The Rise of the Citizen Entrepreneur

04/06/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It was quite remarkable to get a personal shout-out from the President of the United States last week. Amidst the ovations--some bi-partisan and some quite partisan--I heard a President say that it was small businesses that were going to get this country back on its feet again. He talked dramatically about a national belt-cinching, and described pulling this country forward in a manner that sounded an awful lot like boot-strapping. I heard him remind us that just as our elected representatives have a responsibility to us, we had also responsibilities to our communities and to our environment. While all of these issues surely touch upon the lives of some Americans, each and every one resonates with the on-going trials of a certain fast-growing community. Now, more than ever, we are needing and experiencing the rise of the Citizen Entrepreneur.

Decidedly, citizenship and entrepreneurship, as we understand them, are two uniquely American callings, and our history is riddled with the occasional cross-over. In fact, many global industries we like to blame for our planet's and its people's problems were founded on humanitarian ideals. The automobile, the airplane, television--every element that led to the entire Industrial Revolution, it could be argued. But these endeavors developed in the ecosystem of capitalism, and it's clear as wealth disparities, global product exchange, and the toll on natural resources grow, that they've lost sight of those early ideals, and we've lost faith in them to bring us prosperity.

Which has us led to a time when many are thinking small, and taking advantage of the opportunity to embrace both citizenship and entrepreneurship once again. This time, we know that citizenship means being true to our families and communities, as well as to the environment, people across the globe, and our collective futures. Meanwhile, we've learned of the uncertainty and fallibility of entrepreneurship founded solely on the traditions of capitalism and the business models of our forefathers. As Obama called upon us to reconsider our civic duties and the role of national banking institutions last week, there were already thousands who have embedded this type of critical examination in the businesses and organizations that they are devoting their lives to.

This is a definitive break from putting on one's own oxygen mask first first--metaphorically speaking--before assisting others. While big, traditional models are capable of doing good, and we see a rise in corporate social responsibility platforms where big businesses donate a percentage of their profits to an eager humanitarian cause, we've learned that this is not enough. NYC's Demos recently hosted a debate over the possibility salvation by 'Philanthrocapitalists', a term identifying capital-wealthy individuals who form foundations or give to charity. While it may be misguided to critique Bill Gates' global health efforts, one doesn't even need to point out a single flaw in Microsoft's business practices to see the flaw in leaving it to the few Gateses of the world to do something good for the world's neediest: it requires massive success in conventional capitalism, and it leaves the middle 90% of the world out of the equation. It's the same reason why we have a President calling for all of us to volunteer and help our neighbors, and why we had Gandhi nearly a century before telling us to 'be the change you want to see in the world.' We cannot, and will not, wait for the rich and powerful to create change from the top down.

While I hesitate, of course, to be found critical of the Non-Profit--another player in this effort to make this a better world--many are finding these, too, to be limiting. There are organizations locally and internationally that are doing amazing, essential, creative work, that find themselves at the mercy of the Philanthrocapitalist as well. What happens when an organization relies on annual support from large corporations or grants for their overhead and expenses during an international recession? Check your email from Idealist. After losing most of its funding by charitable giving from corporations who are tightening their purse strings, the organization faced the very real possibility of ceasing to exist. They are one on a long list of cultural, humanitarian, and educational organizations scrambling to find a way to make up for hundreds of thousands in un-renewed sponsorships. No, we are something new, and the IRS and SBA will have to find new ways of dealing with us.

Our small businesses have been influenced by the Buy Local and Eat Local movements that have been growing since the turn of the 21st Century, and could be seen as the 'Work Local' equivalent. But even more than being about place and distance, our criteria is based on studying a community--geographic or demographic--that we love, and fulfilling a need in a financially viable way. For some, that means a restaurant to serve healthy alternatives, or a bookstore to support small publishers and enrich a neighborhood. Or it might be a community of farmers that needs a broader reach to sustain their family farms, or artists that need a platform to sell their wares to a larger audience. As our control over technology and information expands rapidly, and our awareness of the need to take better care of bodies, minds, and the planet grows, there are countless opportunities for us to step into an essential role.

These individuals are learning that we do not need to rely solely on grants from a wealthy corporation's foundations, or relegate their efforts to a volunteer shift on weekends. Through critical thinking, long work days, lots of luck, massive helpings of gall, and an innate calling to to do the right thing their own way, these individuals are empowered to create their own paychecks, hire employees to help achieve their missions, and design funding models that are changing the playing field forever. It is very real social change, growing from the bottom up, and it's happening now. We are at the verge of a new economy, being crafted by the new Citizen Entrepreneur.