Entrepreneurs: The New Adventurers

I am 3 days into the new Intro to Entrepreneurship class that I am teaching to 24 high school students this year. I am already having a blast, as the students—mostly freshmen—are very enthusiastic, despite several of them not being quite sure what entrepreneurship was 3 days ago. We started off by analyzing the etymology of the word entrepreneurship. Etymology is underrated as a tool for studying concepts like this. You get a peak into the cultural perspective of the time and place where the word was first invented. How cool is that?!

Entrepreneur is derived from enterprise. It is a merger of two French words, entre (meaning “in between”) and prende (“to take”). Translation: entrepreneur = undertaker. The entrepreneur undertakes difficult tasks that are considered too risky for other people.

I really like that first word, entre, because I think that the “in between” is the most important part of entrepreneurship. I gave my students this analogy: We are hanging out on the beach, and we see something floating out on the waves crashing into rocks offshore. I suggest that somebody swim out there and see what it is. Nobody wants to? Why not, what if it is valuable? “What if it isn’t,” you might ask, “and what if a wave slams you into one of those sharp rocks and kills you while you try to obtain something that may or may not turn out to be of value?”

The entrepreneur is the person who is crazy enough to cross that risky expanse “in between” safety and a distant, uncertain idea. As one of my favorite economists, Ludwig von Mises, describes it, “he sees the past and the present as other people do; he sees the future in a different way.”

Economist Robert P. Murphy adds,

It is the entrepreneur who judges that something is missing in the market, and decides to start a new business or develop a new product.

The key words in Murphy’s definition are “judge” and “missing.” The entrepreneur envisions an existence where a previously unseen force connects economic actors together. He adventures into the unknown to connect the current world to that new place. The entrepreneur is not unlike the explorers who tried to sail the Northwest Passage or the American pioneers who first set out on the western frontier.

I am currently reading The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf. It is a biography of Alexander von Humboldt, the great scientific explorer of the early 19th century who discovered and documented countless plant and animal species and geological phenomena. His adventures bear a striking resemblance to the undertakings of entrepreneurs.

Humboldt traveled around Europe seeking a government that would grant him permission to make a scientific expedition through their colonies, a chore that might seem familiar to any modern entrepreneur who has sought start-up investors. Reminiscent of Christopher Columbus in 1492, Humboldt was finally granted passage by Spain to explore the territories they occupied in Latin America.

While much of Humboldt’s journey would involve collecting and cataloguing samples of earth and life, he had a much bigger vision for what he would find. He imagined ecological environments operating like life forms themselves. He envisioned invisible connections between environments separated by continents as well as climates. He saw each species as having a crucial role in maintaining the balance of ecology of its environment. He hypothesized that mountains in South America might have a great deal in common with mountains in Africa and Europe and that roles fulfilled by species in European environments might be filled in similar ways by alternate species in distant environments. He sought to prove and refine these ideas by venturing into new territories.

One of my favorite nuggets from Humboldt’s Latin American voyage is his interest in exploring the Casiquiare River in Venezuela. The Casiquiere was reported to connect the Orinoco River to the Amazon River. A tributary connecting two rivers that separately flow into the ocean at distant locations (almost 1,000 miles apart) along the coast was unheard of and contrary to the common sense of how rivers work. As maps at the time were notably unreliable—a fact that Humboldt himself witnessed when I tried to use them—it is peculiar that Humboldt took so much interest in rumors about the Casiquiare. A once proverbial “river that flows both ways” was more likely to be mistaken mapping than reality. Perhaps he felt he should check it out, just in case it might be true. Humboldt risked his life and endured almost constant, extreme discomfort boating through mosquito swarms and other dangerous hazards in the rivers of the Amazon Rainforest, just to try the slim possibility of discovering this supposed natural wonder.

2 centuries later, future humans binge-watching nature documentaries on Netflex can attest that many of Humboldt’s cooky ideas turned out to be true. His work was an inspiration to Charles Darwin, and he deserves just as much credit as Darwin for establishing the basis of modern biology. Like the entrepreneur who sees a future product that doesn’t exist yet, Humboldt and Darwin saw a future understanding of the world that didn’t exist yet. It would be a stretch to argue that these scientific adventurers were entrepreneurs, but it is beyond question that the entrepreneurs of today extend from the traditions of the explorers of centuries past. This leads me back to where we started this essay, the etymology of entrepreneur.

The word entrepreneur has only existed for a few centuries, and its popularity did not surge until we were entering the 20th century. I believe that the adventurers of the world, running out of new geographical frontiers to explore, sought out economic voids instead. Google Books has this very useful tool called the Ngram Viewer, which allows you to search for data on the frequency of word usage in books over time. I hypothesized that this tool would show a decrease in usage of words referring to natural explorers or adventurers around the same time that it showed an increase in usage of the word entrepreneur. Take a look at the result of my experiment:

There is nearly an inverse relationship between the words entrepreneur and adventurer over time! The difference is far more dramatic than I expected. This clearly supports my argument that entrepreneurs are the new adventurers. They represent the same archetype in different stories. Entrepreneurs aren’t just making cool stuff, they are changing the world by helping us all reach our economic ends more efficiently. I imagine that, one day, history will look back on our time as the Age of Entrepreneurship. Here’s to the entrepreneurs, risking it all to make discoveries that may benefit us all!

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