss’s wise advice was that you should tell your management about the gaping hole, square on, and then explain how your team is going to exceed its goals anyway.  The new gospel of entrepreneurship is not real economic strategy for the majority of the population.  Blind worship of entrepreneurship is rhetorical wallpaper that covers an ugly, gaping hole in our economy that’s going to impact all of us eventually, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Uncritical celebration of the economic gospel of entrepreneurship wallpapers over the fact that a significant number of people would not be able to support themselves and their family by launching their own ventures, even if they wanted to adopt the hard-driving, mono-focused so-called “entrepreneurial lifestyle.”  Despite the lucky and gifted few people who will create wonderful lives and fortunes for themselves, their families and communities, a large chunk of the population would be better economically served with a steady, boring decently paid day job, complete with long term security, a pension plan and no work on nights and weekends.  In fact, my hunch is that many hard-working people would actually prefer such a straightforward 9 to 5 gig with a regular paycheck.

In a brilliant article in the Entrepreneurship Review, C.Z. Nnaemeka writes of the way that the gospel of entrepreneurship has failed the “unexotic underclass.”  The unexotic underclass fly under the radar of most aid programs and most certainly aren’t part of our nation’s passionate embrace of entrepreneurship as a new cultural identity.  Who makes up this unexotic underclass?  Millions and millions of people.

According to Nnaemeka, the unexotic underclass is made up of “single mothers, 80% of whom, according to the US Census,  are poor or hovering on the nasty edges of working poverty.”  Two, combat veterans who upon returning from the frontlines, “have to wait roughly 270 days (up to 600 in New York and California) to receive the help — medical, moral, financial – which they urgently need.”  The unexotic underclass includes the “huddles of Whites – poor, rural working class – living in the American South, in the Midwest, in Appalachia.”     The list goes on.  A growing number of people over 50 are falling below the poverty line.  Ex-convicts locked up for petty drug crimes are rendered untouchable, hence unemployable, by their felon status.

Selling economic redemption through the gospel of entrepreneurship ignores the needs and circumstances of the majority of people not fortunate to survive the risks of starting a new business.  Think about what it takes to become a successful entrepreneur.  This is not to say it’s impossible.  However, how many people who struggle day-to-day in the unexotic underclass could survive the following?

  • Delayed profitability.  The lag in time to profitability means living off savings or a spouse’s income.  For people who are single mothers or the primary breadwinner, don’t have affluent and generous parents, or can’t borrow sums from family and friends, working more than full-time for a few years without a steady salary is not an option.
  • High risk and uncertain future.  Most small businesses fail within the first years.  That’s fine if you’re young, single and affluent.  The gospel of entrepreneurship presents tenacity as a defining personality characteristic of successful entrepreneurs.  However, bulldog tenacity doesn’t pay the rent, nor food and medical bills.
  • Many years of long workweeks, nights, holidays and weekends.   In particular, women in the unexotic underclass take care of children and their elders.   How about people who have health problems that have already rendered them unemployable?  And heck, I’ll just say it.  What about the people who would simply prefer to contain their job inside of a fair 40 hour work week and don’t want to make their business their life?
  • Technical and communication skills.  To build a business that reaps the economic benefits of new technologies, first you have to become an expert user of these new technologies.  A new report from the U.S. Department of Education found that in 2011, nearly one in five public schools were high-poverty, a whopping 60 percent increase since 2000. (A school is designated as high-poverty when 75 percent or more of students qualify for free or subsidized lunch).  If kids aren’t getting fed at home, it’s likely they’re probably not learning how to build a web site or write code or crisp and compelling prose.

The fact that a self-starting individual can create income with minimal upfront investment is a laudable byproduct of our new economy.  In fact, it’s a beautiful thing that it has become possible for an individual entrepreneur to launch a small business from nearly nothing.  Bloated gatekeeping corporations of yore are collapsing under their own rotting weight, felled by gifted and energetic entrepreneurs embracing low-cost tools of communication and production.  Long live self-publishing, ecommerce, cheap laptops and the meritocracy of the ultimate blank page:  a web site.

New technologies have leveled the playing field, breaking the nasty centralized grip of mass production, mass media and centralized banking.  Sites like Kickstarter, the success of microloans and a growing online marketplace for custom goods and services have allowed once-marginalized people to soar, both financially and creatively.  In addition, many successful entrepreneurs generously donate money and time to make the world a better place.  A growing social entrepreneurship movement aims to blend humanitarian goals with a business or service that generates an income stream.

Despite these bright spots, the hard truth, however, is that by ignoring the plight of half of our nation’s population, the gospel of entrepreneurship wallpapers over a gaping and ugly hole in the wall.  While at least in theory, anyone with an internet connection and a laptop has the tools they need to run their own media corporation, the reality is that only a gifted few will likely be able to make a stable income from that.  By embracing the gospel and becoming a nation of self-made entrepreneurs, we will not solve the Problem of the 99%:  the alarming fact that in the U.S., the once-financially secure are becoming poor, and the already-vulnerable poor are becoming alarmingly poor.

Let’s celebrate entrepreneurship and the remarkable world champions of business, some who have transcended adverse beginnings and have successfully pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps.   But swallowing whole the gospel of entrepreneurship as a panacea for the rapid erosion of decently paid stable jobs and social programs for the poor is mere wallpaper, not a real solution.  Selling entrepreneurship as the panacea for a shrinking middle class and growing underclass of “will never haves” is unrealistic at best and irresponsible at worst.