Elitism Has No Place in Entrepreneurship
Take a boat along the intracoastal waterway near Fort Lauderdale and you'll see lot after lot of mega mansions lined up along the canal, all grand in scale, all perfectly landscaped, and all, despite minor architectural details, very much the same.
Except for one.
There's an old barber chair sitting atop a lawn in front of one of those houses. It's smack in the middle of the yard, like one of those faux-classical statues people put up to tell you they have faux-class. The chair is meant to be a focal point, eye-catching and incongruous. It is what you'd imagine, with that typical leather -- so distinctive I was once told the color is known as "barber-chair red" -- that, while faded, still seems to carry the pride of its hue, despite tears and bulges along its seams.
It makes no sense to be there, until you see the sign on the seat.
It reads: "My dad is a barber from Brooklyn."
Whoever owns that house wants the world to look not at what he was able to accumulate through what he accomplished, but rather what sacrifices, values, history and ethics drove him to accomplish. Suddenly, the centerpiece of his entire home makes sense.
Where we come from is as important as where we are. We talk a lot about the power of the individual, but we are the creation of those before us. More than that, we are the product of the work we do, and the work done on our behalf, today, in this world. In that sense, all work should be celebrated and learned from.
Yet, sadly, there seems to be a cultural elitism that often downplays the work of some over others. Look at the shameful dismissiveness of the hosts of The View when they mocked a Miss America contestant for wearing her surgical scrubs and talking about her experience as a nurse. At the heart of that wasn't just ignorance but also an elitist attitude, a side effect of media fame that all the dedicated nurses in the world couldn't treat if they had to. And the some-of-my-best-friends-are-nurses apologies given after just enhanced how out of touch the hosts were.
This elitism is found too often among entrepreneurs, particularly in tech startups. The myopia, the drive that fuels people to take risks, often creates great companies and great products, but it also cultivates a solipsism that assumes the work the entrepreneur is doing, and the way in which that work is being done, is the only important undertaking in the world. So, while nurses are saving lives, or police are risking theirs to keep us safe, idiots with matching t-shirts think they're saving the world with an app to find the nearest ice-cream truck.
Entrepreneurship itself isn't to blame, obviously. The culprit is found in the attitudes born from it. While entrepreneurship is rightly celebrated, we often view it through too narrow of a lens. For one thing, we focus too much on technology, as if tech trumps all other startup activities. The Pantheon of entrepreneurs is made up mostly of folks like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and the like. Technology, after all, solves all of our problems.
We're even pushing policies designed to give our country more engineers, like coding programs for disadvantaged youth, telling them it is the golden ticket to success. Reality is more complicated. Look at the most obvious flaws of this push to code. While there are opportunities -- the gender-pay gap doesn't exist in tech, and salaries in engineering and programming generally are higher than many other job categories -- applying first-year economics to the scenario results in finding that the reason programmers command such high salaries is that there is a scarcity of talent. Get a more available supply of workers and the demand for their work goes down, as will compensation.
What's more, tech startups aren't so much a golden ticket as a subway pass to a revolving gate of jobs that often lead nowhere. Nine out of every 10 businesses fail in this country. Startups become closeups every day. It's a fact of life. We don't tell that story enough. Instead, many people in these programs are being brainwashed into thinking they're on track to be the next tech billionaire, when, in reality, they will have a better chance of finding themselves chronically looking for a another job. Coding is not entrepreneurship, but a path to a trade. Nothing more.
That's the big problem, and what makes elitism surrounding entrepreneurship so asinine: "Entrepreneur" is not a career. Entrepreneurship is a calling, not a job. It is an effect not a cause. You can be a business owner and not be an entrepreneur, and you can be an employee of a company and be entrepreneurial. Coding skills, Warby Parkers and the latest craft bourbon are not required. Obnoxious attitude and cultural elitism are not welcome.
What changes this mindset? Understanding our roots. The barber whose children went on to success cut hair each day. It may seem mindless to some, but it isn't. There's skill in that trade, even if it doesn't require a master's degree. That job gave this barber's son an example of work ethic, dedication to craft, the benefits of experience. Those values, those principles, those lessons stuck and became seeds that yielded success and wealth for his son, who was wise and thankful enough to honor him with that chair on the lawn. If he owned his own shop, that barber probably thought of himself as a business owner, and that gave him pride, but not arrogance. He never would have called himself an entrepreneur, but he should be the model of one.
When I meet someone, I like to ask not just what they do for a living, but what their parents did. It tells me a lot to see whether they respond with pride or some sense of shame. My mother was an X-ray technician. My stepfather was career Navy, retiring after 30 years as a chief petty officer. Neither went to college, and my field of study never came close to health care or the military. (I still gag at the sight of blood, and we'd all be speaking Russian if I had ever enlisted in anything more vital to national security than the Salvation Army.) Yet the values I learned from them were meaningful. I honor that by trying to respect the people who do jobs I often fail to think about: police, health worker, tinker, tailor, soldier, bartender.
None of this means we shouldn't strive to accumulate wealth. Success is a beautiful thing. It should be celebrated. Too often, success is vilified, or even punished. We live in a time of demonization of the wealthy, where people rail against a mythical 1 percent who hoard assets, demading redistribution and insisting on equal outcome rather than equal opportunity. Ironically, even the wealthiest are doing it, too. In the current presidential race, we have a Yale-trained lawyer who charges $200,000 a speech fighting a real-estate billionaire over who is the bigger champion of the middle class.
Truth is the middle class doesn't need a champion. The middle class is a champion. Only elitists don't understand that. The hard work of Americans drives our capitalist system. Each day, people work hard, to support families and their communities. They have the power to define what success looks like to them, and, more often than not, it has less to do with money than lifestyle. Along the way, a nurse might invent a new kind of stethoscope, a plumber might create an easier-to-install valve, and entrepreneurs -- real ones -- are born. That combination of experience, hard work and critical thinking is just as valuable as a Harvard MBA or a spot in the latest accelerator program.
Rather than fall victim to the creeping elitism that tends to define startup culture, or emulate tyrannical management practices of icons like Steve Jobs, a moment of humility helps. We are the product of the work of those who have gone before us, and our successes -- our freedom to innovate, take risks and manage our lives -- come when our labor is matched with the labor of those around us, whether they work at a hot tech startup or serve us coffee from the cart in the morning. Capitalism and free markets teem with a variety of businesses, opportunities, needs and experiences. Entrepreneurship is an important part of that ecosystem, but it is just one part of the economy, no better nor more noble than others. Remembering that helps us stay grounded in our mission to create, assist, build and disrupt. It also makes us better people.
All of us seek advice and inspiration as we strive to improve. Sometimes I wonder, though, if the entrepreneurs we worship are false gods. Apparently, all of us could have learned a thing or two from a barber from Brooklyn.
Ray Hennessey is the former editorial director of Entrepreneur.