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From bandleader to blogger: the evolving definition of the term ‘entrepreneur’

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Above image credit: "Entrepreneur" used to be mean someone who organized musical performances, but now it often is used to describe a tech-oriented business person. (Illustration by Kristopher Martin)

When you hear the word “entrepreneur,” it’s easy to picture a twenty-something guy wearing wireless headphones and typing furiously on his laptop. He’s developing an app, or writing a business plan or creating a social media presence — maybe all three tasks are being tackled at once.

This stereotype, however, is only one vision of an entrepreneur. There are shop owners, food bloggers, music moguls, restaurateurs, painters and candlestick makers. These entrepreneurs are male and female, young and old and of every race imaginable.

Since entrepreneur is a word used to describe many different kinds of people, the definition will point to what they all have in common: “one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise,” according to Merriam Webster.

The risk-assumption element is crucial, Jeffery Hornsby, department chair for the department of global entrepreneurship and the director of the Regnier Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at UMKC’s Bloch School, said in an email. The assumption of risk is often associated with money, but Hornsby said it can apply to time, career and equity, as well.

Hornsby pointed to another element, one which he said is crucial to the definition of entrepreneur but is not even referred to in the dictionary definition.

“(Entrepreneurs have) the vision to recognize opportunity where others see chaos, contradiction, and confusion,” he said.

This concept of opportunity recognition is often referred to in startup culture as “disruption.” Each startup business or enterprise should disrupt the status quo, solving a problem that exists in the current market. This term is so pervasive to entrepreneurs that TechCrunch, a tech news site, holds an annual Disrupt conference where tech entrepreneurs compete against each other in Startup Battlefield.

This part of entrepreneurship, which is now seen as essential, wasn’t always a factor.

In 1828, “entrepreneur” was first used in the English language, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Entrepreneur is a loanword — a word from another language used without translation in another — from French. In 19th century England, the word was used to describe someone who organizes entertainment, especially musical performances. It took less than 30 years, however, for the term to evolve to mean “one who undertakes an enterprise; one who owns and manages a business; a person who takes the risk of profit or loss.”

Seeing these definitions side by side, both in a dictionary and as a part of the cultural record, point to an important fact: artists are entrepreneurs and always have been. Our current cultural impression, aided by HBO’s hit comedy series “Silicon Valley,” is that entrepreneurialism is limited to technology, when, in fact, artists have been entrepreneurs forever.

Liam Sumnicht, the drummer for the band Not A Planet and a graduate of UMKC’s Bloch School with a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a focus in entrepreneurship, is an example of an entrepreneurial artist. He is responsible for many of the business-side duties for Not A Planet, like booking tours, managing advertisements and merchandise and doing taxes.

“I’ve always thought that business was interesting” he said of choosing to pursue a business degree. “I think that (business) is a really creative and fun thing to be a part of, kind of like music is a creative and fun thing to be a part of.”

“I knew that going to school for entrepreneurship would give kind of a basis for how to run a business effectively,” he continued. “There are a lot of things that (bands) have to keep running like any other business to keep afloat.”

He expanded this opinion on Twitter.

Sumnicht thinks that any cultural assumptions about entrepreneurship should be expanded.

“All artists are entrepreneurs,” he said. “I would encourage people to think of it that way.”

Peter Witte, an instructor at UMKC’s Conservatory of Music and Dance, agreed on Twitter.

Brooke Beason, a channel strategist at Meers Advertising and member of Mayor James’ 2013 Challenge Cabinet, agrees that the cultural definition of “entrepreneur” is fluid and expandable. She said her personal definition of “entrepreneur” has changed over time. Beason used to think of entrepreneurs as serial business starters, but now thinks of herself as an entrepreneur, too. Even though she works in an established advertising agency, she is encouraged by her bosses to create new projects and develop new departments within her current job.

Beason thinks adding “entrepreneur” to a resume is the new way to call yourself a “self-starter.”

“This collaborative economy and the focus on small business has shifted the focus to entrepreneurialism,” she said. “I feel like it’s a pride thing… it’s a prideful descriptor that you can call yourself. It’s the ultimate compliment to be called an entrepreneur.”

Earning this compliment is difficult, to be sure. Regardless of which enterprise an entrepreneur is pursuing — technology-based, art-based, or anything in between — passion seems to be a common trait.

Sumnicht said being a successful entrepreneur is hard work and requires a lot of knowledge. But the passion for the final product is what makes the effort worth it.

“If you’re putting a product out, even if it’s your own heart and soul, it’s really important to do it to the best of your ability,” he said. “Then you’re an entrepreneur just like anybody else.”

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