By now, nearly every American adult is aware of entrepreneurs' contribution to the economy--bottom lines and dot.coms are part of more and more people's vocabularies. But what you may not know is the tentacles of entrepreneurship stretch far beyond the typical realm of business, or even what we consider "standard society." Beyond our limited sphere, there exists an entire universe of entrepreneurs who couldn't care less about Wall Street or the Silicon Valley. Unfettered by the need to keep up with the Gateses, these entrepreneurial subcultures see business ownership as a way of preserving a cherished lifestyle, of slowing down in a fast-paced society.
Whether nuns or modern hippies, these business owners prove entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes, all rhymes and reasons. It's clear entrepreneurship isn't just in the malls of America. It's everywhere.
Before Amazon.com, even before Barnes & Noble, there were libraries. These bastions of all things literary still have their mainstay microfiche machines, plastic-wrapped book covers and overdue fines, but walk into the renovated 1913 building of the main branch library in Portland, Oregon, and you just may do a double-take. The ever-present college students are laboring over their studies at a Starbucks cafe. The gift shop better resembles a museum shop. Even the used-book store brings in $125,000 annually. Hmmm, library or book superstore?
Although it claims not to be influenced by the success of its retail counterparts, the Multnomah County Library, with 18 branches serving about 700,000 patrons, is noticeably getting down to business. Until recently, the library even boasted an entrepreneurial activities coordinator. "It's another way to show our community we're good stewards of their money," explains Ginnie Cooper, director of the library system and former president of the Public Library Association.
Although the business operations comprise only 2 percent of the library's funding, Cooper is more than satisfied with the library's entrepreneurial efforts. "When people ask, `Have you tried [to raise funds]?' the answer is `Yes, and here's what we're doing, and we're pretty successful."
While its rep leans toward the secular, entrepreneurship can be more sacred than you'd expect. Indeed, most monasteries and abbeys depend on business skills to survive. And while start-ups may come and go, most monasteries and abbeys run established businesses with longevity that would impress even the most successful entrepreneur.
The 50 sisters in residence at Mount St. Mary's Abbey in Wrentham, Massachusetts, support themselves with a 43-year-old candy business. "We're cloistered sisters, and this way we can keep the base right here. It allows us to keep our life the way it is," says Sister Rita Rodrigue of Trappastine Quality Candy, the abbey's mail order and e-commerce candy business.
The monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, a Cistercian monastery in Conyers, Georgia, are veteran businessmen, running a number of enterprises: a gift shop, a stained glass manufacturing operation, a pine tree plantation and one of the largest bonsai suppliers in the United States.
"One of the conditions of any business we get involved in is that it must protect our way of life," explains Father Methodius, the monastery's business manager. "If the businesses were too worldly, it wouldn't be consistent with our life."
Each business developed naturally as an extension of the community's pooled talents and circumstances. The late Father Paul Bourne began the bonsai supply as a hobby. The land dictated that the monks start a pine tree farm rather than any other agricultural venture. And when the monastery was built in the 1950s, lack of funds led the monks to create their own stained glass. "There's an old Latin phrase, `Contemplata tradere,' which [essentially] means `to pass on the things which you contemplate,'" explains Father Methodius, who adds that much of their stained glass is religiously themed for churches. "Hopefully, that's the art we put into our stained glass."
All For One
Communes haven't received much press since the hippie heydays, but these idyllic communities are far from a thing of the past. Many communes--known nowadays as "intentional communities"--are thriving across the country. And if the goal is to live according to personal values, what better way than entrepreneurship?
Take, for example, Acorn Community in Mineral, Virginia. Formed in 1993, this 20-member community lives on 70 acres of land, supporting itself with small businesses. Acorn chooses its ventures--including a craft tinnery and subscription-based agriculture (members pay for the delivery of fresh vegetables during the growing season)--by following the commune's basic principles of nonviolence, ecological soundness and equal participation in the community's governance.
"Any business we think about taking on, we look at in terms of our values," explains Raven Long, Acorn's outreach manager. Ideas have been rejected because of environmental impacts or because they lacked potential for communal involvement. "[Our businesses] give us the ability to work at home rather than go off somewhere," he adds. "They let us live more integrated lives."
Acorn Community, (540) 894-0595, firstname.lastname@example.org
Monestary of the Holy Spirit, http://www.trappist.net
Mount St. Mary's Abbey, fax: (508) 528-1409, http://www.trappistinecandy.com
Multnomah County Library, http://www.multnomah.lib.or.us