A Case Against Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneur: a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, especially a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk.

We are a nation whose very existence is a direct result of entrepreneurship. Settlers sacrificed old beliefs and rules in pursuit of new possibilities, at great personal risk, and instilled in the DNA of our country a uniquely American entrepreneurial spirit that inspired Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Steve Jobs to change the world with the power of their ideas.  

The concept of entrepreneurship has been diluted from the time of the first settlers, however, to describe anyone who single-mindedly pursues an idea for capital gain. We live in a time when memes like “Do what you love, and money will follow” and "Change the world" become mantras upon which global brands are built. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing: the self-motivated, idea-powered Silicon Valley model bypasses the bloated and highly regulated processes in place in the public and corporate sectors, allowing a good and profitable idea to be available to the masses in its purest form in a relatively short amount of time, and now we can push a button when we're almost out of toilet paper and a new case will be delivered to our doorstep in an hour. Companies that have succeeded in this way are often inextricably linked with their creators — Google, Amazon, Tesla, and Facebook are obvious examples — who, with equal parts ingenuity and charisma, have reached in a matter of a few years a nearly unimaginable and certainly unprecedented level of personal and financial success. 

Entrepreneurialism permeates every stage of our lives: we encourage our children to turn hobbies into small businesses, students learn how to write business plans before research papers, innovators shroud their ideas in secrecy and legal protection instead of collaborating. This comes at a societal cost: valuing the success of one over the benefit of many often results in the poisoning of noble causes with hubris.   

In 2003, Elizabeth Holmes dropped out of Stanford to found Theranos, a medical laboratory that streamlines and standardizes blood tests using proprietary technology. She assembled an impressive but strikingly non-scientific advisory board that included Henry Kissinger, and by 2014 the estimated value of the company was over $9 billion.  By 2015, however, the opacity of Theranos’s practices started to draw attention, and the JAMA noted that though Theranos had been featured prominently in the Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, Business Insider, and Fortune, information about its technologies had not appeared in a single peer-reviewed biomedical publication. Upon further scrutiny by the FDA, Theranos failed several lab inspections, the certification for its California lab was revoked, and Holmes’s net worth plummeted overnight to $0. 

While we have no way of knowing if this story would have ended differently if Holmes had been more transparent and collaborative about Theranos’s procedures, the possibility exists that if she had shared early test results with peer-reviewed journals and relied on sound science rather than her own celebrity to build her company, the world could have seen a revolution in diagnostic testing, improving the lives of millions of people. How did so many respected journalists miss the fact that the technology Theranos used was unproven and all but unknown to the scientific community? Because they were distracted by the spectacular entrepreneurial success story of its founder. But even before Holmes became a media sensation, what was critically absent from her company wasn’t more regulation, or transparency, or sound science. It was empathy. Holmes's vision of inexpensive, painless diagnostic testing wasn't intended, at core, to solve a health crisis. If it was, Theranos would have populated its board with experts in science, healthcare,  and public policy. Instead, it simply aimed to bypass decades of research and disrupt for the sake of disruption. 

If to be an entrepreneur is to take on great personal risk in order to succeed, to be a leader is to take on great personal risk in providing opportunities for others to succeed. This takes time, understanding, compromise, and humility, none of which make compelling news stories. Entrepreneurship is meteoric; leadership is incremental. If serving the greater good were as enticing a prospect as a ten-figure IPO, city council meetings would be exhilarating. Aspirations of launching billion dollar tech startups would instead be dreams of advancing humanity through collective understanding. The increasing popularity of design thinking programs in schools across the country has the potential to inject humility and empathy into the way we think about innovation, if the term design thinking can get out of its own way and keep from becoming the kind of overhyped, short-lived trend it exists to prevent. 

In his 2016 commencement address to Howard University, Barack Obama described the fight against segregation as a long and difficult process that took 20 years of lawsuits and many, many people working together toward a common goal. But even by the time Thurgood Marshall finally brought Brown vs. the Board of Education to the Supreme Court, he knew the fight was just beginning, that it was slow and incremental, and would continue long after he was gone. That's because it was never about him. It was about collectively changing the rules for the benefit of everyone.

 "Better is good, because you consolidate your gains and then you move on to the next fight from a stronger position."
—Barack Obama

The qualities of an entrepreneur—ingenuity, fearlessness, charisma—are rare and admirable. But imagine if entrepreneurs were defined also as having empathy, patience, and humility. This would change how we define innovation, and push future entrepreneurs to develop solutions to problems that actually exist.