The Stigma of Being an “Entrepreneur”
photo of water and boat with JALA Fish logo

August 14, 2021

By Kaylene Alvarez, Managing Director

Words matter. They really do. This is even more true when working internationally, across cultures and languages.

At Athena Global and BIDUK Indonesia, we’re working to understand how words can perpetuate power dynamics and frame the context for how we think.

For example, at least in the USA, we often see awful headlines like “Woman Attacked by Local Gang.” First of all, it’s deplorable that this is a headline. But it’s also alarming that headlines like this use passive language to frame the context that the woman was a nameless, faceless victim. As if attacking someone is a passive activity, something that was done to that person as if by accident. In fact, the headline should read “Local Gang Attacks Woman,” which puts the responsibility where it should be. If we’re not careful language can sneakily relieve offenders of responsibility or frame victims as culpable for the crimes committed against them. This happens easily, in part because it makes us feel more comfortable to distance ourselves from the crime by using passive voice, especially when the victim is vulnerable or marginalized.  

Maybe this is an extreme example, but it’s just one of many that show us how the words we use, and how we arrange them, can perpetuate or break a bias. Earlier this year we told you why we decided to embrace the term SGB for BIDUK Indonesia instead of the more widely used SME. Now that we’re more aware of how words matter, we’re seeing problems in other areas of our language, too. One of these is the word “entrepreneur.” This seems like a purely harmless word, though hard to spell and pronounce (thank you French language), common in the world of financing and startups and business. 

The problem lies in its cultural meaning and what it signifies to different people. Though most of us might have vague notions of an “entrepreneur” as someone who takes a risk to start a business, or build a business, or run a business — the word is ambiguous and invites us to fill in the blanks with our own personal bias. What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word “entrepreneur?”

For some, it can conjure a vision of a white, hipster, alpha personality tech dude (male or female) — perhaps one with ambitions of IPO-ing a business in the next 5 years in order to buy a ticket on an unfortunately-shaped rocket for space tourism? Or maybe it makes you think of someone who couldn’t get or hold a “real” job, so they started a business? Perhaps it makes some people think of someone who has a “side hustle” apart from their “day job?” And for a lot of financial intermediaries, it can be a negative; the word “entrepreneur” often has the connotation of someone who runs a tiny business or hasn’t made it big or someone who is struggling financially….which makes them a huge risk from an investment perspective. 

It can conjure a vision of a white, hipster tech dude with ambitions of IPO-ing a business in the next 5 years in order to buy a ticket on an unfortunately shaped rocket.

If you’re a business owner who is labeled “entrepreneur” but you haven’t secured any huge capital infusions from venture capital or angel investors, or from a bank, people might assume that you aren’t “really” successful or that you don’t quite have what it takes. It can also imply that you don’t yet understand the nuts and bolts of running a business, that you’re playing around with ideas and talking yourself up but haven’t actually done anything yet. That’s both unfair and untrue, and reeks of bias.

Anyone who starts a business is a risk-taker. Whether they are forced to start a business because they need income, or whether they’re realizing a dream, or whether it’s something their family has always done — all business founders and owners learn to get comfortable with a certain amount of risk. The odds aren’t great that they will succeed. For those who do, make no mistake, they ARE business owners — they’ve got enough of it figured out to keep going and keep adapting and keep finding clients. It doesn’t matter if they have 1,000 employees, or 100 or 10 or even one. And let’s be honest, the size of a company doesn’t matter — no one has it all figured out! Even Fortune 500 companies that trade on stock exchanges, with thousands of employees, fancy Boards and billions in annual revenue don’t get it right all the time. For financiers, the word “entrepreneur” can often have the connotation that a person is somehow “less than” a business owner because they don’t YET run a billion-dollar-a-year company. 

At Athena Global and BIDUK Indonesia, we’d like to be more intentional about the words we use. So we’re phasing out the use of the word “entrepreneur” in favor of “business owner.” We don’t expect this to be easy as the term is entrenched in the industry, with our partners, our clients and even among our team. But we do think it’s important NOT to perpetuate bias, and to respect those who start businesses for the courage they have, the learning they do every day, and their hustle. We support business owners. We celebrate their successes and support them in continuing to evolve.