Anticipating instantaneous success as though a Regis Philbin "Who wants to be an …entrepreneur?" winner, we have come to expect and almost identify entrepreneurism with instantaneous wealth. Unfortunately, that is a very limited picture of entrepreneurs and antithetical to the word’s very origin as an undertaking.
The lives of seemingly "ordinary" people are replete with examples of entrepreneurism. For example, I know this gentleman who began his entrepreneurism as a boy, 17 years of age, selling magazine subscriptions, traveling from town to town in Wisconsin to earn enough money to eat. After high school, having no money for college, this young man played bass fiddle and sousaphone in an orchestra, and ran a router in a chair factory, until he was able to attend a state teacher’s college on a work scholarship.
After only two years there, his education was interrupted by World War II. Upon his return from service, the state college said he was no longer a resident of the state, and so the cost of further schooling became prohibitive. Having married a few days before going to war and wanting to start a family, he found a job as a payroll auditor for an insurance company. A few years later, he moved on to a business opportunity that particularly interested him — raising chinchillas and selling them for their fur.
Before he began this venture, he researched the experience of others and gathered reports from experts at several universities. He put his plan together, purchased several mating pairs of animals and began his chinchilla farm. Quite tragically, however, the animals contracted a disease which rapidly destroyed the entire farm. The man went bankrupt.
Gathering himself up he once again looked for employment, finding it in a series of jobs — first as an insurance underwriter, next as a safety engineer, subsequently as a safety engineer for the same company in a different state — before becoming a personnel assistant at Bendix Missile plant. When he was laid off from Bendix because of defense spending cutbacks, he concluded that it was time to go back to college, finish his undergraduate studies and get the college degree that employers were requiring for better-paying jobs. At age 43, with the love and support of his working wife, he left home and renewed his college studies, finishing his bachelor’s two years later. Living away from home for so long with a family of three school-age children was not easy.
For a year after graduation, he taught mathematics at a local high school. Deciding teaching was not for him, he changed jobs to become a personnel representative in a local small business. When the company folded, Bethlehem Steel was fortunately building a new plant nearby, so he applied for employment and was hired as an industrial engineer. It was a good job with good benefits. He had attained the status of Chief Industrial Engineer over a decade later at the time of his retirement.
This man is my father. He was not born into affluence and had no superlative moments of incredible good fortune. But he persevered through many hardships and periods of self-doubt, improving life for himself and for our family over the course of many years. Despite his many undertakings, he was able to garner a modest pension sufficient to retire in relative comfort. Much to his surprise, he was finally, by his own self-effacing acknowledgement, a success and quite happy as well.
For the last nearly twenty years, up until last week, he and my mother, without whom it would not have been possible, celebrated that success each day in a wonderful retirement community in Florida.
Now, he must again determine how to move forward and what to do. It is an even greater challenge that he faces alone. He is truly an entrepreneur. He has worked hard and overcome many challenges with absolute doggedness. Ultimately, he has built a family and a life that has been incredibly fulfilling…and has already had success beyond his dreams. We are all entrepreneurs throughout our entire lives.
Dedicated to the Memory of Ruth Ann Galles, June 7, 2000.