“All human beings are entrepreneurs” Muhammad Yunus, recipient of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, likes to say. One of his campaigns involves trying to convince beggars to become door-to-door salesmen by lending them between 10 and 15 US dollars to buy their initial inventory of fruit, vegetables or toys for kids. As he puts it, he tries to get them to phase out their “begging division” and grow their “sales division”.
We should teach entrepreneurship somewhere between writing, reading and arithmetic. Just like the Three Musketeers were in fact four, entrepreneurship could be the fourth of the 3 Rs.
I discovered entrepreneurship much too late in life. I just didn’t know there was such a thing. There were no business people in my family, let alone entrepreneurs. All were teachers or government employees. None of them, as far as I know, had ever thought of starting a company. Growing up, I would‘ve been unable to list the major employers in my home town, nor did I understand that the wealth of my neighbors had anything to do with private companies creating employment opportunities for them.
I did have two small window on the real world, though. My father was a curious man. While grading school papers in front of a window overlooking the street, he analyzed trucks climbing with difficulty the steep hill in front of our house, noticing which companies they belonged to and trying to identify their points of origin and destination. With no frame of reference – there was no Internet then – the speculation was limited to enigmatic questions such as: “I wonder who needs a truckload of steel tubes from Wuppertal, Germany”.
I was also tipped to the relevance of business on prosperity by geography. Growing up as a French baby boomer living close to the German border, I became aware of the fact that the Vosges region where I lived was poorer than the Black Forest region on the other side of the Rhine. Black Forest houses were freshly painted and had flowers at their windows, while most French homes were in blatant need of renovation. I progressively discovered that the midsized companies of the mechanical industry in the Black Forest were growing, while the textile and paper mills of my French region were progressively shutting down.
After the randomness of the French educational system directed me to business studies, I moved to the United States and spent many years working for others, perpetually trying to reassure family members back in France that the financial risk wasn’t too great, the amount of work not excessive and the rewards worth the journey. The further jump into entrepreneurship came in the form of a couple of mentors dragging me into my future by my rear-end. I was operating as a faculty-in-residence inside a midsized consulting firm, when my two mentors kicked me out of the nest and gave me some capital to go out and recruit some people of my own. This marked the beginning of my entrepreneurial career.
I am not exactly Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but I have been able to provide opportunities for many young (or older) people over the years, a fact I find as gratifying as the economic rewards most people associate with entrepreneurship. I often reflect on how lucky I was that my two mentors not only pushed me into it, but also gave me the initial capital to get started.
My only regret is that I started too late. I wish my middle school had told me about entrepreneurship as a natural human state. I wish I had know about Mohammad Yunus then. We’re all entrepreneurs, indeed.