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What is an Entrepreneur?

Today, the notion of a members-only debating society at Oxford may conjure up visions of stuffy aristocrats wrestling over arcane trivia. But this is the place where Malcolm X made his "by any means necessary" speech, where Nixon admitted he "screwed up," and where O. J. Simpson made his last public appearance in Britain.

What counts as an entrepreneur is more important than you think. Depending on the prevailing vision, you would see funding, policies, resources, and programs funnelled to advantage African fruit sellers or British hairdressers or Silicon Valley millionaires. It’s all about who appears in the mind’s eye when the word “entrepreneurship” is spoken. And, actually, it matters rather a lot.

Consider that if a government is looking for entrepreneurs to fuel the national economy by building high growth businesses very quickly, creating a lot of new jobs, and disseminating leading edge technologies, the entrepreneur they imagine helping with their policies is not a woman starting up a hair salon in a spare room. But if the same government is wanting to put into place policies that will allow ordinary people to survive in an economic downturn, they may wish to support the would-be hairdresser, as well as wannabe taxi drivers, dry cleaners, locksmiths, and fishmongers.  It’s a value versus volume argument, a high growth versus wide reach proposition.  But the whole line of action often runs into problems of exclusion, especially for women.

If you are in venture capital or a business school, for instance, there is a tendency to want to restrict investments in entrepreneurship to business ideas that are expected to be high growth and to limit your visions about “who is an entrepreneur” to smooth-talkers who are in it for a quick shot at big bucks.  Unfortunately, predicting winners is very difficult since most entrepreneurs fail and many big successes have come from variations on established offerings (Starbucks, method, Innocent, Zara, Party Pieces). So, what often happens is that those doing the choosing pick their horse for the race using a good measure of personal prejudice. In particular, they tend to dismiss the kinds of industries women are drawn to as lacking growth potential.  They visualize every winner as a Mark Zuckerberg clone and if you happen to walk in wearing a dress and wanting to start a bakery, well, you don’t fit the picture. Never mind that yours might be the next Cinnabon. It’s a “woman’s business” and that makes it automatically low growth and uncool.

The debates take place in this building. The Oxford Union was founded in 1823 to support the free exchange of ideas. The University, very restrictive at that time, was unfriendly to the concept.

If, on the other hand, you are working for an NGO trying to help poor immigrants in London, you might imagine that teaching women to start and run their own businesses would be a good way to help them get a handhold in a new economy.  But you (and they) would likely measure success by whether they could put a meal on the table, not float an IPO. And you would be right about that.  But you would be wrong to think that it’s a waste of public funds to support incubators for high tech entrepreneurs because those people are more likely to create the jobs that might put folks into the kind of stable employment where they don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from.

So it’s not an easy, black-and-white choice. And it’s not a boring argument, but one that quickly extends into the most core decisions a society can make, while reflecting both its values and its power structure.

At the Oxford Forum for Women in the World Economy, we will hold a debate that is intended to get at these issues, to foreground all the implications, and also outline the way these choices affect women.  Our debate team will argue the question, cast in classic Oxonian phrasing:  “This house believes women running subsistence businesses are not entrepreneurs.”

The team affirming this view will be Penney Frohling, Partner in Financial Services at Booz & Company, Tamara Box, Global Head of Structured Finance at law firm Reed Smith, and Averil Leimon, co-founder of the White Water Group and very important women’s leadership coach. In the opposite corner will be Susan Marlow, Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Nottingham, Mark Hart, also a professor of entrepreneurship as well as co-director of the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor UK, and Maggie O’Carroll, founder of The Woman’s Organization, the largest dedicated women’s economic development Agency in the United Kingdom. We met with both teams in London on Friday.  They are all fast, funny, and feisty, as well as articulate, astute, and aware.  It should be a good show.

This is the street the Oxford Union is on. I just put this photo up because I thought it was pretty.

Moderating the debate will be The Honourable Michael Beloff, QC, who happens to have been president of the Oxford Union when women were admitted in 1963.  The conference team and my Women’s Economy students saw him in the Valentine’s Day debate at the Union–This house believes we are all feminists now–arguing for the affirmative and we all thought he was brilliant.  He is known for being on the friendly side of women’s issues, so we are thrilled he agreed to come.

The Oxford Union is probably the most famous site for debating in the world outside of national parliaments.  The debates take place in a huge old building that looks like a kind of combination courthouse and Methodist church.  It is old and, well, it sort of rattles the way Oxford buildings tend to do.  But the Dalai Lama, Winston Churchill, and Johnny Depp have all appeared here.  Where else can you say that, I ask you?

The ritual is this:  the affirmative side speaks, followed by the negative side, then a different member of each side speaks again.  Then there is a short interlude where the audience may offer their opinions, followed by one speech each from the affirmative and negative again.  At the end, you vote for one side or the other by walking through the door for “pro” or “con.”  We count the bodies walking through each door, then announce the results over drinks before dinner.

The whole business takes about an hour.  The Vice Chancellor is planning to stop by. And we are saving a seat up front for Penney’s ten-year-old son.

Saying “who counts” as an entrepreneur confers a form of power that potentially affects many social outcomes and a range of political strategies. Where do you stand? The debate is open to students as well as Power Shift participants.  It will begin at 5.30PM on May 20th in the debating hall at the Oxford Union.


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