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A Reflection of Entrepreneurs in Pop Culture: The Celebritization of Entrepreneurs

Kauffman researcher Colin Tomkins-Bergh explores the current entrepreneurship zeitgist and its potential implications on potential and young entrepreneurs.

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:

  • How I Made My Millions – 2003-2014
  • Start-Up Junkies -2008
  • Shark Tank – 2009-present
  • Bloomberg: The Mentor – 2010-2012
  • CNBC Titans – 2011
  • Techstars – 2011-present
  • The Profit – 2013-present
  • Start-Ups: Silicon Valley – 2012-2012
  • Betas – 2013-2013
  • START UP – 2013-present
  • Silicon Valley – 2014-present

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, you begin 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.

entrepreneur with cameras flashing

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.

  • Pirates of Silicon Valley – 1999
  • iSteve – 2013
  • Jobs – 2014
  • Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine – 2015

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:

  • What does it mean for entrepreneurs and startups to step into the spotlight of pop culture?
  • How does the homogeneity in portrayal of these entrepreneurs – young, successful, rich – affect broader attitudes about entrepreneurship?
  • How does this message affect entrepreneurially interested students and entrepreneurs of all ages?

These questions are very difficult to answer without hard evidence. Nonetheless, we 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 a 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:

  • Becoming an entrepreneur is sexy and viewed as a guaranteed success.
    • “Entrepreneurship is not cool, it’s not sexy and it’s totally uncomfortable. It’s boring and grueling, and that part is never part of the movie,” – Eric Reis
    • “I think the reality is that writing code and then building a product and building a company is not a glamorous enough thing to make a movie about, so you can imagine that a lot of this stuff they had to embellish or make up,” – Mark Zuckerberg
  • The entrepreneur stereotype is narrowed to someone who is young (20-30 years old), able to code, wears a hoodie and is in the IT sector.
    • “Founders tend to be middle-aged – 40 years old on average – when they start their first company.“ Anatomy of an Entrepreneur
  • Entrepreneurs aim for fame and try to copy the success stories of celebrity entrepreneurs – Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Sergey Brin – instead of trying to improve society or simply make money.
    • “It’s not about the fame, glory or money. It’s about building products that transform the world and drive the humanity forward.” HBR

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.