Entrepreneurs as social superheroes: not so fast

Oh no, I’ve just made myself unpopular again. This time it was at a breakfast event (at the House of Lords, donchaknow) – celebrating social enterprise and entrepreneurialism as a social good. Why I couldn’t have kept my big gob shut I don’t know. But I couldn’t. I just had to ruin it, saying that entrepreneurs tend to be selfish people. They’re highly uncharitable, I said. They’re individualists, misfits, outsiders. So while entrepreneurialism provides society with social benefits such as innovation, employment and economic growth, the notion of entrepreneurs doing so purely because of their altruistic instincts is false.

Of course, this rather went against the grain of the entire event. In fact, I was focusing on a particular story – just told by a guest speaker and well-known London restaurant entrepreneur. He’d been involved in a cooking-skills project in a London prison, aimed at developing a route towards employability for young offenders. One shone above the others and, on release, was offered work experience in his kitchen, which morphed into full-time employment as a chef.

Great news. In fact, such great news it found its way into the newspapers (via a deliberate PR drive, of course), which led to a spike in interest and bookings for the restaurant.

And it’s here where I intervened: stating that the increase in bookings via strong PR should be the essential takeaway for entrepreneurs. For the entrepreneur, the social good is a byproduct: a happenstance (though one happily publicized for gain). What really matters is the entirely-selfish economic benefit, not least in the fact the restaurant found a new chef willing to work hard and demonstrate loyalty (a small price for having his life turned around), and the restaurant itself saw an uplift in custom from the propagated feelgood factor.

What’s not to like?

Yet I was nearly hounded out of the room for my temerity. No, no, no, said speaker after speaker: entrepreneurs should do good for good’s sake. “Giving back” – perhaps via a corporate and social responsibility programme or even by the very nature of the business – was cause-enough for strong social works: profit motive be damned. Soon, they were out bidding each other trying to prove their social worth – and me wrong – even suggesting percentages of profits to be ring-fenced for good deeds.

Before long – and to my amazement – we were hearing about swathes of the African countryside being educated on the proceeds of British entrepreneurialism, with each step towards this social nirvana making me feel more like some despicable and selfish capitalist pigdog. Or at least someone at the wrong event. I even noticed the body-language of those around me stiffen: who let this freemarket dinosaur in, they seemed to be saying? What a throwback!

But then I remembered where I was. Here we sat, in one of those slightly faded mock-gothic committee rooms in the bowels of Parliament. Lords, OBEs and CBEs sat around me, as well as people from government agencies, think-tank wonks and a smattering of accounting, banking and private equity bods whose job it was to attract entrepreneurial clients.

And then there were the entrepreneurs that had cashed-out and were now “giving back” in one form or another. Sure, in-the-thick-of-it entrepreneurs were also represented. But, even here, all was not what it seemed: one wanted to become a politician, for instance.

So I tried again with my “entrepreneurs are essentially selfish and that’s just fine” line – only to dig myself into an even deeper hole. Take a Rotherham window cleaner, I said. He’s only concern is putting food on the table while he grows his business. He’s more interested in outfoxing rival Rotherham window-cleaning firms – and then moving on to outfox those in Doncaster – than being the good guy, doing good things. Sure he may employ an ex-offender, but that’s because he’s cheap and willing to work long hours: it’s got nowt to do with charity.

Yet even my fictional Rotherham window cleaner didn’t escape the need to deliberately-benefit wider society (rather than as a byproduct of his selfishness). While accepting his narrow motives, it was no excuse for not consciously acting for society’s benefit, they said – with someone even suggesting he make a principled stand by using only environmentally-friendly detergent!

That depends on the cost, I replied, rather desperately.

In fact, so desperate was I that I made the mistake of referring to my favourite thinker, Abraham Maslow: he of the hierarchy of needs. Here was Maslow’s hierarchy in action, I stated, to bemused looks from the audience.

As all psychology students know, the point of Maslow’s hierarchy is that it’s impossible to move to the higher level without first satisfying the lower need. So, while the most basic personal needs are food and water, we cannot move towards the next level (safety) without satisfying them. Once fed – and only once fed – will we seek safety via shelter. Only once safe will we seek love and belonging. And only once we feel loved, will we seek self-esteem – usually via achievement, including wealth.

Finally, only once we have self-esteem, will we arrive at our “self-actualized” summit, in which we seek attributes such as creativity and morality. It’s here where we become concerned about social good or “giving back”. If we have everything else we need – including self-esteem – morality matters. Before that, morality’s a highly suspicious public attribute, potentially hiding a deep-seated selfishness.

Of course, I love Maslow’s hierarchy. For me it explains why I always felt such an outsider at university and even in my early careers in the media (unlike those around me I was still seeking self-esteem, or even love and belonging). It then explains why I felt equally out-of-sorts in the City (having become self-actualised while working in the media, I no longer sought achievement via wealth). Indeed, it explains all those “greedy” Essex boy City traders, as well as all those “champagne socialists”, middle-class “tree huggers” and wealthy entrepreneurial social “do-gooders”.

“Congratulations,” I concluded, “you’ve all arrived at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy.”

Of course, I thought my Maslow speech would go down well – offering psychological insight into why this wonderful audience of self-actualised winners seemed so divorced from the more basic needs of my Rotherham window cleaner. I expected spontaneous applause. Yet it was received in silence and with embarrassed smiles (embarrassed for me, that is). Soon, someone – again – defended entrepreneurial social activism, and the enthusiastic smiling and nodding started once more.

Oh dear! The event ended and those either side of me turned right and left to network with those on my far side. Others were keen to meet the organizers and maybe catch a word with one of the entrepreneurial names on the top table. Meanwhile, I sat and pretended to make some notes. I then collected my coat and made my way to Westminster tube station, alone.

It’s not easy being an outsider.