On Redefining Intellectual Entrepreneurship

The intellectual entrepreneur is one who develops, researches, discovers, or learns in order to fulfill objectives beyond the attainment of credentials, approval of peers, or furthering of career goals in a manner or process primarily outside the bounds of extant educational institutions, systems, and pedagogies.

Based on my current, independent study in entrepreneurship theory and practice, I’ve taken issue with the lack of a formal definition of what, exactly, an entrepreneur is. Is “the function of entrepreneurs is to reform or revolutionize the pattern of production,” as Joseph Shumpeter suggested in 1942? Perhaps we should shift our locus of attention from individual “entrepreneurs” to the entrepreneurial process, thus conceptualizing and defining entrepreneurship as a successful act of organizational founding. (see Carroll and Khessina 2005) Perhaps we should do as eighteenth century economists Richard Cantillon and Jean-Baptiste Say did and emphasize the literal translation of entrepreneur as those who “undertake” risks in starting a business or enterprise.

There are dozens of other possible, applicable definitions of what entrepreneurs do, how they do it, and the results of their doings. So, in the spirit of clarifying increasingly varied definitions of entrepreneurship qua entrepreneurship, and entrepreneurship as modified by a preceding adjective (i.e. Social Entrepreneurship or Serial Entrepreneurship) I propose a new, radical redefinition of what’s currently come to be known as “Intellectual” or “Academic Entrepreneurship”.

As with entrepreneurship, there is no unifying definition of either intellectual or academic entrepreneurship. Currently, one could define academic entrepreneurship as either, simply, the academic study of entrepreneurship methodologies, these methodologies’ relationship to broader, extant systems, or the role of small and medium enterprise in the establishment of new markets; or, alternately, we could point out, as Scott Andrew Shane did in his book Academic Entrepreneurship: University Spinoffs and Wealth Creation, the results of so-called academic entrepreneurship: companies like Lycos and Genentech which were founded, “incubated” within, and spun out of university research environments. But, you see, this still leaves us with myriad other definitions of academic entrepreneurship–between which there is little concordance.

Based on some cursory googling, it seems as though intellectual entrepreneurship has, in many ways been conflated with academic entrepreneurship. This being said, one institution preaching the gospel of intellectual entrepreneurship is University of Texas. Richard Cherwitz, an academic at UT, contributed this extremely fascinating article to Inside Higher Ed, a TechCrunch-like blog for the academic scene. His descriptions of what’s going on at UT sounds remarkably like what social entrepreneurship is: cutesy and liberal and collaboratively warm and fuzzy, but not quite entrepreneurial. You be the judge:

At my own institution, the University of Texas at Austin, a critical mass of faculty embrace this compact: academics best described as “intellectual entrepreneurs,” citizen-scholars supplying more than narrow, theoretical disciplinary knowledge. They exemplify academic engagement, taking to heart the ethical obligation to contribute to society, to both discover and put to work knowledge that makes a difference.

Among them are a philosopher helping to increase the role played by ethics in corporate decision making, a neurobiologist and pharmacologist struggling to bring personal and public policies in line with scientific knowledge about alcohol addiction, a theater historian attempting to use performance as a mechanism through which ordinary people can change their lives, and a literary scholar who uses poetry to enable those in business and government to imagine what is possible.

Still, we face the problem of no clear understanding of what intellectual entrepreneurs do. Cherwitz argues the same normative claims social entrepreneurship theorists do about the necessity of giving back to the community.

Wal Mart employs a lot of people, it lowers prices in entire regions–in WMT’s own, weird way, they give back to the community; nobody is going out of their way to call them a social enterprise.

It is my opinion that the word “entrepreneur” has become too, how to say it, warm and fuzzy. It doesn’t really mean anything. The tenacity and daring implicit in Schumpeter or Say or Cantillon’s definitions is now missing. Entrepreneur has become a catch-all term, the promulgation of which only serves to weaken it.

I’ll give an example. Social entrepreneurship has become such a hackneyed, flaccid term for one reason: every single business that did something vaguely positive for society began to call themselves social ventures. Poppycock! I say to myself, “you know what, it’s really nice that Company X is sending lots of shoes over to Nicaragua so young Nicaraguan children don’t have to walk around barefoot and become afflicted with ringworm because they were stepping in fecal-contaminated mud near the community cesspool.” You know what else would be really nice? If someone did the less sexy job of installing proper water and plumbing infrastructure, then young Nicaraguans wouldn’t be skinny and slow and anemic because their blood isn’t being sucked by parasitic worms lining their gut because they wouldn’t’ve acquired said worms because they weren’t trotting along in the mud when nature called. But everyone, and I mean everyone would rather give out shoes. Band-aids always look more attractive when the other treatment option, the necessary one, is stitches… without anesthetic.

Anyways, the few entrepreneurs who are doing real, meaningful work for underprivileged communities around the world are drowned out by everyone and their little brother who want to call themselves “social entrepreneurs.”

My approach to defining intellectual entrepreneurship is Schumpeterian, and informed by Richard Cantillon and Jean-Baptiste Say. There are others too. Here is my definition:

The intellectual entrepreneur is one who develops, researches, discovers, or learns in order to fulfill objectives beyond attainment of credentials, approval of peers, or  furthering of career goals in a manner or process primarily outside the bounds of extant educational institutions, ideological frameworks, systems, and pedagogies.

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In brief: my definition differentiates intellectual entrepreneurship from existing models of academic entrepreneurship by drawing a line between what is intellectual and what is academic. For the purposes of my argument here, I do not regard “intellectual” and “academic” as mutually inclusive–as many do. Nor do I view the two as mutually exclusive, although I will try to maintain a distance between both.

In the very near future, more will be posted on this. Specifically, I will discuss possible cases illustrative of intellectual entrepreneurship, and contrast these cases with similar examples which would not qualify, by my definition, as intellectual entrepreneurship.


Author: Jason D. Rowley

As I mentioned elsewhere, I wear a lot of hats. Currently, I'm interested in VC data, early stage startups, and journalism. Previously I've been a blogger, designer, researcher, startup founder, (temporary) college dropout, connector, occasional branding designer and amateur chef.

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