Tuesday, April 23, 2013


I've been taking a very interesting (and free) class on Global Poverty through EdX lately. It's about to wrap up, but I'm  fairly certain they'll offer it again. This week's topic was "Entrepreneurs and Work". As is usual with this course, it tended to upend certain assumptions I had but this time it also seemed to upend some of the thoughts of the MIT students who are part of the video. When asked what they thought an entrepreneur was, they tended to think of someone with a new vision, who was willing to back it, even if, as in one example, they were working for Toyota, and they were simply (or not so simply) designing a new line. In America, the idea of the entrepreneur tends to be glamorous, but in poorer nations, most of the poor are entrepreneurs, and what they really want for their kids is not that they take up the family business, but that they find a good government job.

As Professor Abhijit Banerjee defined it for them (and for us), an entrepreneur is basically someone who bears a lot of the risk of production, and includes the idea that that risk is closely tied to the ownership of the asset. It doesn't matter how much the asset is worth. In the example of the course, it was a few bucketfuls of wet sand.

Woman Dairy Entrepreneur, India, by McKay Savage

So this is all well and good, but of course now I wonder what entrepreneur really means. Or where did the word come from originally? Pretty much got to be French, but beyond that, I don't know.

Well, I guess you can make it mean pretty much anything you want it to mean, at least judging by the Wikipedia article on it. Banerjee says it has to do with assets, however small, and risk. But Peter Drucker, business guru says that an entrepreneur must create something new or transmute ideas or values. Frankly, I like Banerjee's more comprehensive view better. It seems less snobby and business schoollike. But I bet that's where the MIT student got the idea. And who's to gainsay Peter Drucker?

When it came over to England in 1828, 'entrepreneur' was taken up to mean the not exactly exalted position of 'manager or promoter of a theatrical production'. The word had already tried to make the Channel passage once before, in the late 15th century, but like so many entrepreneurial ideas, it didn't take.

In the Old French, it simply meant "one who undertakes, or manages" and is related to the word "enterprise" through the Old French entreprendre, to undertake, or take in hand. And indeed, it took the meaning of "business manager" in English as early as 1852.

After all, there's no business like show business.



  1. what's an entrepreneur? The good and exciting and adventurous part get buried beneath the hucksterism, and entrepreneurship is that intended to take the minds off the existence and economic precariousness of those who happen not to be entrepreneurs.

  2. I think it also tends to take our minds off those who "happen" to be entrepreneurs, as most of the poor are.

    I've known a couple of truely gifted entrepreneurs in my life, and Ithink for them, it's not really all that much about the money, but about figuring out how to do things. But as my class points out, most people aren't particularly called by it, but take in on because it's the best option. Some thrive at it. But most manage to make some sort of struggling along living.