Entrepreneurship is often cited as a major engine of economic growth, particularly in the United States. But the actual picture is more complicated. Here's what leading scholars have to say about the importance of entrepreneurship around the world.
- Entrepreneurship can fuel economic growth under the right conditions and when people become entrepreneurs for the right reasons.
- It is not, however, a magic bullet for growth, particularly in less-developed economies.
- Social entrepreneurship can attempt to deliver both profits and societal good, though often with mixed results.
What Is Entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship is a general, blanket term related to starting a business. But its precise definition has long been a matter of debate among scholars and policymakers.
"Despite widespread interest in the topic and a broad recognition of its importance to the economy, there remains a lack of consensus about how to specifically define entrepreneurship," the nonpartisan Center for American Entrepreneurship notes. "'Entrepreneur' is an English derivation of the French word 'entreprendre' (to undertake), leaving wide latitude for interpretation and application."
Howard Stevenson, known as "the godfather of entrepreneurship studies" at Harvard Business School (HBS), has defined it as the "pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled." As fellow HBS professor Tom Eisenmann elaborates, "'beyond resources controlled' implies resource constraints. At a new venture's outset, its founders control only their own human, social, and financial capital. Many entrepreneurs bootstrap: they keep expenditures to a bare minimum while investing only their own time and, as necessary, their personal funds."
The Stanford Center for Professional Development at Stanford University offers a somewhat simpler definition: "At its most basic level, entrepreneurship refers to an individual or a small group of partners who strike out on an original path to create a new business. An aspiring entrepreneur actively seeks a particular business venture and it is the entrepreneur who assumes the greatest amount of risk associated with the project. As such, this person also stands to benefit most if the project is a success."
How Entrepreneurs Fuel Economic Growth
Innovation and entrepreneurship undeniably contribute to economic growth, making them a particular area of interest for economists and policymakers worldwide. However, some scholars say that the growth created by entrepreneurship can be exaggerated.
For one thing, growth from entrepreneurial activity doesn't occur evenly across an economy. Studies of economic growth have pointed toward an apparent paradox in which the growth in productivity overall in the U.S. has been only modest in recent years, despite the pervasiveness of entrepreneurship, innovation, and innovation ideology. According to studies by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), this is because innovation affects industries very differently, having a large impact in some sectors of the economy but little impact in others.
While generally positive, the link between entrepreneurship and improving societal welfare is also complicated, influenced by factors such as regional population, entrepreneurship density, and the specific industry in which the entrepreneurial activity is taking place, according to the scholarly literature.
What's more, some studies have suggested that economic growth may be correlated to an increase in overall inequality in certain circumstances. Scholars say that in the U.S. income inequality and economic growth have been linked since the 1970s.
"Necessity" Entrepreneurs vs. "Opportunity" Entrepreneurs
One interesting way to look at entrepreneurship is to divide it into two broad categories. "Necessity entrepreneurship" is the launching of a business by people who lack other opportunities. "Opportunity entrepreneurship" is the creation of an enterprise in response to a new or previously overlooked opportunity.
In countries where entrepreneurial activity is largely in the form of necessity entrepreneurship, it can be a signal that the economy isn't creating enough jobs or wage opportunities for workers. It may be connected to slow economic growth or lagging economic development overall, scholars say.
Necessity entrepreneurship can be a side hustle for someone who is trying to make ends meet or a way to meet their non-economic needs and goals.
Where Entrepreneurship Aids Growth—and Where It Doesn't
The level of economic development of a country can also affect whether entrepreneurship will lead to greater economic growth there.
In the 20th century, driven by the decline in manufacturing and the shift toward service businesses, industrialized market economies in later stages of economic development—like the United States and parts of western Europe, such as Germany and Sweden—were able to benefit greatly from entrepreneurship, the economist and management professor Zoltan Acs has noted. Starting in the 1970s, those countries saw a rise in entrepreneurship, which reversed the previous trend in their economies, when workers favored high-paying jobs with big companies over self-employment.
Other factors may be relevant as well. Scholars point out that the U.S., in particular, has benefited from a large and competitive domestic market, a highly developed financial system, and a high level of long-term government support for basic science.
For developing countries, on the other hand, entrepreneurship isn't a panacea for growth. A study of 74 economies across a six-year period concluded that less developed countries should not base their economic policy on "generic entrepreneurship" if they desire to stimulate economic growth. The authors argue that focusing on programs that develop human capital, take advantage of economies of scale, and entice foreign capital are more effective in spurring economic growth.
Italy may provide an additional example of a country where high levels of self-employment have proved to be inefficient for economic development. Research has shown that Italy has experienced large negative impacts on the growth of its economy because of self-employment.
Social Entrepreneurship and Economic Progress
With concerns over sustainability, inequality, and other issues gaining attention, some entrepreneurs have become more interested in the social consequences of their economic activity. In particular, the rise of social awareness among certain entrepreneurs has led to many attempts to use the principles of entrepreneurship to create a more just and sustainable world.
Social entrepreneurship, which has been around as a concept since the 1950s, has become increasingly common. It describes a category of entrepreneurship that can, in some cases, attempt to both make a profit and solve societal problems. It differs from the typical nonprofit model when it pursues both of those ends simultaneously.
From the perspective of social justice, which prizes a world with equal rights and access to opportunity, the reliance of an economic system on entrepreneurship presents both upsides and downsides.
Theoretically, socially conscious entrepreneurship offers the opportunity to generate solutions for marginalized communities, and the motivations for social entrepreneurs around the world tend to come from a genuine desire to fix serious problems. However, it's important to note that sometimes attempts to solve the underlying structural problems lead to murky results. The dual motives of profit and social good can sometimes clash, as the example of microfinancing in India and Bangladesh revealed.
Once popular in international circles, microfinancing is now seen as having a more limited impact on eradicating poverty and sometimes even increasing indebtedness. The practice may have also led to a series of suicides among farmers in Andhra Pradesh in the 2000s.
What Is the Difference Between a Small Business Owner and an Entrepreneur?
In general, small businesses focus on existing products and services, while entrepreneurs look to introduce new ones. However, small business owners can be entrepreneurial in their own way and entrepreneurs may end up as small business owners if their idea catches on.
What Is an Intrapreneur?
An intrapreneur is someone who works within a larger company, typically one they don't own, to foster entrepreneurial ideas and innovation. Intrapreneurship can be another source of economic growth, and intrapreneurs often have access to greater resources than independent entrepreneurs without a company behind them.
What Is a Social Entrepreneur?
A social entrepreneur is someone who launches an innovative enterprise to address a larger social issue. They may or may not also hope to turn a profit from their efforts.
The Bottom Line
The relationship between entrepreneurship and economic growth is complicated and can vary from one country to another based on their level of economic development. In highly developed economies, entrepreneurs can accelerate growth, while in less-developed ones they may have less of a positive effect.
Some entrepreneurial efforts, often referred to as social entrepreneurship, hold out the promise for new innovations that will address problems such as climate change and structural racism, possibly while making a profit at the same time.