At Work

A Game of Survival, Not Status: Are Entrepreneurs Rock Stars?

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I was sitting behind a blue Prius at a traffic light when a bumper sticker caught my eye:

“Entrepreneurs are the new rock stars.”

Having just pulled out of the Hartsfield-Jackson airport overnight parking deck after returning from a trip to the Dominican Republic, I found this statement a little odd.

I met many entrepreneurs on this trip who were thriving in some of the deepest poverty in our hemisphere.

Most are providing three meals a day and an education for their children.

Some are seeing 20x returns on their initial investments.

A few are hiring multiple people from their community.

One salon owner is even contributing the finances to build a church in her neighborhood.

None would be described as rock stars.

The Entrepreneur Exalted by America

Like every bumper sticker, the one proudly displayed by the Prius owner does contain a bit of truth.

America has begun to exalt the hard-driving, boot-strapping, beta-testing, forward-failing young professionals of our day. Some even forsake relationships and willingly embrace seasonal destitution in their pursuit of a large IPO and a larger ROI. It starts with a cover story in the Times, then a book deal, several speaking engagements, and maybe even an adapted screenplay of the fearless but faithful journey. We eat this stuff up because the American Dream is alive and well in the hands of these heroic entrepreneurs.

The perspective changes slightly from San Francisco to Santo Domingo. It’s not pining for fortune and fame but sheer necessity that leads Dominicans into business.

Business school students from the University of Georgia accompanied me on this most recent trip. Their task was to define the differences between entrepreneurs in developed countries and those in undeveloped nations.

One of the entrepreneurs we met was Elizabeth.

“She Believed God Would Honor the Work of Humble, Meek, and Merciful People”

Six months prior, Elizabeth was very ill and could not properly care for her three children. She noticed many others in her community with the same symptoms, also keeping them from providing for their families, so she took a taxi to the nearest part of the city with a pharmacy and attempted to buy some medicine on credit (not a credit card!).

Unfortunately, the pharmacy would not allow Elizabeth to take medicine back to her community without paying for it with cash up front. In asking around town for other financing options, she heard about a group of women who had formed a community bank and had each received small loans with modest interest rates. She decided to stay in town and attend the next community bank meeting to learn more.

That evening, she sat in the back of the room and watched as mostly women entered a community center and joined in with their pre-established lending groups. She noticed how very few of these people seemed to be suffering from the same sickness wreaking havoc in her neighborhood.

After everyone arrived, a representative of Esperanza International identified herself as Carmen and began to lead the gathering in prayer. Elizabeth wondered if she came to a church service, instead of a business meeting.

Carmen asked for a few women from the crowd to lead the group in singing about God’s faithfulness. The group came alive with joyful singing and dancing, and Elizabeth even found herself singing along as she recognized some of the songs from her childhood, though a long time had passed since she attended any kind of religious service.

Just as she was about to slip out the back and try to find the correct meeting, Carmen stood again and began to pray over each of the businesses represented in the room. She then opened a Bible and read an excerpt that sounded familiar to Elizabeth:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
  Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
  Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.

Even though she did not understand this passage completely, these words wedged their way into Elizabeth’s heart, and she felt relief and a sense of hope. Carmen described how each character trait highlighted by Jesus in this passage was appropriate in business. She believed God would honor the work of humble, meek, and merciful people.

After the devotion, Carmen asked the president of each loan group in the room to come forward with their group’s loan repayments. Once Carmen and an assistant had recorded the negotiations accurately, she closed with a few words of encouragement and dismissed the meeting.

As everyone filed out, Elizabeth approached Carmen and asked if she could be considered for a loan like the others in the meeting. She told Carmen about her family, her sickness, the struggles of her neighborhood, and her unsuccessful visit to the pharmacy earlier that day.

Business Built on the Beatitudes

Carmen was moved by Elizabeth’s story and asked if she could come visit Elizabeth at her home to learn more about her neighborhood. When Carmen arrived the following day at the address she was given, she not only found Elizabeth, but 11 other women from the community now interested in taking out small loans with Esperanza!

Carmen met with the women and talked them through the process of starting a community bank in their neighborhood and being approved for their first individual loans. At Elizabeth’s request, she read the same passage from Matthew 5 she had conveyed the previous day.

One week later, Elizabeth and several others from her neighborhood were approved for a small loan from Esperanza. Elizabeth accessed a $40 loan and made her way back to the same pharmacy, this time with $20 in cash to purchase as much medicine as she could buy. After describing her symptoms and those of many others in her community, Elizabeth returned home with a small bag of medication she hoped would offer her and her neighbors a healthier way of life.

After setting some medicine aside for herself, Elizabeth began going door to door to sell her medicine for slightly more than the purchase price to sick neighbors. As she got better, she was a walking advertisement for the usefulness of the medicine and her inventory was depleted quickly! As more people began feeling better, she had more demand for her supply.

On the day we met, there was a group of 15 men and women gathered in front of Elizabeth’s home for a community bank meeting. The structure of the meeting was very similar to the experience Elizabeth had six months earlier in another part of town.

Elizabeth told our group she was making daily trips to various pharmacies in the area, had hired 3 other women in her community to assist her in growing her business, and hoped to take a new loan soon to build her own pharmacy.

Maybe even more impressive was the confidence and humility in her voice. She described her previously estranged relationship with God as growing stronger every day. She seemed to not only be epitomizing the type of character defined by the Beatitudes, but also built her business on this foundation.

Elizabeth’s story deserves to be told to the masses. Maybe she should even have a seat in the Shark Tank. However, she, like many of the small business owners we encountered on our trip, exhibited starkly contrasting traits and behaviors from those we would expect from entrepreneurial rock stars.

The business students on the trip noticed this as well and all reached the same general conclusion in their research:

Though starting a business in any economic climate requires tenacity and intelligence, for two-thirds of the world, being a business owner is more a game of survival than status.

We see you, Elizabeth. Rock on.

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