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Op-ed - The growing misuse of the term ‘entrepreneur’ in Cape Breton

by Garry Leech

Not everything in life is to be monetized, not everyone is an entrepreneur
Not everything in life is to be monetized, not everyone is an entrepreneur

This article was originally published in the Cape Breton Independent

It seems that everywhere I turn nowadays someone here in Cape Breton is using the term ‘entrepreneur.’ More disturbingly, increasing numbers of people are misusing the term by applying it to a variety of non-business initiatives such as community engagement, social welfare, human rights, technology and even the arts among other things. The implication being that people can be entrepreneurs in any area of life, not only in business. But this is simply not true! And, in fact, the repeated misuse of this word is actually dangerous.

The word entrepreneur has a specific meaning directly related to business. So people in such fields as community engagement, social justice and the arts might be creative, resourceful, clever and talented, but they are not entrepreneurs. And while extending the definition of the word to include such people might appear harmless, it is actually further facilitating the colonization of every sphere of our lives by business and the business mindset.

In recent years, the term ‘social entrepreneurship’ has become a trendy way to describe people who are creatively addressing social issues through a variety of initiatives. Just last year, the provincially-funded Island Sandbox initiative was launched with the intention of promoting a culture of entrepreneurship, including social entrepreneurship, on Cape Breton Island.

And since his arrival in Cape Breton to become president of CBU, David Wheeler has frequently promoted entrepreneurship as essential for the future well-being of the island. However, by entrepreneurship, Wheeler is not referring only to the business sector but also to initiatives that creatively address social and environmental problems.

Similarly, at Cape Breton University’s convocation last weekend, honorary degree recipient John L. Bragg, founder of Oxford Frozen Foods and Bragg Communications, which owns Eastlink, repeatedly used the term entrepreneur during his speech. Like Wheeler, he also claimed that any creative person is an entrepreneur, even going so far as to suggest that fellow honorary degree recipients The Barra MacNeils were entrepreneurs given their success in the music field. But this is a gross misuse of the term.

The term ‘entrepreneur’ was first coined in the early 1700s by economists and its definition specifically applied to business activities. Today, the Oxford dictionary defines an entrepreneur as a “person who sets up a business or businesses, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit.” Similarly, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as a “person who starts a business and is willing to risk loss in order to make money.” There is no ambiguity in these two definitions; they both squarely situate the entrepreneur in the business world with the primary objective of generating financial profit.

In recent times, however, the term ‘social entrepreneur’ has been increasingly used in the political and social spheres. Ashoka claims to be the largest network of social entrepreneurs in the world and its founder Bill Drayton has stated: “We need … entrepreneurial leadership at least as much in education and human rights as we do in communications and hotels. This is the work of social entrepreneurs.”

This statement is a perfect example of the misuse of the term entrepreneur. Education and human rights are rarely seen as businesses; they are usually viewed as important social issues that should not be determined by profit margins. Consequently, a person’s primary motivation for providing education and defending human rights is usually to improve the condition of humankind rather than to generate profits. Such a person might be caring, creative, clever and innovative, but he or she is not an entrepreneur.

Similarly, while I do not know The Barra MacNeils personally, I doubt that they undertook playing music as a business venture. Most likely, they play music because they love music and if they have managed to support themselves financially from their passion, then that is a bonus. Therefore, they too are not entrepreneurs.

You might ask, “What is the big deal if we call such people social entrepreneurs?” The problem lies in the ongoing colonization of all spheres of life by business. In recent decades we have increasingly been indoctrinated with the belief that every sector of society should be run like a business. Nowadays government is being run like a business and, accordingly, it is supposed to generate annual profits in the form of budget surpluses. In order to achieve this end, the federal and provincial governments have repeatedly cut funding to non-revenue generating programs such as education and health care. And then we are told that private sector businesses can better deliver these social programs.

Similarly, universities are supposed to run like businesses by increasing revenue generation in the private sector as a replacement for shrinking government funding. Consequently, schools of business, science and engineering are often well-funded while the social sciences, which educate our youth to think about society’s overall well-being, become increasingly impoverished.

The English language contains more than a sufficient number of words to eloquently describe non-business activities that are crucial to human well-being. Therefore, we don’t need to incorporate business terminology into the non-business spheres of our lives. To do so promotes a specific ideology that reduces everything to economics and further enhances the dominance of the business sector over all matters human. So enough of the misuse of the word entrepreneur. After all, there are many things in life that should not be dictated by profit margins—and I, for one, would like to keep it that way.

Author: Garry Leech is a member of The J. B. McLachlan Media Collective and a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Cape Breton University.


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