There has been an explosion of entrepreneurs in the media over the last decade. Entrepreneurs have been showcased, praised, and glorified—in books, TV shows, movies, magazines, and events—to a degree never seen before in history. In this post, the focus will be on the outburst of TV shows focused on entrepreneurs and startups. In case you’ve been able to escape the tidal wave of entrepreneurs in pop culture, here are a few examples of TV shows based on entrepreneurs in the last decade:
The list is far from complete, but these shows demonstrate the popularity and emergence of entrepreneurs in pop culture. Entrepreneurs have even become the focus of reality TV shows, such as Start-Ups: Silicon Valley and Start-Up Junkies. After watching at least the preview of each show and reading related coverage on entrepreneurs in the media, I began to notice some consistent themes. The shows were located on the coasts, and featured primarily young and very successful entrepreneurs. Most of the startups were valued at millions or even billions of dollars, had received institutional funding, and operated in the high-tech industry.
While not all of these shows portrayed entrepreneurs in this light exactly (notably, The Profit, Shark Tank and START UP), a clear majority did. The combined narrative provides a narrow view of entrepreneurs, startups, and the entrepreneurial process.
Unfortunately, the trend isn’t confined to television. By the end of the year, four movies will have been made on the historic entrepreneur behind Apple, Steve Jobs.
Needless to say, Steve Jobs was an amazingly successful and unique entrepreneur, who deserves to have his story told – it is less clear that we need four films to do so.
Between the glut of Jobs films, and the rash of TV shows, it’s evident that entrepreneurs are in the spotlight – they are being portrayed and celebrated in contemporary pop culture as never before. As a result, starting a business is "taking up a larger and larger role in our aspirational lives," according to Robert Thompson, a pop-culture professor at Syracuse University.
This entrepreneurship zeitgeist raises a number of questions:
These questions are very difficult to answer with hard evidence, so I can only hypothesize about the consequences. Nonetheless, I will try to appeal to what facts we do have.
Even putting aside TV shows and movies, Millennials are more exposed to entrepreneurship than any previous generation. Millennials have more entrepreneurial role models early in life. According to the Kauffman State of Entrepreneurship report, 3% of the college freshmen in 2013 had mothers who were entrepreneurs, and 9% had fathers who ran a business. Moreover, the same report found that we are amidst an explosion of entrepreneurship courses in secondary education, and that “entrepreneurship has been the fastest-growing curricular, co-curricular, and extracurricular activity on college campuses.” Millennials also have the highest rates of intention to start a business according to a survey by Young Invincibles, which reported that “more than 50 percent of survey respondents who have not yet started a business stating that they would like to one day”.
Despite all of this exposure, Millennials are now the least entrepreneurial generation, with only “3.6% of households headed by adults younger than 30 owned stakes in private companies.” We still don’t know what the relationship actually is between exposure and real entrepreneurship rates, but perhaps we see this gap between intention and actualization because of how unrealistic the popular narratives are.
As an informal exercise, we can quickly contrast the media celebritization of entrepreneurs with perspectives from actual business owners and macro-level statistics:
Popular media has recently been engaged in glorifying entrepreneurship, and in that misrepresentative process done potential entrepreneurs a disservice. We may be seeing more entrepreneurial intention these days, but that has failed to translate into more new businesses, and the young entrepreneurs who aim to emulate what they see in TV and movies are likely to find a harsher (if nonetheless rewarding) reality waiting for them.
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Colin Tomkins-Bergh is a research analyst in Research and Policy for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, working to evaluate the effectiveness of entrepreneurial ecosystems following the Great Recession and performing research around the Ag Tech sector.