Prepare to read the most offensive statement I’ve ever written:
“Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough.”
That sounds like Entrepreneurship 101, right? Well, to some, it's actually been labeled a “racial microaggression,” a kind of stealth racism never to be uttered in polite company. Why? Well, according to the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point, when you say that everyone can succeed if they work hard, you’re actually telling certain groups that they “are lazy and/or incompetent and need to work harder.”
It is, under this thinking, the “myth of meritocracy,” a statement that “assert(s) that race does not play a role in life successes.”
It is also pure hogwash.
Entrepreneurship, in a capitalist society like ours, is the great equalizer, a way for people of all backgrounds to take their destinies in their own hands, define success in their own terms and apply their talents and work ethic to solving the problems of others, making money in the process. Anyone can be an entrepreneur. Anyone can start a business. Anyone can be rich, or, more usually, anyone can be economically comfortable based on the labor and risk they apply to their pursuit.
Trouble is, entrepreneurship also likely means you will fail and fail often. Nine out of every 10 businesses flop. The ratios are consistent across all racial and gender groups. Entrepreneurship is an equalizer, in that almost everyone will fail doing it.
Entrepreneurs know this and do it anyway. They know the deck is stacked against them, and they gladly shuffle the cards. They lose hand after hand and still play on, knowing all they need is one win. It’s part of the game.
Success takes hard work. Struggle is inevitable. Failure is likely.
But that’s no reason to tell people not to try. It’s no reason to convince folks that society has somehow conspired to keep them poor or in dead-end jobs. The inverse of telling someone that anyone can be successful through hard work is that hard work isn’t worth the trouble since you will never win. To tell college students, as Wisconsin is doing, that merit is a myth is to set them up to fail before they even launch their lives and their careers. That seems to be decidedly more offensive than promoting hard work.
I wouldn’t suggest that entrepreneurship is colorblind. (To do so, according to the Wisconsin folks, is another microaggression, and I’d hate to offend twice.) In fact, there are a ton of initiatives designed specifically to help racial minorities, such as the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) Business Development program. Minority entrepreneurs like Daymond John, Robert Johnson and Russell Simmons are well known for providing paths for other racial minorities to follow in their own footsteps, through both funding and good example.
Minorities have made great strides in American business. Even Silicon Valley, which has been under attack for a perceived lack of racial diversity, is actually less “white” than the average U.S. company. Why? Well, though there are fewer black workers in the biggest American technology companies, overall minority employment is higher than the national average, thanks to Asians. (That must present a problem for programmers and engineers because, according to Wisconsin’s rules, “asking an Asian person to help with a Math or Science problem” is a racial microaggression since it assumes “all Asians are intelligent and good in Math / Sciences.” Hope that didn’t offend.)
And women entrepreneurship is growing more than ever, thanks to groups like Girls Who Code that support increased female involvement in STEM and countless networking groups and programs designed to support the goal of more women owning businesses. (Oops. Just committed another microaggression. Mixing gender struggles with racial struggles is a statement made to deny racial bias. Sorry.)
Back to hard work. This microaggression nonsense ignores the macroeconomic reality of a capitalist society: Effort is a big indicator of outcome. No successful business leader has ever met her goals by coasting to victory. Entrepreneurs put their hearts and souls into their businesses, often at the expense of family relationships, friendships and their own mental and physical health. “Vacation” and “9-to-5” are foreign words to them. (Of course, you can’t ask them about these foreign words, because inquiring about words in another language is yet another microaggression. I’m really not good at this.)
What is most amazing, and most inspiring, is that entrepreneurs make all these sacrifices knowing full well they have no more than a 10 percent of success. They give up so much, with potential failure only one bad decision away. Best of all, when they do fail, they pick themselves up, learn from their experiences, and do the unthinkable: They start all over again.
Along the way, they also provide opportunities for others. They create products and services that solve customers’ problems, making their lives better. They hire employees, helping people provide good homes and lives for their families. And, yes, they grow profit and wealth for themselves and their investors, creating value for those willing to take the risk on their ideas.
That is true opportunity, driven by entrepreneurship and labor. There is equality in that opportunity, though never equality in outcome. Outcome in a free market depends on hard work and, yes, the merit of your individual effort.
It’s the height of offense that such a view could possibly offend. It is the economic and political truth that has made our nation strong and provided a model for economic freedom around the world. For that, no one should ever apologize.
Related: Suck It Up and Wake Up Early