By David Williamson.
Part one of two. See part two here.
While based in economics and business, the word “entrepreneurship” has come to be applied to people doing innovative, risky work in other areas. Perhaps the second most frequent application of this term is “social entrepreneurship.”
It is defined as “the activity of setting up a business, taking on financial risks with the hope of profit.” Yet many who engage in the activity of setting up something new, and assuming the risks involved, hope to benefit others. I have known several business entrepreneurs and social or ministry entrepreneurs and celebrate their creativity, boldness, venturing into new, uncharted waters with a good idea intended to benefit others. I see myself as a bit of an entrepreneur, in that I am energized by venturing into or through a new idea, eager to plan for its start, assume whatever risks are involved, in the hopes that there is a beneficial outcome for someone.
In the process, we display – and sometimes discover – skills that have not been utilized or developed. Often they do this over and over again. I have known, and celebrate, a number of these “serial entrepreneurs.”
I first saw this in one friend of mine when he was a high school kid who launched a business renting cross-country or Nordic skis at a dormant ski hill. Later he began a lawn irrigation system, learned the process, invested some of his own money in the equipment, and convinced friends to join him, with little or no assurance that they would be financially rewarded. He became a youth leader who conceived and organized short-term mission events that in time led to the development one of the largest youth mission programs in the United States. From a local cross-country ski rental concession to college kids traveling across North America serving the needs of low income communities, Paul was (and still is) a serial social entrepreneur.
What I have noticed in Paul and other serial entrepreneurs suggests a similar skill set, or gifting. Contemplating how God has gifted these people to bless the world has been an encouragement to me and others who might have ideas and dreams, unused or underdeveloped entrepreneurial skills or gifts.
First these entrepreneurs have vision. They see possibilities or potential that is not being met by people or other organizations. Those entrepreneurs see undeveloped (or underdeveloped) possibilities are alert to the possibility or potential benefit of an idea that can be developed. They start thinking “outside the box,” and find new, innovative ways of responding to a need or possible outcome. This may include seeing and affirming existing approaches or ventures in responding to the need or opportunity, but with vision for the potential of doing more. It might be a vision for providing a resource to an undersubscribed need.
Consider the Mayo Brothers. They were aware that traditional medical care was at considerable distance, and limited by already-existing or prescribed forms of treatment. Far removed from the traditional delivery of medical skills, the Mayo Brothers developed ways of making leading medical resources and treatment much more accessible. This included bringing people with highly developed expertise together in a clinic setting, to serve more of the whole person in accessible facilities, or adapt existing facilities to serve medical needs. Through this vision, passion and innovation, risking their own and family resources, they developed the Mayo Clinic, which became one of the leading research and treatment medical facilities in the world.
Additionally, the entrepreneur is willing to assume risk, venturing both resources and reputation. They risk going beyond commonly held and affirmed approaches to find a more effective, available, creative and competent approaches, often by themselves or in isolation from recognized, established leaders. In a small way, this mirrors or reflects God doing a new thing to benefit creation. God took the risks: created, formed and fashioned us, and ultimately paid the price of personal involvement. God put his own resources and identity at risk. God had “skin in the game.”
Third, this involves taking initiative, venturing forth so others could profit. The Mayo Brothers created a new “enterprise” and assumed the risks involved. Behind or underneath this is the capacity for seeing needs and opportunities, conceiving a strategy that then is formed into a workable, well-designed action plan. This type of person is a problem solver, knows how to establish clear goals and form a workable and realistic timetable, anticipating the costs, assessing the probability and desirability of achievement. The idea is grounded in reality, and formed into a workable, and skillfully designed action plan. And it is grounded in desirability both for someone or some group and for the entrepreneur.
Assessing the economic factors both in the cost of production and in the value of the outcome is an important skill for the entrepreneur. This is also true for the “social Entrepreneur,” even though the social benefit is more important than the financial outcome. And of course there are many traditional business entrepreneurs for whom the social benefit of their work is more important to them than the financial outcome, which is what God intends!
The skilled entrepreneur has a spirit of adventure, a longing for envisioned possibilities, and thrives on the steps along the way as well as on the final outcome. In this journey, the entrepreneur may need to tolerate being lonely; the dream, hope and process may be more important than the companionship. However, the well-gifted entrepreneur is usually a team player and values the information, skills and ideas of companions. Starting solo, the entrepreneur adds fellow travelers, co-venturers and companions for the enterprise.
Communication skills are thus involved, as the entrepreneur communicates the idea or vision in seeking to enlist the gifting of others, whether as investors with tangible resources of money or materials, or other collaborators who can refine the dream, hope or purpose. Communication skills are especially important if the idea is innovative and does not fit pre-conceived notions, including translating the new idea into terms and concepts that are familiar to possible companions. Effective communication or “selling” an idea is perhaps more critical when it asks for risk taking (financial, reputation, comfort, security) from the fellow traveler.
God of course is the primary and first entrepreneur. God has the brand-new, never-happened-before vision, idea, and ventures into the process, takes the risk. He communicates to the angels (while not abandoning the original vision) the idea of creating a physical, tangible world, inhabiting that new world with creatures and “creating” humans in the imago Dei, giving them freedom to do their own thing and go their own way – even to disregard the dream for which they were created. In so doing, God takes the risk that the creatures could have an entirely different idea of what should or could be and want to develop their own enterprise.
Michael Novak has argued in Business As A Calling that an entrepreneur’s creativity is similar to God’s creative venture in Genesis 1 and 2 – and also leaves open the possibility of Genesis 3 and all that follows. Robert Sirico writes that “in this sense, the entrepreneur participates in the original cultural mandate: to subdue the earth.” Thus the entrepreneur is living into a high and holy, indeed extraordinary, calling. George Gilder writes in Wealth and Poverty that “entrepreneurship is an act of faith, an inescapably religious act.”
Entrepreneurs are agents of change, can be a powerful resource for good, and in the process exercise a profound reflection of being created in the image of God. Without entrepreneurs we would not be able to adapt to the changing circumstances in which we find ourselves. Entrepreneurs drive us forward to find new, hopefully better ways to respond to human needs – new ways of utilizing resources for human well-being and for the affirmation and glory of God. Entrepreneurs look forward with courage and a sense of opportunity. In creating new enterprises, they open up new options. And, in so doing, indeed they might hear the words: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”