How changing our words might change the way we work with entrepreneurs.

By Enoch Elwell

Words are powerful, and they shape our perception of reality. But how much can the perception of one word impact the activities associated with it?

In recent years, the idea of entrepreneurship has become more popular than ever. There have been more and more news stories about entrepreneurship—celebrating disruptive technologies, industry-changing innovation, unicorns, acquisitions, IPOs, and the success stories of high-profile founders like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs. In many ways, this kind of tech entrepreneur is the new rockstar for our culture.

Despite the recent popularity of these ideas and terms, research shows there continues to be a steady decline over the past several decades in new business starts. Could it be that the word “entrepreneurship” itself is getting in the way of the entrepreneurial success we all want to see?

Entrepreneurship deficit as illustrated in the Kauffman Foundation’s Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Building Playbook 3.0

What’s in a Name?

At CO.STARTERS, we have thought long and hard about what really makes people successful in business. After working with thousands of people in hundreds of communities who are pursuing personal and community-building goals through business, we’ve come across some surprising reactions to the words used to describe business and business owners. A significant number of individuals we support do not primarily identify as “startups,” as “entrepreneurs,” or even as business owners. While these individuals are living out the textbook definition of entrepreneurship, the cultural persona of the entrepreneur does not feel accessible or relatable to them.

A significant number of individuals we support do not primarily identify as “startups,” as “entrepreneurs,” or even as business owners.

Harvard Business School professor Howard Stevenson defines entrepreneurship very broadly as “the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.” However, many individuals engaged in this type of activity, when asked what an entrepreneur is, are likely to tell you stories of caffeinated college “bros” wearing crazy socks coding apps or suit-wearing, briefcase-toting middle-aged men in the top floors of high-rise buildings cutting deals in boardrooms.

The stereotypical CO.STARTERS business owner is anything but a stereotype. The reality is that CO.STARTERS alumni are all ages, races, and genders, following the general population curve much more closely. The businesses they start come in all shapes and sizes. The most typical of our CO.STARTERS program graduates is a minority woman in her mid 30s or 40s who cares deeply about her community and is launching a business to meet a local need or solve an important community problem.

Illustration of a typical CO.STARTERS program participant

The “Typical Starter” served by the CO.STARTERS core program as illustrated in the CO.STARTERS 2018 Impact Summary.

Looking at related trends, there is growing activity in the “gig economy” which may represent a large amount of entrepreneurial activity that is not being tracked as “entrepreneurship” in traditional measures, due to the lack of data on business registration for these individuals. Should they be considered entrepreneurs or business owners? Could it be that we are just as entrepreneurial as a society as we have ever been, but we’ve just been distracted by the language we use and the cultural construct that we associate with entrepreneurship? Have we been measuring it wrong all along and looking in the wrong places?

Whatever We Call it, Let’s Increase It

One thing is clear. Entrepreneurship in its purest form is a fundamental human phenomenon. Humans have been pursuing opportunities without regard to the limited resources available throughout all time, and it is only in the past few hundred years that we’ve created many of the specialized structures—as well as limited terms and definitions—around launching and running a business. Has this narrowing of the language of business success suppressed our instinctual expression of (entrepreneurial) creative problem-solving? Is it really helpful to spend so much energy defining the distinctions between the glorified startup with its claim to disruptive innovation or the scalable technology venture versus the slow-growth small business or sole proprietorship? Is the capacity for innovation limited only to those who have been sprinkled with mythical unicorn dust?

Our society is not well served by having an exclusive and inaccessible “entrepreneurship” club.

Sometimes these distinctions are very helpful in clarifying an organization’s specific focus and purpose, such as startup guru Steve Blank’s intentionally precise definition of a startup as an “organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model,” while a business runs according to a fixed business model. Looking beyond the tactical use of these refined definitions, I am concerned we can get lost in the weeds and miss addressing the more important societal issue in front of us. Our society is not well served by having an exclusive and inaccessible “entrepreneurship” club. We need a more pervasive entrepreneurial culture across all activities in society. Rather than limiting that term to high-growth, disruptive innovation technologies, we need to broaden our language to accelerate a widespread shift in mindsets everywhere. We need entrepreneurial activities and mindsets to be pervasive in small business, in education, in healthcare, and in how we structure our society as a whole. To achieve this goal, we need language that is broad, accessible, relatable, inclusive, inspiring, and empowering.

Enter the “Starter”

This is why at CO.STARTERS we celebrate and support “starters.” A starter is anyone who is making something out of nothing. Who sees opportunity and pursues it. Who builds, nurturers, and grows activities that solve problems, help others, and build healthy communities.

Anyone and everyone can be a starter, and in some part of their life, probably already is. We don’t want someone to hold back on pursuing important world-changing activities because an exclusive concept or fancy word like “entrepreneurship” or “startup” got in the way.

A starter is anyone who is making something out of nothing. Who sees opportunity and pursues it. Who builds, nurturers, and grows activities that solve problems, help others, and build healthy communities.

Fortunately we aren’t alone in this thinking! This need for more inclusive and expansive language is being increasingly recognized. The Kauffman Foundation celebrates entrepreneurship support for the “makers, doers, and dreamers.” Communities are emerging with accessible language for nontraditional business owners such as the Rising Tide Society, Etsy, Nation of Makers, and Creative Mornings.

Innovative problem solvers like us will change the world. Let’s not limit this activity and thinking to a special class of unicorns. As we broaden our terminology to welcome and encourage entrepreneurial activity of all kinds, what words, phrases, and ideas might we use to build a vibrant culture of entrepreneurship that will equip us to address the challenges of our society as we transition beyond the industrial age?

Words matter. With thoughtful, intentional changes to the language we use, we can widen the narrative of entrepreneurship to build a culture that includes and supports every starter.

Looking for ways to support more starters?

CO.STARTERS equips communities to support entrepreneurs of all types at every stage of their journey through local strategies and turnkey tools.