Why are We Shaming America’s Entrepreneurs?

March 10, 2014

There is a strange phenomenon occurring in the United States. On the one hand, Americans have a long tradition of championing the entrepreneur, the underdog who strikes out alone and captures the American Dream. On the other hand, successful entrepreneurs today are facing hostile arguments that say their success makes them the bad guy. 

Talking about inequality is important; it helps maintain the foundational idea that “all men (and women) are created equal.” As the public discusses equality in opportunity, however, in some cases, there has been a subtle transposition of one idea for another. Aspects of the current debate are not actually talking about unequal opportunity but about unequal condition. Some people are, by various criteria, more successful than others, and in a free market, that brings with it monetary benefits. What has happened, unfortunately, is that U.S. businesses are being characterized as the cause of why some Americans are successful and others aren’t. This makes no sense. In the United States, success is based on hard work and hard work alone. Yet, it is important to understand that hard work does not just mean using one’s muscles. It also means developing innovative ideas, navigating a complex business environment, and risking everything for a shot at success. 

Today’s U.S. businesses that turn a profit and create jobs succeed despite burdensome regulations, despite tepid consumer demand, despite the highest corporate tax rate in the world, and despite looking to a labor pool that in many cases simply does not have the skills required to work in a higher-tech, globalized business landscape. Despite all those roadblocks, successful entrepreneurs find a way to make it work. That is worthy of admiration and applause, not criticism and chronic cynicism. 

The fact is, it is easier and safer to work for someone else than it is to build a business from the ground up. There are enormous challenges in identifying market opportunity, creating something that consumers demand, and then getting them to buy it. Risk and reward define entrepreneurship and the American Dream, and someone who has not walked the entrepreneurial road may not fully understand just how bumpy and uncertain it can be. 

To be sure, success is not guaranteed. For every entrepreneur who builds a business that creates jobs and gives them the quality of life they desire, there are others who fail. Accepting the potential for failure and charging ahead anyway takes bravery and hard work. In a free country and free market, it is illogical to strip away the fruits of entrepreneurial labor simply because others haven’t taken the same risk, shown the same courage, and earned the same rewards. Indeed, that would be blatant inequality. 

The great thing about the United States and our American Dream is that for those who want to see more reward from their effort, that person has the freedom to create their own definition of success. We don’t have to sit back and accept our lot in life. We can go chase success in all its forms. We can build something, make something, and invent something, and reap the rewards of our innovation and hard work.  This country was founded on the premise of individual liberty to make and shape one’s opportunities and pursue that which gives us happiness. That promise is emboldened in our national DNA by a sheet of parchment signed by people who were willing to risk, life, limb, and property to make it a reality. In this country, we are masters of our own destiny, and that destiny rests on how much risk we can stomach and how much hard work we are ready to apply.  It applies as much to the faces carved on Mount Rushmore as it does to entrepreneurs. 

Allowing the free market to dictate how businesses succeed (or fail) means any American can pick up the entrepreneurial torch and chase the American Dream. This is what created our country’s $17 trillion GDP, far and away the largest the world has ever known. We owe this incredible global standing to the private sector and its risk-taking entrepreneurs who  succeed and create opportunity where it did not exist before. Shaming success degrades motivation, and it denies entrepreneurs—some of the ultimate risk-takers—the credit they are due. 

Arm-chair quarterbacks can always tell you how the game should have been played once it’s over., Few have the ability or guts to put on the pads and uniform and take the field against an opponent that is often twice their size and whose sole purpose is to stop them at all costs. Pot-shot criticism is easy; executing a vision—a game plan, in spite of the odds—is the hard part. It’s also something worth standing up and cheering for, but some people are just more comfortable sitting back and being negative about effort and earned success, especially when it doesn’t automatically fall into their lap.  

To me, that is not “inequality,” but rather, it is opportunity gained or opportunity wasted. You, as an individual, get to decide what path to take, what door to open, what moment to seize. If you take that opportunity and fail, it’s painful and costly but you grow, you learn, and as Frank Sinatra might croon, “pick yourself up and start all over again.”  

Yet, if that opportunity is gained, seized, and success follows, what is the value added by tearing it down? There is none, and that’s the hollow answer that is overlooked in the so-called inequality debate.  There is no shame in earned success. That’s something we should feel comfortable about every day.