Capitalism for Social Good? The Complexities of Entrepreneurship Culture

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Words || Shinae Taylor

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you would have noticed the recent trend celebrating entrepreneurs and startups. From the infamous Elon Musk, to the establishment of the MQU Incubator, entrepreneurship culture is all around. If the popularity of the Barefoot Investor can tell us anything, it’s that the general public have a burgeoning love for entrepreneurs. 

When most of us think of entrepreneurs, we probably think of someone like Elon Musk – a creative, somewhat unconventional workaholic with a deep passion for their business idea. Research shows that despite this ‘hero image’ of entrepreneurs, there’s no evidence to indicate that entrepreneurs succeed based on the merit of their personality traits. In fact, a large part of their success is due to following “processes and patterns of developing and testing ideas, building support networks and developing certain communication and business skills.” This is quite a contrast to the depiction of entrepreneurs as savvy saviours of humanity, as seen in the common media depiction of Virgin founder Richard Branson.

Converse to the myth of the underdog entrepreneur, in their 2014 research into entrepreneurship, Logue and Boersma found that the majority of entrepreneurs had a solid financial background, a successful career in their own industry and access to a highly developed professional network. While the entrepreneurs in the study were “determined, resilient and passionate” and “open to risk,” the success of their business idea was largely based on their ability to acquire and develop new skills relating to the market. In other words, entrepreneurs aren’t born, but created through particular social and economic circumstances. 

Even people within the movement point out the difficulty in defining what it means to be an entrepreneur. After the failure of his startup, Eric Ries, a Silicon Valley software engineer, published a book in which he argued that the industry was full of “myth-making.” In The Lean Startup, Ries writes: “The grim reality is that most startups fail. Most new products are not successful. Most new ventures do not live up to their potential.” Contrary to the mainstream emphasis on “quirky maverick personalities and entrepreneurial charisma,” Ries argues that entrepreneurship is about management, discipline and acquiring vital business skills. This point is an important step in uncovering the way in which entrepreneurship is depicted in the media. 

Working for a cause

Recently, new kinds of entrepreneurship have emerged. Social entrepreneurship uses commercial processes in solving contemporary issues. Social entrepreneurs therefore start businesses with the intent of producing social good. These are different from Not-for-Profits because social entrepreneurs turn a profit in the process of addressing social problems. In Sydney alone, a number of social entrepreneurship initiatives have sprung up. Digital matching platform Digital Talent is one such example. It was founded by Nirary Dacho, who, after arriving on a humanitarian visa, struggled to find meaningful employment despite his extensive education and experience. The platform assists refugees to find jobs, thereby helping them to circumnavigate the systemic and cultural bias endemic within Australian hiring and work cultures. The trend of refugee entrepreneurship programs is not limited to Australia, with similar initiatives and programs having sprung up in Europe and other parts of the world. 

Art for sale

There’s also such a thing as cultural entrepreneurship, which brings together the concepts of entrepreneurship and the arts and creative services. This type of entrepreneurship links the previously unrelated spheres of business and art in an attempt to bridge two very different and contradictory realms, for profit, of course. There seems to be a glaring ambiguity around what exactly constitutes cultural entrepreneurship. Some researchers link the term to those who work towards social change using public art forms, a.k.a. social activism. Other researchers employ the term as a label for any business working with arts and creative services. This ambiguity reveals a vague and undeveloped sector struggling to reconcile the polar worlds of art and business. After reading a number of articles published on this topic, it’s clear that cultural entrepreneurship, much like its predecessor, garden variety entrepreneurship, suffers from the “myth-making” Ries described in his book. 

How young is too young?

Kidpreneurs is a book that encourages “a child’s desire to get involved in business early by fueling their curiosity in simple, engaging, creative, and safe ways.” Written by brothers and passionate entrepreneurs Matthew and Adam Torrens, the book introduces children to the “basic principles and infinite rewards” of entrepreneurship. The Kidpreneurs website is littered with brazen promotions (“Get 30% off the book!”) and an overwhelming number of attempts to spruik the book, with the ‘About’ section boldly claiming “it’s never too early” to become an entrepreneur. 

The Torrens’ expedition into the world of child entrepreneurship poses serious questions about the pervasiveness of pro-capitalist ideology. Should children really be pressured by their parents into becoming entrepreneurs? There are also ethical issues with targeting children. Firstly, as entrepreneur Eric Ries acknowledges himself, most startups result in failure. Of course, fear of failing should not prevent people from pursuing their dreams, but it should be acknowledged that entrepreneurship requires an extensive professional network, management and networking skills, and a financial safety net that most adults don’t have. Again, this is an instance of the industry’s “myth-making,” where entrepreneurs are depicted as underdog heroes emerging from the ashes to shake up the industry. In fact, as research demonstrates, most people become entrepreneurs later in life when they have skills, knowledge and expertise in a particular sector. 

The second ethical issue refers to the fact that selling pro-entrepreneurship propaganda to children and parents is a weird kind of ‘Inception’–style, intra or meta-exploitation of entrepreneurship culture. It reveals an insidious side to the entrepreneurship sector, which increasingly seems to be rife with entrepreneurs whose sole business is just to sell the idea of entrepreneurship. This strikes me as being a bit like a pyramid scheme, with industry members seeing that the most profitable move for them is to recruit others and profit from aspiring entrepreneurs. 

Similarly, Ries’ critique of the industry, which evidently resonated with many trying to make it in the industry, gave him the success and recognition he was working towards in the first place. His book on “myth-making” in the sector soon became a “global movement,” and he was even offered a position as an ‘entrepreneur in residence’ at Harvard Business School, whatever that means. Ries’ ability to profit from writing about entrepreneurship culture, which itself exploits the inequalities produced under the capitalist system, reveals an ugly truth about the true purpose of the industry. 

Examining the cult of entrepreneurship holds a mirror to the ugly face of our economic and social system. Looking at the “myth-making” around entrepreneurs points to an agenda whereby the responsibility of the state to fund social programs is transferred to individual social entrepreneurs and small businesses, placing additional strain on an economic system that’s already struggling to stay afloat. The idea of cultural entrepreneurship poses important questions about the relation between art and economics, and whether immaterial and symbolic forms of creativity should be tied to a profit-making agenda.

Multifaceted issues such as poverty, wealth inequality and discrimination are too big for one individual or business to tackle. While social entrepreneurship provides helpful short term solutions, promoting this business-centric culture deflects meaningful discussions about systemic inequalities and long term solutions. If we want a happier and healthier society, we need to start by critiquing the current system, and work towards a future where our wellbeing does not revolve around profit making, whether it be someone else’s or our own.

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