Entrepreneurs of the Century

The century from 1900 to 2000 could be called the entrepreneurial century. The growth of entrepreneurism over this 100-year period was nothing short of phenomenal. So it was with great interest that I opened my Wall Street Journal on November 29, 1999 to see whom this venerable institution had picked as "The Minds That Transformed Entrepreneurship in the 20th Century." As one historian has commented on the risks of making lists: "Whenever anyone publishes one of these lists, there's always a wave of griping about how worthless lists are. Then everyone makes a list of what's wrong with this particular list." And the Wall Street Journal list was no different than any other in that regard. I was totally surprised by their choices. In fact, I actually went back to the headline to assure myself I was not mistaken about what this particular feature was about. "Ten Who Changed the World for Entrepreneurs" it is titled. Okay, here is their list:

  1. L.L. Bean for mail-order niches
  2. Ray Kroc for franchising fever
  3. George Johnson for nurturing future black entrepreneurs
  4. Jeff Bezos for the online mall
  5. Betty Friedan for women in business
  6. Georges Doriot creator of modern venture-capital techniques
  7. Bill Gates for PCs everywhere
  8. Henry Ford for transportation for all
  9. Sam Walton for bigger, cheaper stores
  10. Frederick Terman for being a guiding force behind Silicon Valley

Are these the people you would choose? One thing that stands out for me is that only one of these people is from the first half of the century. Additionally, not everyone on the list is an entrepreneur, although they were guiding forces behind encouraging entrepreneurship. So, in keeping with their title that these are people who changed entrepreneurship in some way, perhaps one can live with this list. And, for that matter, everyone on the list has contributed to entrepreneurship in this century. However, my immediate reaction was to start listing all the people I could think of who was missing from the list and what my list would look like.

While the Wall Street Journal focused on entrepreneurship itself changing, I took the tack of determining the outstanding entrepreneurs, hoping to discover a common theme in their work. So, I started my list. This turned out to be a much harder process than I had anticipated.

One needs to consider first what entrepreneurship is. I have explored that topic previously in "What is an Entrepreneur?" Looking at the descriptive words that surface in that feature, innovation and risk taking are high on the list, as are change and opening new possibilities. From my perspective, being an entrepreneur does not just encompass the traditional business fields. Isn't someone who finds a cure for cancer and brings it to the masses being entrepreneurial? This does not preclude franchise owners and network marketers from being entrepreneurs. Their common bond is the desire to work for oneself and control one's own future. However, there are many in a large variety of fields who take this a step further and become change makers, although even working for oneself is being a change maker from following a traditional business path.

Considering innovation and opening new possibilities as being entrepreneurial, I next looked to what historians said had happened that was noteworthy over this past century. Entrepreneurism certainly plays a role in initiating major events, at least in my book. Another historian named his "Top 10 Technologies of the 20th Century." While technology does not cover everything, it certainly is a good start. His list includes

  1. Radio
  2. Automobiles
  3. Powered Flight
  4. Electronic Integrated Circuit
  5. Atomic Energy
  6. Artificial Satellites
  7. TV/Video
  8. Computers
  9. Organ Transplants
  10. Lasers

If one found the guiding force behind introducing each of these technologies into mainstream life, one would have a pretty good list of some outstanding entrepreneurs. One thing I like in this list is that it lists organ transplants, not limiting innovation to just business ventures. And having had the privilege to work for Dr. Michael DeBakey at one time in my life, one of the leaders in this field, I can absolutely vouchsafe that he was a entrepreneur in every sense of the word.

Another friend of mine who is a historian picked these:

1920s: washing machine, vacuum cleaner, refrigerator, electric iron
1940s: penicillin, radar
1950s: credit cards
1960s: the pill, medical insurance, jet air travel, Salk vaccine
1970s: space satellites (communication)
1980s: microwave oven, personal computers
1990s: overnight delivery, catalog sales

Some other changes over our century that come to mind in no particular order are vitamins, plastics, telephone, health advances, packaged foodstuffs, weapons, civil rights, social change makers and agricultural advances. This was quickly becoming an intimidating project. Ten is too small a number for summarizing this century.

USA Weekend took a shot at defining "The Top Story of the Century", December 2416, 1999. While the list was not entrepreneurially oriented, certainly entrepreneurs who made this list would be leaders as entrepreneurs. As it turns out, even the stories that are not about entrepreneurs have entrepreneurial links. The number one story is about the U.S. dropping the atomic bomb. Number two Japan bombing Pearl Harbor. Bombs were an entrepreneurial innovation. Perhaps not one we would like to brag about, but it took someone who was an entrepreneur to make them happen. The third most important story was men walking on the moon, an entrepreneurial venture, albeit by our government - made possible by thousands of entrepreneurial innovations.

Getting slightly overwhelmed with all the possibilities, I decided to call my dad who is a pretty good candidate for being one of the entrepreneurial leaders himself. During World War II the U.S. government contracted with a small company in Muscatine, Iowa called Grain Processing Corporation to produce grain alcohol from corn as part of the process of making synthetic rubber for the war effort. My dad was one of the founding officers of that company. It has expanded and grown over the years to be a highly successful company producing a wide variety of grain-based products. He spent a number of years on the board of the National Association of Manufacturers and was its chairman. I called him in the expectation that he would have some heroes of his own that might not come immediately to mind for me and perhaps have a more global perspective - while I have lived more than half of the twentieth century, he has lived for almost all of it.

Amazingly to me, his "heroes" were local businessmen who have gone from nothing to multimillionaires on their own hard work. I found myself writing down the descriptive words he used time and time again in our discussion: started from nothing, worked hard, took risks, had limited financial resources, based work on quality, bucked big companies, built on a simple product that solved a common problem, gave back to their community generously. I realized that what he was describing was indeed a whole generation of entrepreneurs that built the solid base of business of this country. Instead of one person, there is a style of entrepreneurship that gave this century much of its character.

Perhaps that is who the real entrepreneurs of the century have been - those who wished to control their own future - and, in doing so, changed the face of our world. They came from all walks of life, but had in common that belief in themselves that allowed them to take the step down the path to building a better place for themselves and their community. This is our heritage entering the 21st century. As entrepreneurs we have a hard act to follow, but they have left us with some incredible tools to build an even better world.