Entrepreneurship has been democratised!

By Hamish Clifton

Does the word “entrepreneur” conjure success: derision, envy, admiration? Maybe all of them?

There are landmarks in our culture, our sense of community, and our appreciation of technology that probably determine our attitude.  Huge numbers of graduates source a “project” approach to work, seeing their working lives as a series of events and experiences not entirely linear. This is especially true for the creative industries and statistics show a majority, two thirds, work alone [1] and have multiple roles 6 years after leaving University. Many undertake some roles pro bono, whether to win later work or as a signal of their motivation to do work that interests them, or help others.

These craftsmen, artisans, and creatives can now be seen as entrepreneurs, making their own way rather than relying on the employment of others, a key characteristic of the entrepreneur. But 100 years ago we would not have labelled them as such because the roles would have required apprenticeship, and been formulaic within a set of conventions around the way employment worked within a set social order. With the current age we are prepared to see those seeking to create as successful as well as those who have “made it”. We respect the path as valid, one isn’t less of an entrepreneur because you are “trying” to make it, you don’t need to have achieved the goal to be legitimised as an entrepreneur. The divide between self-employment and entrepreneurship is so blurred the distinction is unclear.

In my mind is a cartoon of a thin, slick dark-haired man in a pin-stripe suit lounging beside an old jaguar. It’s a classic image of a post Second World War “spiv”. Perhaps, the closest thing that existed to an entrepreneur 80 years ago. Characterising the image is a lack of ethics, a pile of cash, making money out of the needs or misfortunes or gullibility of others. It’s an unattractive picture of a “lovable” rogue, or object of (historic) ridicule.  By contrast, one third of the students I teach who have signed up for an entrepreneurship elective last year, chose a social enterprise as their preferred model for an entrepreneurial business. The idea of making a living while helping others is deeply appealing, marrying lifestyle, personal ethics, to personal wealth. What a contrast!

How did this complete revolution happen? Who and what changed perceptions?

From the economic perspective, entrepreneurship is all about creating resources and being effective in using them where others are not; often creating something out of nothing, in simple terms. The conglomerates favoured in the late 80’s buying up rag tag and bobtail businesses which took their fancy can’t be called entrepreneurship as much as opportunism or even a dilettante approach to growth.

Then came the charismatics, household names; the Good the Bad and the Ugly, from Robert Maxwell infamy through to Richard Branson, Alan Sugar and Rupert Murdoch.  And we see the late legacy of charismatics with popular TV shows for would-be entrepreneurs with the lure of riches. Components of these charismatics are celebrity status and the growth of the celebrity “cult”, popularising non-mainstream and non-conventional images of accepted leadership. There is a rebellious and wild streak about them. Many are in communications, media and technology industries and pioneers.

But the biggest influence must be the internet and its potential to empower technocrats and techno-geeks to build empires from their bedroom. Immediately, without large amounts of cash, or workforces or large loans there is the means to create a large or a small enterprise, quickly or slowly, we can choose. The same inherent risks are not there to losing your house to the bank or being indebted for years. These risks remain if you choose those routes, but it is not necessary.

Entrepreneurship has been democratized, and with it the demise of judgmentalism and stereotypical icons of prior entrepreneurs. Because we (you and me) can also be an ‘entrepreneur’, it doesn’t have the same cache, glory or ridicule, it’s more a statement explaining “it’s what I do”, or “it is what I am”; full time or part time. But this democratisation has not created a loss of value to the term, oddly, it’s empowering because entrepreneurship has become legitimised, and reflects a human sense of creation and creativity.  We can say about ourselves in our entrepreneurial activity – “I do, therefore I am”!

About the author

Hamish Clifton has enjoyed a diverse business career spanning a range of companies and countries. Following a period working on strategic leadership programmes at Deloitte, Hamish held a commercial director role for Wembley Stadium. He has since led and grown a range of organisations, including ‘Artscom’, a University of the Arts London-based commercial business, and executed a successful management buyout of the UK’s largest specialist sports catering company.

Hamish is a visiting fellow in Entrepreneurship at the University of Kent, an alumni of the University of Oxford (where he originally trained as an English and drama teacher) and of Oxford’s Said Business School (where he participated in their entrepreneurial and strategic leadership programmes).

About us

Our vision is to become the go to place for SME research and owner-manager support. We aspire to create a supportive, accessible and applicable learning environment within which owner-managers feel able to challenge their established mindsets and embrace new ways of working in order to create a better future for themselves and their business.

For further information contact Dr Simon Raby on 01227 824740 or S.O.Raby@kent.ac.uk


[1] Ball, L. Pollard, E. and Stanley N. 2010. Creative Graduates Creative Futures, Creative Graduates Creative Futures Higher Education Partnership and the Institute for Employment Studies, Download from: www.creativegraduates.com

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