The Rise of the Entrepreneur as a Media Icon

Reality shows like Shark Tank. An entrepreneur-themed Barbie. A sitcom about Silicon Valley.

“Entrepreneur” is word that was arguably uncommon – or at least less common – in the popular lexicon in as little as a few decades ago. Today, you can find it virtually everywhere, from news articles to college curriculum, to TV shows and movies.

Though it is a relatively old term, thought to be coined by French economist Jean-Baptiste Say around the 18th century, entrepreneurs seem to have risen as an archetype and icon in media and public discourse. Anecdotal evidence of this rise abounds. But can we find any evidence of that in the data? Turns out that yes.

Quantifying Media and Public Discourse

The answer to the question of how to quantify change in public discourse is not an obvious one. Sifting through written, audio, and video records and qualitatively describing them is very helpful, but very time consuming. Taking a data approach – for example, doing partially automated textual analysis on tons of data – would probably be advisable, and we can use mentions to “entrepreneur” in various records as a proxy for their influence in public discourse.

This is what I do on this post, looking first at book mentions, then at mentions in print news, and finally at mentions in movies and TV shows.

In some cases, to give us context, I also add comparisons the related word “businessman.”

As a side note, I also looked at the terms “businesswoman” and “businessperson,” but they show up very little compared to “businessman” or “entrepreneur.” The lack of frequency of the word “businesswoman” arguably suggests a lack of women in public discourse about business – a potential reflection of actual gender inequality in new business activity.

Entrepreneur’s Rise in Books

When we look at the frequency of the word “entrepreneur” in books from 1800 to 2008 (per percentage of total books, using data from Google Books Ngrams), a couple observations jump to mind, one on a short-term trend, another on a long-term trend:

  • Around the 90s the term “entrepreneur” seems to have taken over the term “businessman” in frequency. Any guesses on why that could be?
  • Looking at this, at least, the rise of entrepreneurs in books seem to have been steady and going on long time, at least since the late 19th century. However, despite the long on going rise, the term has reached new levels of popularity more recently.

Entrepreneur’s Rise in Print News

To measure the rise in use of the term “entrepreneur” in print news, I used the New York Times Chronicle tool, which catalogs this newspaper’s archives since the beginning of its history. This tool measures the frequency of certain words in NYT pieces, and my approach here is similar to the one Prof. Justin Wolfers took on this New York Times piece.

Admittedly, this has the drawback of looking at a single newspaper, the New York Times. However, I think this is a reasonable approach to give us a rough proxy of what is on the news – as the NYT has the second largest circulation in the country.

Rise of Entrepreneur in Print News -- Arnobio Morelix

A look a New York Times language use throughout the newspaper’s history tells a similar story regarding the long-term rise in the use of the word “entrepreneur.” Here, however, we only see the growth starting around the 1960s. For instance, only 79 articles mention “entrepreneur” in 1966, or 0.06% of all articles in that year. In 2014, we find 907 articles mentioning “entrepreneur” – which translates to about 0.9% of all articles, a growth of more than an order of magnitude.

Although the word “businessman” is still more used than “entrepreneur,” the gap huge gap that existed is the past few decades is now virtually closed.

Entrepreneurs and Businessmen in News -- Arnobio Morelix

For interactive versions of the two graphs above, check here and here.

Entrepreneur’s Rise in movies and TV shows

To measure this I use Prof. Ben Schmidts “bookworm:movies” tool, which catalogs thousands of movie and TV shows based on subtitles from Open Subtitles.

Entrepreneurs in Movies and TV Shows -- by Arnobio Morelix

For interactive version, see here.

Again, a similar story on the rise of the entrepreneur is movie and TV show discourse. With one thing to keep in mind, though: at least on movies and TV shows, “businessman” still gets a lot more mentions.

Final notes

To wrap this up, two notes to keep in mind:

  • These numbers only show frequency, not sentiment. So, we don’t know if entrepreneurs and businessmen are being spoken of favorably or not. With that in mind, this rise is not necessarily favorable to entrepreneurs (though I believe it is)
  • This is not more than some data-minded fun, not a scientific exploration. But the broad trends shown here seem to confirm what many of my colleagues and I suspected: entrepreneurs are on the rise in the public consciousness.
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