What is Entrepreneurship?

By Michaela O’Donnell

March 13, 2018

De Pree Journal

Recently, I was chatting with a client of mine who was a few years into resurrecting an organization that had nearly fizzled out under previous leadership. When she assumed leadership of the nonprofit, it had run out of money, was unclear on its mission, and had major personnel problems. As we talked, she described to me that although she hadn’t started the organization, she sort of felt like an entrepreneur—that resurrecting the place had required reorienting the mission around new needs, positioning it in an evolving market, and cobbling together financial runway for the organization to get back on its feet. Then she actually turned to me and asked, “Do you think I’m an entrepreneur?”

“I absolutely do,” I responded.

I believe that my client is an entrepreneur because, at its simplest form, entrepreneurship is about pursuing opportunity and creating value in the face of risk.[1] This definition certainly makes room for the archetypical high growth business ventures that we often associate with entrepreneurship, but it also helps widen our imagination about who exactly might be an entrepreneur.

I want to spend this article teasing out this definition a bit. So, entrepreneurs engage in three interrelated activities: 1) pursuing opportunity, 2) creating value, and 3) facing risk. This list isn’t meant to serve as a measuring rod—to determine who’s in and who’s out—as much as a center of gravity—helping those who resonate with these activities find value in the way we explore what God’s doing in society and the economy.

Pursuing Opportunity

Entrepreneurs pursue opportunity. Pursuing opportunity takes both the ability to notice and also the confidence to pursue what we notice. First, when I think about noticing, I think about an image of the Spirit moving through the world, sort of leaving a trail of breadcrumbs in its wake. Or how about this: once on St. Patrick’s Day, I set out a trail of gold colored candy coins for my very young daughter. When she found the first one, her eyes lit up that she had found candy. But when she saw that there was a second candy coin, her brain sort of kicked into gear as if to say, “we’re on a mission, let’s follow this trail as far as it goes!” I think entrepreneurs cultivate a similar skill—we are able to notice, give in to curiosity, and follow our impulses to pursue opportunity. Each time we take a step toward the Spirit’s leading, more of the path seems to emerge.

But pursuing opportunity takes more than the ability to notice. It also takes the confidence to act. The work of Tom and David Kelley has been formative to my thinking here. The brothers argue that everyone has creative capacity; the only thing that holds people back is confidence to engage it. [2] Unfortunately, many of us have been conditioned to lack this confidence—and thus the ability to pursue opportunity. Kelley and Kelley name four fears that contribute to a lack of creative confidence: fear of the messy unknown, fear of being judged, fear of the first step, and fear of losing control.[3] Entrepreneurship is often unpredictable, nonlinear, and even potentially chaotic. The risks of failure, embarrassment, and loss of self-identity can be overwhelming to the point that our ability to pursue opportunity is stunted. Being entrepreneurial doesn’t mean that we aren’t afraid. Instead, our sense of confidence is strong enough to hold the inevitable fears and failures that arise in the pursuit of opportunity.

Creating Value

When entrepreneurs create, they often intend to add value to the world. Imagining how to add value is the result of noticing and pursuing opportunity. Other times, the desire to add value actually motivates noticing and pursing opportunity. For example, if a mom who notices how hard it is to vet and wade through childcare options decides to start a nanny-match service, her service might add value to overwhelmed parents. Furthermore, if her service flourishes, she might create an easier on-ramp for qualified people to enter into the childcare industry, thereby contributing to the fabric of child development and education in the locations she serves. Or take, for example, a florist who needs to differentiate his revenue streams. As he engages locals, he sees the need for pop-up floral booths on holiday weekends—especially in proximity to cemeteries. Within a year, he has a new product that adds value in that it is both a quality and convenient way to honor loved ones. All the while, his product might contribute to the aesthetic and even communal value of place, furthering the way he adds value to society.

Embedded in the fabric of our society are many, many ways humans measure value. Some of these ways are quite explicit, while others are more complicated. Here, I want to name three broad ways we can think about how to measure value: economic, social, and faithful. These three means of measuring are in no way mutually exclusive. In fact, it is just the opposite.

Economic. One way to measure value is economically. Put simply, does what an entrepreneur create add enough value to people’s lives that they are willing to pay for it? And, does what people pay for the product/service/experience outweigh the cost to make/market it? These are questions that are asked every time a movie is made. This is why every movie made is an entrepreneurial endeavor. Filmmakers and investors alike are pursuing opportunity to create value in the face of risk. Wonder Woman was one of my favorite films of 2017. This is partly because it was a fun film to watch but also partly because the film shattered expectations about how economically viable—and therefore valuable—a female driven superhero film could be. The production budget of Wonder Woman was $149 million dollars. In the box office, it grossed north of $821 million! Even when all the books are reconciled, it’s safe to assume that Wonder Woman made a lot of money. Its economic success equates to a certain measure of value. The world valued this story so much that it collectively banded together to spend more money watching it than it cost to create it.

Social: Another way to measure value is socially. The big idea for social entrepreneurs is that the created product, service, or experience helps to shift social equilibriums. Many organizations come to mind here. I think about Homeboy Industries an organization that has had success in shifting gang culture in L.A. through access to good work and community. I think about The Freedom Story who works to prevent child trafficking and exploitation in Southeast Asia. I think about Kiva who, to date, has facilitated loans for entrepreneurs in 84 different countries worldwide. Social equilibrium change is often messier to measure than economic. And sometimes entrepreneurs have the success of creating something that is both economically and socially valuable. Wonder Woman is an example of this dual-natured value.

Faithful: A third way to measure value is by the faithfulness of our work to the Gospel of Christ. Put another way, does what we create enable our participation in the reign of God? Participation in the reign of God is an incredibly complex topic that will require much more space than what I have here. For now, I want to put emphasis on two elements of this type of participation: the dynamic nature of the Spirit and shalom.

First, faithfulness or participation in the reign of God, is rooted in a dynamic understanding of God’s Spirit. The Spirit is not static, stale, or one-dimensional. God’s Spirit is on the move, out ahead of us, leaving breadcrumbs for us to notice. Our work is a means to participate in what God is already doing in the world. Our participation comes by following the lead of the Spirit. If we are led, equipped, and inspired by a dynamic Spirit in our work, then what we create is an ongoing and ever-evolving participation in the reign of God.[4] For Christians, every time we create, we participate in God’s kingdom. Andy Crouch writes, “We always start in the middle of things, working with raw materials given to us by God and the generations before us. Culture is what we make of the world, not what we make out of pure imagination.”[5]  Our creative participation is undergirded by our sense of God’s Spirit as on the move—dynamic and out ahead of us. So, we must find ways to measure our following the dynamic Spirit. I’ll say more about that in time, as well.

Second, working to increase shalom is a way we can measure our participation with God. There has been much written in recent years about what it means to be called into the purposes of the kingdom, specifically in our work. Additionally, scholars have long differentiated between the general and shared call Christians have to love God and the more contextual, distinct calls for particular people in particular places. I want to suggest here that while I think all that has merit (in fact I wrote much of my dissertation on it), I think we can get too wrapped up in amplifying our own sense of self in God’s kingdom. This is why, for me, the idea of shalom is such a helpful starting point. Shalom is the Hebrew word that roughly translates as peace. This type of peace is both systemic yet also personal, among people and also within them. Biblical shalom stands in stark contrast to powers of oppression and injustice in the world. So, where there is rampart injustice, we can be sure that there is also room for shalom in increasing measure. I think part of how we can measure the value we add is by asking if what we put in the world contributes to shalom in increasing measure. To get really tangible, it’s helpful to think about Amy Sherman’s language around shalom. She describes shalom has having four dimensions: peace with God, peace with self, peace among people, and peace with the creation. So, does what we create contribute in increasing measure in one of these four areas?[6]

Facing Risk

In addition to pursuing opportunity and creating value, entrepreneurs face risk. I’ve highlighted risk here to bring attention to the fact that facing risk is an active posture. Even the slanted nature of the italic script represents that entrepreneurs have to lean in to risk. Is risk scary? Yes. Does risk end in failure? Sometimes. Is the opportunity to create value in the face of risk worth the potential failure? Often, yes. Facing risk requires a steadiness that comes from one’s own identity as a resilient person. Resiliency is the ability to endure failure and learn from it. This is foundational to the entrepreneurial quest to add value to a changing world. It seems to me that the ability to root one’s identity, in part, in resiliency comes in a deeper rooting of one’s self to the identity of Christ. In this, we are invited to forgo the shame that often covers failure.

Researcher Brené Brown has done groundbreaking research on the topic of shame. She writes, “Shame derives power from being unspeakable… if we speak shame, it begins to wither. Just the way exposure to light was deadly for the gremlins, language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.”[7] Brown argues that in American culture, we have lost our capacity to hold pain. This is because we live in a culture that equates vulnerability with weakness, and we have decided that weakness is disgusting. She argues that faith communities too often think that people are unwilling to hold space for people to be vulnerable. But it’s not that we’re unwilling. It’s that we’re unable. We quite literally do not have the spiritual or psychological skills to hold shame.[8]  My hunch is that modeling how to deal with failure, heartbreak, and shame is a way that entrepreneurs can contribute greatly to the church. Those who have walked down a road wrought with setbacks, who have decided to lean in to risk because they know they are tethered to the life and light of Christ, can be a source of hope for others in a changing world.

I think there is great value in learning from people who start successful businesses. But I also think that there is value in learning from those, like my client, who find themselves acting entrepreneurially in a wide array of contexts.


[1] The Kauffman Foundation is a leading research group on entrepreneurship. In writing for them, Alex Krause presents a few definitions that undergird the definition I’m using here. Notably, Howard Stevenson of Harvard Business School frames entrepreneurship as the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled.
Dan Isenberg, professor at Babson College, defines entrepreneurship this way: “Entrepreneurship is extraordinary value creation and capture, which almost always entrails a few people take a scary personal risk on some assets which the market undervalues.” Alex Krause, “Defining Entrepreneurship: From Dataset to Mindset,” Kauffman Foundation, January 20, 2017, http://www.kauffman.org/blogs/growthology/2017/01/defining-entrepreneurship-from-dataset-to-mindset.

[2] Tom Kelley and David Kelley, Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All (New York: Crown, 2013), 2-5.

[3] Tom Kelley and David Kelley, “Reclaim Your Creative Confidence,” Harvard Business Review (December 2012), 2.

[4] Miroslav Volf, Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1991), 114.

[5] Andy Crouch, Culture Making (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008) 104.
[6] Amy L. Sherman, Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011), Kindle Location 265.

[7] Brené Brown, Dearing Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York: Avery, 2012), 58.

[8] Brené Brown, “Shame and Vulnerability” The Work of the People, accessed January 20, 2018 

Dr. Michaela O’Donnell Long is the senior director of Fuller’s De Pree Center for Leadership. She is also the co-founder of Long Winter Media, a creative agency that helps brands make an impact. Michaela teaches as an adjunct professor of Practical Theology and Leadership at Fuller.

Michaela O’Donnell

Mary and Dale Andringa Executive Director

Michaela is the Mary and Dale Andringa Executive Director Chair at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership. She is also an assistant professor of marketplace leadership and the lead professor for Fuller Seminary’s Doctor of Global Leadership, Redemptive Imagination in the Marketplace progr...

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