- ‘Hate Speech’ Makes for a Fascinating Discussion - November 9, 2017
- Long-Term Care … or the Things You Think About When Retirement Looms - August 17, 2017
- A Moving Tribute to Entrepreneurs - November 10, 2016
Last night, The Heartland Institute’s “movie night” featured The Call of the Entrepreneur, a beautifully filmed tribute to entrepreneurship and the essential role it plays in securing the blessings of liberty in America. Our audience was small but engaged, appreciative, inspired, and at times moved by the entrepreneurs’ personal stories. We had a great discussion afterwards about the importance of entrepreneurship … and some valuable advice for how Heartland might work with The Acton Institute and others to promote the documentary to a wider audience.
The first featured entrepreneur is Brad Morgan, a dairy farmer in central Michigan. Rather than spend thousands of dollars a year to dispose of the “cow pies” his dairy herd was producing, Morgan decided to “take a raw product that had no value and turn it into a product that has extreme value in the marketplace.” Dairy Doo, a high-grade compost, was born. Morgan says his original goal was to make about $30,000 a year from the sale of the compost. At the time the interview for this documentary was filmed, Dairy Doo was “doing” $1.5 million a year.
Morgan describes the faith that enables an entrepreneur to persevere, to take heart, to move past obstacles. This important theme runs throughout the documentary: Entrepreneurs face obstacles head-on, risking their livelihoods and even family relationships, trusting deep-down that what they’re doing is important and will ultimately be successful. It’s most definitely not just about the money, and although there are certainly greedy entrepreneurs (and movie stars, and sports figures, and politicians, and any other profession you can think of), the most successful entrepreneurs are not self-directed but other-directed: They pay attention to what others want and need, and they risk a lot to serve others.
Morgan’s story resonated with me. As many of you know, Heartland Institute President Joe Bast and I were married just three years before The Heartland Institute was launched. Joe was the first employee, and he hired me a couple of years later (we explain we’re both workaholics and would never have seen each other if I wasn’t working for him at Heartland). There have been many difficult times along the way to Heartland’s success, but as Morgan says at the end of the program, “I look back today and I wouldn’t rewrite that book for no love or money.” (Well, maybe I’d rewrite one chapter of Heartland’s book.)
The second story comes from Frank Hanna, a merchant banker, who says entrepreneurs have “a little engineer in them, a little boy in them,” because they want to know how things work. Entrepreneurs/capitalists “gather a lot of information,” because the more information you have and can sift through and understand, the better decisions you can make.
Hanna has the challenging task in the film of defending people who appear to get wealthy by “producing nothing.” They are what he refers to as “financial engineers”: the ones who understand and manage risk, finding ways to share or spread that risk across many people, making it possible for other entrepreneurs to get the financing they need. Without the “financial engineers,” other entrepreneurs would have to depend on their own savings, or maybe loans from family or friends. It’s tough to grow a business that way!
The Heartland audience, of course, pretty much understood and appreciated all of this. But not everyone does. No doubt you’ve heard someone, at some time (maybe an anti-Trump protestor?) complain about capitalism as a “zero-sum economy,” where the success of some people comes at the expense of others. Hanna calls that “the great evil in an economy: the belief in a zero-sum game.”
The documentary’s final featured entrepreneur is Jimmy Lai, founder of the clothing store Giordano and a media mogul. Think Horatio Alger, all the more remarkable because he started in a Communist country.
Before the age of 10, Lai was working in a railway station carrying luggage for travelers. At first, he was fearful of “the outside world” because he had no experience with it. But he learned “from real people from the outside world that the outside [not Communist] world was not evil.”
A traveler from Hong Kong gave him a chocolate candy bar – a treat he had never before experienced. He decided “Hong Kong must be heaven,” and he went there, with his mother’s reluctant blessing, by himself … at the age of 12-1/2, smuggled in the bottom hold of a fishing junk. He worked in a factory – some would call it a “sweatshop,” no doubt – and learned how to read and speak English, because he noticed that was the language of all the successful people.
As if these experiences weren’t enough to transform a young boy into a capitalist, Lai was invited to have dinner at the home of a retired successful businessman. There, he was given “the book that changed my life”: Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. There was a collective chuckle, appreciative and knowing, from the Heartland audience.
Lai says “taking risk is dashing into hope.” After his own many successes, he became actively involved in the protests at Tiananmen Square, explaining that “information equals choice equals freedom.” His media enterprises are aimed at providing information, he says, so that people can make their own choices and become more free.
In addition to the three featured entrepreneurs, The Call of the Entrepreneur features narration by Acton Institute President Rev. Robert Sirico, Discovery Institute’s George Gilder, and Heartland policy advisor and professor of economics Peter Boettke, among others.
Fr. Sirico appears throughout the documentary, explaining or expanding upon points made by the featured entrepreneurs. I found his insights at the end of the movie especially appropriate, where he notes being an entrepreneur “is not an individualist thing.” The economy is like an orchestra, he says, composed of individual instrumentalists often with remarkable talents. The orchestra’s conductor likely cannot play any of the instruments nearly as well, but he or she has “an overall vision of where this thing goes.” The conductor knows when to hold some instruments back, when to bring some forward. The entrepreneur, like the orchestra’s conductor, puts together the individual resources and makes something remarkable out of it – the whole becomes much more than the sum of its parts.
Where do we go from here? We had a great discussion after the documentary about how we might work together to get The Call of the Entrepreneur shown to elementary and high school students. We talked about developing a “reading list” and maybe even a book club on entrepreneurship under the auspices of Heartland’s Michael Parry Mazur Library – among the books mentioned were The Ghost Map, about how cholera was understood and isolated in the 1800s; Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, about child-entrepreneurs in India; and The Arab Spring, whose subtitle, Pathways of Repression and Reform, pretty much says it all.
If you’d be interested in helping us put together a screening of The Call of the Entrepreneur for some audience you’re a part of, please contact me or Heartland’s marketing director, Veronica Harrison. We’d love to hear from you!