Enterprise, entrepreneur, and a group of related words have emerged since the 1970s as central terms of a new emphasis in capitalist, especially neoliberal, societies. An overall shift in how we perceive change, opportunity, innovation, and wealth creation has already had an impact on the preferred forms of organization by means of which goods and services are produced and delivered. But changes associated with these words are not confined to the traditional business sector. When enterprise is used in specialized combinations such as social enterprise or in collocations such as enterprise university, influence extends to institutions previously conceived along very different lines.
Changing meanings of enterprise and entrepreneur also have an effect on personal value systems, for example in the favorable presumption now typically conveyed by enterprising person and entrepreneurial character. Precise characteristics of an entrepreneur, or of the entrepreneurial process, have never, however, achieved any consensual definition. Lack of agreement partly follows from conflicting ideological frameworks within which the words are deployed. While enterprise and entrepreneur are often used to signify approval (conveying qualities of creativeness or inventiveness), in other circumstances the same terms are used to condemn behavior as opportunistic, exploitative, unethical, unduly competitive, or selfish.
Enterprise and entrepreneur derive from a similar route: Old French entrepris[e], past participle of entreprendre, “to undertake.” Adopted into English from C15, the general, descriptive OED sense emerges of “[a] design of which the execution is attempted; a piece of work taken in hand, an undertaking; chiefly, and now exclusively, a bold, arduous, or momentous undertaking.”
Alongside this general “undertaking” sense, enterprise has been used in English in a more specialized, political economy sense from at least eC19. Throughout C19, nevertheless, use of related entrepreneur in a broad political economy sense was still often accompanied by reference back to its French roots, as in the OED quotation from 1891, “We have . . . been obliged to resort to the French language for a word to designate the person who organizes and directs the productive factors, and we call such a one an entrepreneur.” In philosophical writing, that French connection seems to have involved implied reference to Richard Cantillon’s (1755) treatment of business judgments exercised in the face of uncertainty as to rewards but with fixed costs: a discussion influential on accounts of entrepreneurial activity offered later by Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Jeremy Bentham.
In C18 and C19 accounts, an entrepreneur might still be an owner or proprietor of any small firm, using his or her own capital and operating in a fairly stable market. Only gradually did the difference between general businessperson and entrepreneur increase in terms of different degrees of risk, innovation, and tempo of operation. Greater emphasis placed on exploiting opportunities unseen by others, especially in response to uncertain market conditions presented by rapid change, led to emergence of an entrepreneur as someone who exploits opportunity in a changing marketplace, often at personal risk, and so as the innovator, initiator, and commercial risk-taker.
The business practices that characterize enterprise and entrepreneurship were analyzed influentially during C20 by, among others, the Moravian-born American economist J. A. Schumpeter, a major influence on the development during the 1930s and 1940s of entrepreneurship theory: a specialized academic field sometimes in tension with the pragmatic, often intuitive and improvisatory approach of many actual entrepreneurs.
More recent shifts in enterprise and entrepreneur are perhaps most closely associated with OED sense, “Disposition or readiness to engage in undertakings of difficulty, risk, or danger; daring spirit.” This “disposition” sense emerges from the accentuation of risk outlined in the preceding, and introduces the idea of character or personality traits already inherent but not yet developed in earlier senses. This line of development in entrepreneur is reflected in modern ideas of entrepreneurial personality and commercial instinct. People are praised for showing qualities of a “born entrepreneur,” or for engaging in “entrepreneurial decision-making” by following imputed natural inclinations, first illustrated in OED with reference to artistic or theatrical work (cf. “impresario”); and attention to the dramatic, sometimes larger-than-life character and lifestyle of the business entrepreneur continued into many C20 uses.
The most recent phase of development, from the 1970s onward, can be followed in a range of extensions of meaning reflected in combinations with enterprise. Enterprise zone began to be used to designate an area of high unemployment and low investment, usually in an inner city, where government encouraged new enterprise by granting financial concessions such as tax and rate relief to businesses. In some thinking of the period, such terms presaged an emergent enterprise culture, foreseen as an encapsulation of established values of free enterprise and private enterprise, generalizing policy incentives adopted for urban renewal to all sectors. Enterprise culture was also presented as the best way to improve competitive position in global commerce. Some uses of enterprise culture from the period convey enthusiasm for the vision of individualism, personal achievement, striving for excellence, hard work, and assumption of personal responsibility for actions. Others suggest an awkwardness in adopting either the expression or the practice.
One difficulty inherent in a verbal combination like enterprise culture is that the phrase brings together potentially conflicting values: that of accentuated individualism (in enterprise) and a value inherent in social norms or conventions (in culture). Proposed as a basis for social behavior, enterprise, entrepreneur, entrepreneurial character, and so on become tangled up not only in how people do business or how services are delivered, but also in more general notions of what constitutes citizenship.
The most challenging verbal combination with enterprise, however, is social enterprise, which the July 2017 version of the Wikipedia article defines as follows: “A social enterprise is an organization that applies commercial strategies to maximize improvements in human and environmental well-being—this may include maximizing social impact alongside profits for external shareholders.” Rethinking different kinds of organization along these lines has repercussions across many areas of society and culture, including for instance health, arts, and education. In education, an enterprise agenda can be made part of the curriculum, reflected in a shift toward vocational training to develop enterprise competencies. It may also prescribe a form of institutional organization and management. Inevitably, contradictions then surface as regards whether the mission, values of members of staff, and expectation of professional and voluntary contribution are compatible with an enterprise ethos. This will be especially the case if that ethos foregrounds risk-taking and a search for market opportunities in delivering what might otherwise be considered a public service.
Little consensus exists on whether theories of entrepreneurship have a scientific basis or are primarily a matter of ideological commitment. The connection is also questioned between entrepreneurship as a teachable practice or attitude and aspects of social background such as ethnicity, national history, and religion. During a period of recession, debate over enterprise and entrepreneurship is inflamed by questions about whether aspirations encouraged by ideas of rapid wealth accumulation and risk may lead to social problems associated with exclusion. Different senses of enterprise and entrepreneurship play a continuing role, too, in changing representations of businesspeople and commercial activity in fiction, cinema, and drama.