Thursday, March 18, 2010

The New Entrepreneur

I wrote a note about Modern Entrepreneurs [you can read it here] before, wherein I talked about the disconnect I felt between the ideal of entrepreneurship - creation of new possibilities against the odds - and the usual practise - speculative opportunism driven by superficial knowledge and unlimited greed. There are glorious exceptions, indeed. Besides, the entrepreneurial practise has always had an element of opportunity-taking and many successful entrepreneurs built their careers just on being at the right place at the right time. Identifying and running with opportunities lie in the very essence of entrepreneurship.

However, my enquiry was part of a larger effort to understand modern capitalism, with the objective to understand how the post-recession world may shape up. That way, my previous posts about the Morality of Profit, Memoirs of a Recession and the Practise of Modern Management can be seen as a continuation of the same theme. But, as some of my correspondents point out, I displayed a certain ambivalence to the idea of entrepreneurship: On one hand, I am enamoured with this idealized, almost romantic vision of the entrepreneur as a hero, one who took the road less travelled by and created opportunities for others; and, on the other, I talked about my practical experience about the greed, the superficiality, the opportunism and the sheer manipulation of the system, which landed all of us in such a deep trouble. It is time, they wrote, that I set the record straight.

I must admit that I am guilty as charged. My version of entrepreneurship is as romanticized as the Hollywood version of the lonely gunman. I watched the Pale Rider a zillion times, though I know, in practise, the 'Preacher' may not be a nice man to know. However, I also believe that in certain areas of life, and particularly in the context of social ideas, dualism may be a far more practical way of conceptualizing things than the iron rules of dialectic. In many cases, it is not an either-or, good or bad, setting, but rather a bit of both; so is the case of entrepreneurship. The entrepreneur is an unlikely hero of our age, who is motivated by personal gain and greed, one who measures success purely in selfish terms, yet is seen as a saviour of sorts, someone who sees opportunities and brings them to life, thus addressing problems hitherto unresolved.


Besides, if the shallowness and lack of ethics of the modern entrepreneur shocks us, we should look at the past records of entrepreneurs which is none too glorious. Upton Sinclair captured the world of entrepreneurs in Jungle and Oil!, and this is not very different from the world we see in Dubai and London today. Indeed, the social norms changed over the years, and modern life has become surprisingly single-dimensional, where monetary and material success have become the single indicator of worth in a person's life. This has propelled the act of 'wealth creation' into prominence, and the wealth creators have become the key movers and shakers in our world. They have far more consequential in today's world than they ever was.

Further, what changed with the increased social prominence is the social expectation from the entrepreneur. As an important social functionary, the entrepreneur has overtaken the 'Company Man', the private bureaucrat of the post-war era, in terms of social acceptance and desirability as friends and bridegrooms. The quiet backroom boy has suddenly arrived, and being asked to save the world. Seen from this angle, one would suspect that the current disconnect between the ideal and practise does not stem from the practise being deviant; it primarily arises from the construction of a new ideal, built around the social expectations of the entrepreneur as a modern hero.

Every age has its own conception of virtues and identification of hero. The ideas, typically, build up over time, but societies usually reach end of an era through a tipping point of a crisis, and suddenly make old ideals redundant or undesirable. For example, while the literature was abuzz with the conceptions of a democratic statesman well since the days of Disraeli and Gladstone, Hitler appeared immensely more preferable as a national leader than the likes of Edvard Benes in pre-war Europe. So did Churchill, whose blood-and-bombast style, at the time, hid his weaknesses, that he was out of touch and irreconcilable elitist in a world of withering class demarcations and political correctness. However, by the end of the war, the conception of a national leader had changed significantly. So emerged Clem Atlee and his comrades in arms, the little decent men, those went on to form one of the most imaginative and consequential administrations Britain has ever had. The social expectations of leadership had changed by then; these men who excelled in the changed world did so by conforming to those expectation, and not by clinging onto the outdated models of humbug.


I cite the example because I think we are at crossroads here. The company man is in decline, because the large organizations have shed too much and become too virtual to bring about meaningful change in the face of this great crisis. When we eventually emerge out of this recession, we shall emerge as a transformed entrepreneurial society, where responsible and credible entrepreneurship will lead the way to progress. The new breed of entrepreneurs will be very different from the current bunch of speculators in a sheepskin; they will be men of compassion, involvement and possibility. Their excellence will lie not in recycling money into more money, but in something more fundamental - assembling resources to solve real world problems. They will be like post-war statesmen, who discovered a new decency in the world of dying chivalry, a new method of communication in a world of new and revolutionary medium, and a new levels of integrity in the face of deep and persistent scrutiny. It will be a brave new world of entrepreneurship, much closer home to my romanticism and built upon the ashes of my despair.

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