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Tom Kennedy's Blog

Entrepreneurialism and All That

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Like many other colleges and universities thinking about mission and purpose, here at Berry we’ve begun a conversation about entrepreneurialism (or, if you prefer, entrepreneurism) and what an “entrepreneurial mindset” should look like in a liberal arts context. A starting reminder for us has been that our college bears the name of an extraordinary entrepreneur, Martha Berry, who saw a problem, developed a plan to fix it, took risks, revised her plan, took more risks and continued to adapt her project to current social and economic realities. And if Ms. Berry was an entrepreneur, doesn’t that pretty much seal our commitment to the project?

Most academic conversations about entrepreneurship begin, naturally, with trying to get a handle on what entrepreneurship and entrepreneurialism is. And most humanists, of course, are immediately curious about the history of the term and rush to the Oxford English Dictionary. Entrepreneur is an old French term, originally referring to someone who took upon himself or herself some project or undertaking. Introduced into English in the early nineteenth century, its context was originally the arts. An entrepreneur was one who manages or “gets up” public performances, usually musical performances. By the end of the century the business world had claimed the term. Thus, as the OED notes, in 1889 R. T. Ely in his Introduction to Political Economy wrote, “We have… been obliged to resort to the French language for a word to designate a person who organizes and directs the productive factors, and we call such a one an entrepreneur.”  It is worth noting that the element of risk and chance, implicit in the earlier arts use of entrepreneur, appears absent in Ely’s discussion, as is any element of innovation. An entrepreneur is a manager or director, a person in the middle who is involved in productive activity of some sort. A necessary, but not especially sexy, role (not unlike that of the academic middle manager, or dean).

Today, while all the connotations of entrepreneur and entrepreneurism seem (at least to its academic champions) to be positive, innovation, adaptability and an aversion to risk aversion seem the most admirable and essential qualities of the entrepreneurial character. (We began talking about an “entrepreneurial mindset” though I suspect character comes closer to what we really have in mind than mindset, whatever a mindset is.) These are the qualities that have made America great. These are the qualities that will keep America at the top of the economic ladder. These qualities are essential to society, and not just to the economy, hence the value of being a social entrepreneur, one who perceives social needs and challenges and innovatively takes risks to address these challenges. Entrepreneurism is not self-aggrandizement, at least not necessarily.

Who could complain about apple pie, especially a la mode? Likewise with entrepreneurialism, as we talk about it. And even if entrepreneurialism expresses, once again, the American enamoring of the new and valorizes the individual critic of the status quo, what’s wrong with that? Isn’t that what America is all about? In its place, who could be against entrepreneurialism and training students to be entrepreneurs? No one, perhaps, if entrepreneurialism knows its place. The problem is in identifying its place and, having identified its appropriate place, determining how to develop entrepreneurial traits and insuring that other important traits of character are developed alongside the entrepreneurial traits, all easier said than done.

Do we—in this case, we liberal arts educators—want everyone to be an entrepreneur? No more than we want everyone to be a leader, I should think. I’ve been listening to Bill Evans’ You Must Remember Spring a lot the last few days. Eliot Zigmund on drums is fine, but the real magic of the album is the responsiveness of bassist Eddie Gomez to Evans’s piano. There is freedom in Gomez’s phrasing, to be sure, but that freedom is always about what Evans is doing. Gomez is not entrepreneurial here in any plausible sense of the term, and for that we can be grateful.

Given the cost of a college education, it is no wonder that we resort to the language of business to describe our aspirations for our work and for our students. And given the diversity of the modern academy, and our many competing and conflicting values, no wonder that the language and values of commerce makes the loudest claims upon us. But there are other and perhaps better ways for at least some of us to talk about things, ways that serve to remind us all that we are not just consumers or innovative producers of products that others may consume. The language of vocation, originally religious language, may yet serve that purpose.

So rather than think of Ms. Berry as an entrepreneur, I’ll continue to think of her as someone who, in a rather surprising way, discovered her vocation. And that’s the hope I have for my students: that like Ms. Berry they will somehow discover their vocations. Some of them perhaps as entrepreneurs. Others, perhaps as artists, with the sensitivity and skill of Bill Evans. Still others to be an Eddie Gomez to some Bill Evans. Somewhere. Or even to be an Eliot Zigmund to the magic of a Bill Evans and Eddie Gomez.

 

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