I am not an entrepreneur

entrepreneurPeople tell me I am—I have been involved with starting two organizations—but for some reason, I can’t stomach calling myself an entrepreneur.  I have many entrepreneurial friends who are wonderful people motivated by making the world a better place, having a flexible work life/balance, or pursuing an idea they are passionate about. But to me, they don’t fit the entrepreneur archetype that’s stuck in my mind.

It reminds me of sport coats with jeans, whiteboards with primary-color diagrams strewn about. It brings up images of Silicon Valley—where I’ve never been—and the endless churn of innovation, profit, innovation, profit, innovation, profit. When I think “entrepreneur,” I think slick, hype, exclusivity, excess, greed.

Entrepreneurship has been corrupted. I don’t know when—maybe it was with the release of the film the Social Network, maybe it was the tech bubble of the 1990s— but entrepreneurship has become a lifestyle, rather then a means to an end. It’s now “cool” to be an entrepreneur. People are drawn to the entrepreneurial scene, and there are countless conferences on entrepreneurship and “innovation” to fill this desire. Search around the internet for just a few minutes and you’ll find too many blogs spewing advice on how to start your business and grow it—without care to the most important question an entrepreneur should ask: “Why create in the first place?”

Entrepreneurship is all about solving problems. Finding a need in society and filling it. This is why I see no distinction between social entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship—if you are a moral individual, your offering as an entrepreneur by definition will solve some kind of societal problem, whether that’s clean water accessibility in Zambia or ease of sharing photos amongst your friends.

But now we have a fetishization of the entrepreneurial lifestyle, with people wanting to quit their jobs because they think it’d be fun to go out and start their own company—or worse, they think they should go out and start their own company. They see entrepreneurship as a symbol of honor, a badge of courage. It isn’t. It’s one way of many to get stuff done.

For example, myself. I’ve helped create two organizations, but I didn’t set out to found anything. Instead, I saw needs and tried to do the best I could to fill them. In college, I realized that there wasn’t a lot of discussion or awareness about microfinance among the student body. I brought some friends together and we started what is now the Social Entrepreneurs of Grinnell, which has loaned out over $50,000. After I graduated, I became fed up with the blogs I was reading focused on sector-specific social change and decided there needed to be a place to discuss social change from all perspectives. What came from that need is now UnSectored, where we partner with organizations to help them critically examine issues related to their work.

Of course, there are many different ways to solve these problems. You don’t have to start a new organization to fill a need. Intrapreneurship harnesses the existing resources of organizations to develop new products and services. Cross-sector collaboration and public-private partnerships combine the strengths of different organizations and sectors to offer new services, improve communities, or research and develop new products. Community organizing leverages the power of individuals to push other actors into changing behavior.

These are all options for you if you want to change something. (And it’s totally cool if you do not—as long as you aren’t hurting people, I’m not going to tell you how to live your life.) But if you do, I ask that you continue to ask this question of yourself: What am I trying to solve? Let that be your guiding path, not what seems cool or interesting. Stick to this question and maybe we can re-claim entrepreneurship for its true purpose: Solving problems.

Until then, I think that dirty feeling I get whenever I hear the word will stick around.

Photo credit: Mark Darnell

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4 thoughts on “I am not an entrepreneur

  1. Great post, Jeff. This puts to words so many of the feelings I have about whatever entrepreneurship means these days. It’s something that surrounds me in my line of work and I always feel like a bit of an outsider because of it. This put together with your previous post clarifies a lot of swirling thoughts I’ve had. Thanks!

  2. Hi Jeff and others,

    Great insights! The thought of seeing newcomers enamored by the romanticized version of entrepreneurship — well, it does make me gag a bit. Definitely, new entrepreneurs must ask themselves: What are you here for? Why do you do it? What are you trying to change, fix, solve, alleviate?

    Interesting you talk about entrepreneurship as a way to solve problems. That’s practically how I’ve always viewed it. Most people who started didn’t outright say “yeah, I want be an entrepreneur.” They just discovered an unmet need and worked on a way to fill it.

    Well, guess I have to plug my story, too. Nonprofits also exist to solve problems, but I got agitated by what’s being commonly referred by nonprofits as “innovation” without considering if it got them closer to the root problem they’re trying to fix. So I help nonprofits to become more like adaptive problem-solvers rather than just one that “provides a service.” That takes new collaboration skills in-house. Many are still stuck trying to make sense of the rapidly changing world around them using SWOTs, Venn Diagrams (not a joke), and let’s not get started on traditional strategic planning.

    All the best!

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