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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

Entrepreneurship Gone Sexy

Ooi Kee Beng, Penang Monthly editorial, March, 2020

ENTREPRENEURSHIP. THIS IS a word more used than understood. But it is a word that is hugely popular today. It connotes some psychological quality that we wish that our young people have more of today, something akin to innovativeness, adaptiveness and creative.

And there does not seem to be anything negative about having it. Well, alright. There is an assumption of monetary motivation somewhere. It has to do with business, no doubt, but even then, it is a sense for business pushed by curiosity so persistent that one is able to identify opportunities and is in a position to take advantage of them. It connotes risks as well.

But technically, what does entrepreneurship mean? It appears to be a term born of modern times, and even one that helped give birth to Modernity itself (to name another word that is more used than understood). What political, cultural and conceptual battles in history need to be considered for us to sense the context that explains its importance in contemporary discourses?

Making Things Happen

You would have guessed that the word is French in origin. “Entreprendre” simply meant “to do something” or “to undertake” in the 13th century, and apparently by the 16th century, it already referred to someone who undertakes a business venture. In the 19th century, an entrepreneur even meant “the director or manager of a public musical institution” or “one who gets up entertainment”. Apparently, using the term loosely is not a 21st century tendency. In a reference from 1885, an entrepreneur was “a contractor acting as intermediary between capital and labour”. That takes one back to “entre” and “prendre” – meaning “between” and “to take”. An entrepreneur bridges; he connects. Simply put, he is a doer, he makes things happen.

But what is he today?

An entrepreneur, the Macmillan English Dictionary tells us – rather blandly – is “someone who uses money to start businesses and make business deals”. Merriam-Webster is much more informative and tells us that an entrepreneur is “a person who starts a business and is willing to risk loss in order to make money.” That’s more like it. He starts a business – he is responsible for a start-up; and he takes risks – he crowdsources or gets state sponsorship or has angel investors backing him perhaps. All very good and solid 21st century references.

But it still seems a bit too narrow a definition though, judging from how freely and easily the word “entrepreneur” is used today. The Oxford English Dictionary offers some help and does not think starting a business is central to entrepreneurship. Instead, an entrepreneur is “a person who organises and operates a business or businesses, taking on greater than normal financial risks in order to do so.” Harvard Business School’s Professor Howard Stevenson teaches that “entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled.”

“Greater than normal financial risks” and “beyond resources controlled” sound ominous and unwise; but in our age of start-ups and in our search for “unicorns,” risk-taking to what traditional minds would consider a reckless level may be an essential aspect of entrepreneurship today.

Enterprise for Society’s Good

Not very long ago, talking about entrepreneurship turned most people away, leaving only MBA graduates and businesspeople behind as an exclusive and ostracised group. This does not seem to be the case today, as the 2020s begin. The digital revolution has a lot to do with it, generating icons from Steve Jobs to Bill Gates to Jeff Bezos to Elon Musk to Larry Page and Sergei Brin, and Mark Zuckerberg. Dreams of being billionaires based on an inspired start-up keeps many young people going today. And so, entrepreneurship has become a sort of science. From what I can gather, we now recognise four kinds of entrepreneurship: Large company entrepreneurship, small business entrepreneurship, scalable start-up and social entrepreneurship. The first two are self-explanatory. The third is what we associate with Silicon Valley start-ups which think that the sky is the limit in what they can do. The last aims at creativity but with the aim of making the world a better place, not merely changing it for the sake of changing it. I suppose it is when entrepreneurship is understood this broadly that it has become a sexy term that people of all ages can now relate to.

The legal structure developed over time to support companies, be these family-owned or liability-limited, the politics of capital accumulation, the pace of technological change, global connectivity and universal education form the backdrop for understanding the significance of entrepreneurship concept we have today. To be sure, the right to limited liability was always a controversial legal innovation, and was hotly debated in the mid-19th and early 20th century. We take it for granted now.

We appear to be in a mature stage of global technological development and envelopment, production “chaining” and interdependence, knowledge convergence and augmented consumption, and capital concentration.

Knowledge transference between generations has never been faster, the risks never higher and the rewards never as astronomical. Maybe we have been making things happen – being entrepreneurs – too much.

About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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