Celebrating a nation of entrepreneurs

If 19th century England was a nation of shopkeepers, as Napoleon Bonaparte said, then it is fair to say 21st century America is a nation of entrepreneurs. Not just the famous ones whose pithy quotes are posted on social media as digital guidance for aspiring business owners but also the ones who blaze the trail of commerce for the rest to follow.

It is fitting to recognize the country’s long appreciation for the entrepreneurial spirit as we celebrate National Small Business Week and remember that even the largest companies started out as small businesses. For while we rightly celebrate our Founding Fathers and Mothers as visionary leaders, we shouldn’t forget that many of them were entrepreneurs first and nation builders later.

Before becoming the father of his country, George Washington was an entrepreneur. His trade was surveying, a useful skill in a new world to explore. And Benjamin Franklin worked long hours as publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette before assuming the role of revolutionary.

American history is full of examples of the entrepreneurial spirit.

From Levi Strauss meeting a need and finding a market for sturdier clothing during the California Gold Rush to countless shopkeepers, itinerant merchants and inventors that spread commerce and technology across the North American continent, to pioneering entrepreneur Madam CJ Walker, the story of the United States is in many ways a story of entrepreneurs and small-business owners.

As population and demographic trends develop and society evolves, small-business owners have found ways to meet changing demands and infuse new products and services into the body economic. The entrepreneurial mindset that launched a thousand businesses exemplifies the core of the American Dream, where anyone, with the right combination of skill, timing and luck, can rise to the heights of fame and fortune. That entrepreneurial mindset is still part of the American business landscape, at no time more pronounced than during the past few years. 

Confronting a global pandemic with so many unknowns jarred Main Street and Wall Street alike. With familiar business patterns disrupted and no clear idea of what was to come, small-business owners scrambled to keep afloat. Some changed their delivery models while others retooled  production lines to make new things. The flexibility of mind and agility of execution required to adapt with the situation is a hallmark of entrepreneurial thinking and small-business owners across the nation and around the world led the way.

We are used to thinking of entrepreneurs as cutting-edge titans of industry, the Mark Zuckerbergs and Elon Musks of the world. And while they may represent the “ideal” entrepreneurs in popular culture, the reality is entrepreneurs are all around us. They are the fabric of American economic life and the foundation of local economies from sea to shining sea.

And that is worth celebrating.