Why Entrepreneurship Is Entrepreneurship

Why Entrepreneurship Is Entrepreneurship - Ivey Business Journal

While a universally accepted definition of politics is elusive, political theorist Bernard Crick added some clarity when he noted it is rarely praised as something with a life and character of its own:

“Politics is not religion, ethics, law, science, history, or economics; it neither solves everything, nor is it present everywhere; and it is not any one political doctrine, such as conservatism, liberalism, socialism, communism, or nationalism, though it can contain elements of most of these things. Politics is politics, to be valued as itself, not because it is ‘like’ or ‘really is’ something else more respectable or peculiar. Politics is politics.”

Something similar can be said about entrepreneurship, which should also be valued as something with a life and character of its own. In other words, entrepreneurship is entrepreneurship, while other forms of activity are something else.

And yet, despite our reliance on entrepreneurs to kindle the fire of capitalism, we still know very little about what motivates them and why. And that’s concerning since the data suggest most new job growth depends on the enterprise of entrepreneurs who build new solutions for old (and new) problems.

For over two hundred years, scholars have sought in vain to clarify the definition of entrepreneurship and reach consensus on its meaning. According to French economist Jean-Baptiste Say, who coined the term entrepreneur around the dawn of the 19th century, “The entrepreneur shifts economic resources out of an area of lower and into an area of higher productivity and greater yield.” But while it is now well established that entrepreneurship is critical to productivity, there remains no agreement on what makes up the constituent parts of an entrepreneur.

In Google Scholar, there are more than 500,000 English-language articles about the definition of an entrepreneur. A paper published in 1990 by William B. Gartner—titled “What are we talking about when we talk about entrepreneurship?”—has been cited more than 2,400 times.

Gartner’s investigation, which grew out of a “worry that entrepreneurship has become a label of convenience with little inherent meaning,” didn’t offer a final answer. Instead, it concluded entrepreneurship is a very complex idea that has created different schools of thought on the topic, and then noted: “A definition of entrepreneurship that is so simple that it fails to reflect the thing we are concerned about does not have to be created. But if no existing definition can be agreed upon by most researchers and practitioners, then it is important to say what we mean.”

For economist Joseph Schumpeter, an entrepreneur is a “wild spirit,” driven to disrupt norms and build new commodities of enduring value. But this leads to more questions. For example, can this creative wildness that Schumpeter sees be developed? Or are entrepreneurs, as Steve Jobs put it, born neurologically primed to put “a dent in” the universe?

Examining trends in how we regard entrepreneurship can illuminate how it has evolved in the eyes of the public, and, in this way, can help us better understand what we might mean by entrepreneurship. The media loves to profile entrepreneurs, especially those who have found instant success, or those who have failed magnificently.

In the Dow Jones Factiva database, there are now more than 148,000 references to the word entrepreneur, up from just 7,000 in 1992. In the IMDb film database, a search on the keyword entrepreneur for releases during 2020–2022 found 105 movies where the word appeared in the plot description. During 2000–2002, there had been only 15 such movies. Google’s Ngram Viewer—drawing from millions of digitized printed sources published in multiple languages up until the end of 2019—shows a consistent growth in the word “entrepreneur” in the sample of text selected in any year. The word jumped in written usage just as the phrase “venture capital” did after the second World War, contemporaneous with the launch of the first major venture capital firm, J.H. Whitney & Company (reporter Gabe Kleinman described how J.H. Whitney first positioned itself as a lender of “private adventure capital,” but abbreviated this to “venture capital” so it would be easier to say quickly).

Examining trends in how we regard entrepreneurship can illuminate how it has evolved in the eyes of the public, and, in this way, can help us better understand what we might mean by entrepreneurship.”

Starting around 2002, Google’s Ngram Viewer reveals written use of the word “entrepreneur” kept rising while the phrase “venture capital” started falling in favour. Reference to the trades, such as welding, took a different course; references to “welder” spiked in the 1940s, written three times more often in that decade than “entrepreneur.” In 2019, the reverse was true, with the occupation of entrepreneur mentioned with roughly 16 times more frequency than that of welder.

Google Trends data show that public interest in entrepreneurship—as represented by the changing intensity of online searches about the topic—reached an apex in September 2021. This paralleled the greatest venture capital frenzy of the century: 2021 was a record-breaking year for venture capital investment in start-ups. According to FactSet, investment activity more than doubled in 2021 for start-ups based in North America and Europe.

What explains our changeable obsession with some professions, like welding, and our continued fascination with entrepreneurship? Writers wrote about welders in the 1940s likely because welders helped boost the war effort. Much public discussion of entrepreneurs nowadays fixates on the fast-falling fortunes of flashy tech founders whose behaviour at a young age has won them sufficient ignominy to warrant a television series or docudrama exposing their dubious business practices—examples include Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, Adam Neumann of WeWork, and Travis Kalanick of Uber.

Most founders are unlike these tech protagonists. They come from diverse fields, and are of diverse ages. Founders can start wondrous new undertakings. The word “founder” has been enormously more popular than “entrepreneur” in any year since 1800. But usage peaked in 1816, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer. Why so?

In 1816, following the end of the Napoleonic wars, a global recession ensued. Crop failures and severe famine set in during what economists call the “Year without a Summer.” Across the world, economies were in desperate search of founders who could supercharge economic resources into areas of higher productivity and greater yield—people whom Jean-Baptise Say had recently christened “entrepreneurs.”

But not all founders then, or now, fit that label. It is only the tenacious ones with the skill to manage their wild spirit that have what it takes to dramatically boost productivity and yield and thereby lift up whole industries, sometimes entire economies, from ruin.

That’s why entrepreneurship is entrepreneurship and other forms of activity are something else.

Whether born or made, entrepreneurship is defined by extraordinary results and should be valued as something with a life and character of its own.


  • Bernard Crick, In Defense of Politics, 4th Edition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992, p. 272.
  • Raza, M.Muffatto, and S. Saeed, “Cross-Country Differences in Innovative Entrepreneurial Activity: An Entrepreneurial Cognitive View,” Management Decision, 2020, Vol. 58, no. 7, pp. 1301–1329, https://doi.org/10.1108/MD-11-2017-1167.
  • Jean-Baptiste Say, Cours Complet d’Economie Politique Pratique, Chez Rapilly, Paris, 1828, p. 451.
  • William B. Gartner, “What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Entrepreneurship?” Journal of Business Venturing, Vol. 5, Issue 1, 1990, pp.15–28, https://doi.org/10.1016/0883-9026(90)90023-M.
  • Joseph A. Schumpeter, “The Creative Response in Economic History,” The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 7, 1947, pp. 149–
  • Apple, “Steve Jobs: One Last Thing,” Video Documentary, 2011.
  • Richard L. Florida and Martin Kenney, “Venture Capital, High Technology and Regional Development,” Regional Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1, 1988, pp. 35–
  • Gabe Kleinman, “Why Aren’t Foundations Actually Helping Their Grantees Like VCs?” Medium, November 14, 2017, https://medium.com/newco/why-arent-foundations-actually-helping-their-grantees-like-vcs-77d4437648, accessed April 10, 2023.
  • Hayley Bryan, “Venture Capital 2021 Recap,” FactSet, January 19, 2022, https://insight.factset.com/venture-capital-2021-recap-a-record-breaking-year, accessed April 10, 2023.
  • Henry Stommel and Elizabeth Stommel, “The Year without a Summer,” Scientific American, 240, No. 6, 1979, pp. 176–187.
  • David G. Blanchflower and Andrew J. Oswald, “What Makes an Entrepreneur?” Journal of Labor Economics, Vol. 16, no. 1, 1998, pp. 26–60.

About the Author

Neil Seeman is a senior fellow at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation and at Massey College in the University of Toronto. He is a Fields Institute fellow and senior academic….Read Neil Seeman's full bio

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