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The Forgotten Entrepreneurs

As I woke up this morning, I was reflecting on my blog yesterday and the next blog I wanted to write. I have planned to share some of the investments I am doing through the blog, but true to my personality type, I didn't have an organized plan or detailed steps in how to do this, but rather to wait until inspiration struck me.

In thinking about yesterday's post on Peru and Lysekil, two small towns that have touched my heart, I also started thinking about entrepreneurship: how I define it, its value, and perhaps what has been lost in the definition (and valuation) of entrepreneurship in recent years.

Cambridge Online dictionary defines entrepreneurship as "skill in starting new businesses, especially when this involves seeing new opportunities". Merriam Webster, a formative American dictionary, defines it as "one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise". Interestingly enough, Google defines it as "the activity of setting up a business or businesses, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit".

In a way, I feel that the differences in these definitions, and what we have come to value and look up to and support with our purchases, clicks, and idolization, provides insight both into the economical instabilities of today and the decline of small towns.

Through my time at Stanford, I aligned my definition of entrepreneurship with Google's. I looked up to, and aspired, to be an entrepreneur. In order to do this, I looked up to my classmates and fellow alumni and saw that I needed to dream big, spend big, take great risks (both with my money and time and others'). In my journey on my own for the past two years, I came up with an ambitious idea and worked it, but then realized that, although I wanted the outcome, I just wasn't comfortable with the risks, both financially and with others' lives.

In this learning process, I realized that a lot of the parts that I had identified to work with were things I loved: recruiting and building an organization, creating a team culture, identifying and developing talent, teaching and sharing my knowledge and experience. I just didn't love doing them when I was responsible for the company and people's salaries myself. I have been lucky enough to find my consulting place at CEVT, where I have exactly the chance to do the things that I love and have been part of building a fantastic team of people.

On top of my day job, I still felt a pull to do something more, to be part of creating something more. Particularly since the US election results, I have felt a much stronger pull to try to do something more to put a stop to the slippery slope we are sliding on. Beyond Democrats or Republicans, there is a very real problem globally in the industrialized countries, where the middle class is disappearing, more money goes into the pockets of the top 1%, and small towns across the globe are dying.

In some ways, I have been able to evaluate a part of this decline in different stages. In the US, things have changed much faster than in Europe. In watching both countries, and just comparing Peru and Lysekil, I have had a chance to see both the problem and a potential solution. It is to bring back what I call The Forgotten Entrepreneurship.

If we go back to my favorite of the three definitions of entrepreneurship, from Merriam-Webster, it simply says "one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise". It doesn't mention the size or scale, or that it has to innovate in technology or process or supply chain. As I recall the Peru of my childhood, and think about Lysekil, I know many entrepreneurs.

And in many ways, these entrepreneurs manage(d) their companies in ways that are lauded in Harvard Business Review (HBR). They treat their employees with high value, pay a living wage, and creat an atmosphere where all the staff felt part of the life or death of the company, which leads to low staff turnover and high job satisfaction for the employees. These phenomena are not written up in HBR for the thousands of small businesses around the world, but they are for corporations, because there they are rare.

In Peru and Kokomo, one after one, the small businesses and restaurants are closing. American culture often prefers chains, because we know what we are getting and maybe we can save a dollar or two. Chains are a big part of the problem though, and Europe is starting to follow this pattern.

Beyond the lower wages, the work in most chains is not as fulfilling and employees don't have the same ability to be part of something bigger than them and contribute actively to it. Profits don't stay in the communities or go to the employees, they go back to corporate headquarters and CEOs. For employees, this leads to greater depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and general societal detrimental impacts. For the communities, they lose the investments and support, where the profit goes to big cities, big bankers, and big shareholders.

Small businesses provide tremendous value to their communities. And we as consumers have a tremendous power to play in their survival. Some of us perhaps can create them, and find a goods or service that we can provide, on a small scale, but find a meaningful existence. Others can work for them, being able to play a big role in a small organization and being instrumental to its survival with our skills and our talents.

Those of us who join large corporations can choose to vote with our money, to buy at either larger stores with corporate responsibility for sustainable wages and good company culture (Costco is one example) or small independent stores who do this anyway as the right way to do business.

Think about, and value The Forgotten Entrepreneurs. Support these heroes around the globe, in your areas.

Note on the picture: I saw this quote in a small business in Whitehall MI USA last year, and it has stayed with me. Think next time you shop, where your profit is going.

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