By Jim Walker
Oxford, Michigan, was a small farming community when I lived there during my childhood. After a Burger King arrived and we got our second stoplight, I thought we had hit the big time.
My stay-at-home mom and schoolteacher dad had seven children; I was the third oldest. Our family had an abundance of love, and enough money to not be poor. But our finances were limited, and that created some stress. My dad scrounged for wood to heat the home, and drove used cars that were always in need of repair from the abuse they received on our dirt road. We bought bread from a bulk clearinghouse. The bread was past its expiration date, but it cost only 10 cents a loaf.
I developed some negative opinions about affluent people, especially people who were successful in business. My modest circumstances played a role, certainly. The fact that the entertainment industry presented business owners as out-of-touch with less well-off people was a factor, too. It was easy to assimilate the message that they did not care about families like mine. The message was reinforced through the school’s curriculum. Ironically, I had two uncles who owned businesses and they didn’t fit that stereotype. Despite what I saw in them, however, my perspective remained skewed.
One event that started to change my opinion was the chance, during my freshman year at Oxford High School, to meet the Giannetti brothers, who were part of a successful construction business. Rather than being selfcentered and aloof, as I imagined they would be, the Giannettis had a downto-earth nature. Their many acts of remarkable kindness surprised and impressed me. They were (and are) exceptionally generous, and not just with their finances. They brought destitute people into their homes and treated them like family. They shared their goods with many and were open to all.
Over time, I observed these same virtuous qualities in other entrepreneurs. I met many business owners who cared deeply about others, especially their employees. I asked them, “Why did you go into business?” None of them told me, “I figured this would be the best way to make a lot of money.” Instead, they spoke of serving people, and in some small way, making the world better. Acting on that desire led them to a life of sacrifice, risk and uncertainty.
My attitude toward entrepreneurs changed from one of prejudiced skepticism to deep admiration. I learned that, contrary to the message transmitted by the media, to be successful you must be others-focused, not self-focused.
When entrepreneurs innovate and respond to society’s needs, they create goods and services, such as our smartphones, single-serve coffee machines, or ride-sharing companies, which make life more convenient. In doing so, they create new jobs and wealth, not just for themselves, but also for others. Increasingly, though, they find that governments at all levels place obstacles in their way.
We — business owners, employees, consumers and families — must win back the foundational freedoms that allowed entrepreneurs and other hardworking Americans to create the greatest and wealthiest nation in the history of the world. I’m proud to be a new member of the Mackinac Center team, addressing the barriers to entrepreneurship erected by popular culture and the political society. You and I are creating an environment in which entrepreneurs can meet the needs of their fellow citizens. Our success will come through changing the hearts and minds of people not inclined to look favorably on business creators. And if a rural kid predisposed to critical attitudes about entrepreneurs can change his view from disdain to appreciation, anyone who can find compelling stories of the fruits of freedom can do the same.
Jim Walker is vice president for advancement at Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a public policy research and education institute that is a sister think tank to the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. This commentary is from the September/October 2015 edition of Mackinac’s Impact magazine, which can be accessed online here: https://www.mackinac.org/archives/2015/IMP2015-05.pdf.