Did you know that entrepreneurs are “undertakers?” For decades now I’ve taken note of entrepreneurs, both those who venture to start a business and those who don’t, yet seem to have an “entrepreneurial spirit” even as they work in companies started by others. I love entrepreneurs. Who else does the work of making honey out of flowers?

I’ve learned that there is a distinction between a business owner and an entrepreneur, at least as far as I’m concerned. If you, for example, inherited a family business or bought a franchise, you may be a successful business owner simply by continuing and implementing proven practices. You may or may not be entrepreneurial. What exactly, then, do I think an entrepreneur is? 

Entrepreneurs seek opportunities for profit and, by doing so, create new markets and fresh opportunities.

What stops people from being an entrepreneur is fear. Fear of risk or what is perceived as failure. What empowers people to be entrepreneurial is freedom.  According to a global “innovation index,” the US, Switzerland, Sweden and the U.K. are among the top-most innovative countries in the world.  Freedom breeds creativity, innovation, and the entrepreneurial spirit.

When a company’s culture gives employees enough freedom, then creativity, problem-solving and innovations abound; the entrepreneurial spirit is awakened.

Now, here is where the history really gets interesting—did you know that entrepreneurs are undertakers? “Drawn from the French, entre (between or under) and prendre (to take …the new word [was coined] to mean someone who undertakes business, as contrasted with a laborer, artisan, banker, merchant, or farmer,” said my author client, Bob Carroll.  

Carroll, leadership expert and Suncoast Digital Press published author of multiple books, contributed this bit of history of “entrepreneur.” 

Working with the senior team of Greenstar North America on a project of defining the desired culture for their new and growing company, I discovered that their Irish owner, NTR (a renewable energy company), was founded by a strident entrepreneur and that an entrepreneurial spirit is central to NTR’s philosophy and strategy. Finding considerable differences between various parties within Greenstar as to just what “entrepreneur” means, I did a bit of research.

Gads!  It was an Irishman who first coined the word “entrepreneur.”

The Cantillons, a surname of Spanish origin, settled in Ireland in the 12th century. According to one source, Ballyheigue, County Kerry, derives its name from Thadhg Cantillon. (Ballyheigue = Baile Uí Thaidhg, Town of Thadhg.) In Ballyheigue, five centuries later (1680), a Richard Cantillon was born.  It is unknown where he was educated, but he spent a considerable portion of his life in England and then in France as a banker, socialite, and scholar. He did return to London, where in 1734 he died, most likely murdered by his discharged cook.

About two years before he died, Richard Cantillon wrote a remarkable treatise on economics. While there is no debate about Cantillon being the author, there is great mystery surrounding whether it was first written in French or English and whether or not Cantillon did the translating. 

What surfaced in 1755, two decades after Cantillon’s death, is the only known original text, printed in French: Essai Sur la Nature du Commerce en Général. The book was a French translation from English and was printed in London: Traduit de L’Anglois. A Londres, Chez Fletcher Gyles, dans Holborn. M. DCC. LV. 

Cantillon’s single work, this essay, contains such a clear outline of the principles of economics that some refer to him as the economist’s economist. This book preceded Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776).  But Cantillon’s work fell into obscurity in the English-speaking world until resurrected and popularized by William Stanley Jevons in the 1880s and fully translated (back) into English by Henry Higgs in 1931.

Among many things, Cantillon is credited with coining the French word “entrepreneur” which has been borrowed by so many languages and is so much in vogue today.  Drawn from the French, entre (between or under) and prendre (to take), Cantillon used the new word to mean someone who undertakes business, as contrasted with a laborer, artisan, banker, merchant, or farmer. 

Random House defines an entrepreneur as “a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, esp. a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk.”

Much has been written about this topic since Cantillon invented the French word and the world adopted it. But it is interesting that the most widely referenced English publication of Cantillon’s essay, done by Henry Higgs in 1931, uses the arcane translation “undertaker” instead of Cantillon’s French word “entrepreneur.

 It is ironic that nowadays, an undertaker takes care of the dead while an entrepreneur gives life to a business. 

 Do you appreciate entrepreneurs and the entrepreneurial spirit? Join me in encouraging it in yourself and others. “New opportunities” are the lifeblood of humanity. Ask yourself, what would I undertake, if I knew I could not fail? 

Photo by Angie Ca Ro on Unsplash

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