The Crucible of EoC Entrepreneurship

Panel 1 "Entrepreneur and business", May 26, 2011. We report the entire presentation by John Gallagher, Professor of Management at the University of Maryville, TN - USA

The Crucible of EoC Entrepreneurship 

John Gallagher

I should like to begin my remarks about the future and a vision for the Economy of Communion by first focusing on the entrepreneur. For in some ways the challenges facing the entrepreneur are the challenges facing the EOC.  The entrepreneur occupies a unique social role. In their wonderful new book, Thomas Masters and Amy Uelmen write about living the spirituality of unity in the United States. And at one point, they suggest that “Focolare members live shoulder to shoulder with family, friends, and neighbors in urban, suburban, and rural communities, immersed in the challenges of everyday life…”1

In addition to family, friends, and neighbors, the Economy of Communion entrepreneur stands shoulder to shoulder with employees, customers, suppliers, advisers, competitors, customers, and others, all also immersed in the challenges of everyday life. The entrepreneur intentionally takes on a “layer” of responsibility that a non-entrepreneur does not. 

Please not that this is not a qualitative judgment but an empirical observation. This is not to elevate the entrepreneur in any way or to privilege entrepreneurial responsibilities over any other responsibilities. It is simply to note that the entrepreneur, in the very act of starting a business and sustaining a business, also takes on a very real responsibility for a particular set of relationships that are now governed by the business.

And, the entrepreneur takes on a responsibility for the business itself. To my mind, this places the entrepreneur in a crucible of formation that is a different from other life and livelihood choices and vocations. 

As mentioned, these relationships include employees, customers, competitors, creditors, investors, advisers, family, friends, the local community, the wider community, and the state. He takes on the responsibility for the company itself as well and so decisions must be taken that consider the future and sustainability of the company itself. 

This is true of all entrepreneurial ventures – that there is a set of responsibilities assumed. But there are two important implications I think for the case of an EOC entrepreneur. First, there is long tradition of received wisdom and practical experience about how to be a successful businessperson. We know much about the mechanics of business – operations and finance so to speak, and indeed in our global economic system business practices are similar and widespread. But there is a very real problem at the heart of our best business and management thinking, and this is the question of instrumentality which in turn is a question about the fundamental purpose of business. One dominant view is that the purpose of business is to satisfy shareholders. This has the effect of instrumentalizing every aspect of the business, including most of its persons, to the interests of a much smaller group of persons, the shareholders. Everything about the business including, employees, customers, suppliers, competitors, become a means to the shareholder’s ends, which is generally characterized as profit maximization. 

This shareholder view of business is somewhat countermanded by a stakeholder view of business whereby, the purpose of business extends beyond the narrow interests of shareholders to include the interests of a wide range of possible constituents; namely, anyone with a “stake” in the enterprise. This view at least opens the possibility for considering the legitimate needs and aspirations of all persons associated with the enterprise. But in the end, this view of business also takes an instrumental view. Persons are still the means to other ends.2 

The second implication is that in addition to the received wisdom of management theory, there is currently a great deal of interest in ideas about faith and spirituality in the work place. This interest might be in issues related to “religious freedom” in the workplace; namely the extent to which a business should make allowances for various religious practices and traditions of employees, or in issues related to the imposition of particular “religious values” among employees. Some argue that the workplace should be strictly secular, while others argue that tangible benefits arise from explicitly faith-based values in the workplace. The problem with this strain of thinking, however, is that in almost all cases, religious freedom, religious values, faith, and spirituality are all viewed as instrumental to the demands of the business. That is, more often than not, the central question revolves around whether or not spirituality can make the business more successful and more profitable. 

So, for the Economy of Communion entrepreneur, not only have they taken on a particular set of responsibilities to a broader and wider group of persons, but they also take on these challenges of instrumentality. For an EOC entrepreneur, rather than persons serving the business, the business must serve persons. And rather than the spirituality serving the business, the business must serve the spirituality. 

These challenges form the crucible of EOC entrepreneurship. For many EOC entrepreneurs, their business practices, decisions, policies, are formed in this very crucible; formed in the day-to-day experience. The EOC entrepreneur may very well grapple with questions, problems, difficulties, situations, where answers are not readily available. The formation of EOC entrepreneurs then is a challenge for the EOC in the future, for it is not enough to simply encourage people to become entrepreneurs. We must learn to live in the crucible. 

An important part of this formation is the continued work and development of guidelines and of best management practices. These will become the received wisdom of the Economy of Communion. But great care must be exercised here as well. For in the task of forming entrepreneurs, the goal is not to provide a set of static rules that can be applied in particular situations, but to contribute to the continuing growth and development of the entrepreneur. The objective is not to develop a set of principles or guidelines that themselves then begin to take the place of living in the moment. It is not good to substitute the presence of a “guideline” for the presence of a decision made in love in the moment. 

The purpose of the guidelines is to remain always in conversation about the challenges of the crucible. In North America, at least, the EOC owners already know this; that they can and must share their experiences and talk about with what they are confronted on a daily basis; to, in effect see things together at all times. 

And, with respect to a vision for the future, there are two important implications associated with the larger question about formation. One has to do with the younger generation; the next generation of EOC entrepreneurs and the other has to do with the question of EOC identity; that is, what are the distinguishing characteristics of an EOC business? What does “belonging to” or “participating in” the EOC mean? 

As to the first, the younger generation must be a part of these conversations for the next 20 years will surely see the evolution of many of the current generations EOC companies. What will happen to these companies? Will they handed down to the next generation? How so? To me, this question of sustainability is a complete example of the particular chalennegs faced by EOC entrepreneurs. 

As to the second, I have been at EOC meetings where the question has arisen (and been debated) about what exactly qualifies a company to become an EOC company. There are two extremes here. First we might consider an EOC company to be one whose owner – the entrepreneur - has a lifetime of experience and formation in the spirituality of unity – in the Focolare – and so, when such an individual steps forward to begin a company, he or she is doing so where it is clear it is an extension of the manner in which they have lived and approached their daily life for a number of years. 

But there are also those who might view the EOC as an “entry port” for business people who are skilled entrepreneurs but who have not had the lifelong experience of formation of the Spirituality but who are intrigued and attracted to the spirituality as they become aware of it. These might run their businesses very well, but might struggle over the demands of the spirituality. Others might practice the spirituality faithfully, but stumble over practices that could sustain the business. 

Let me relate a story. I had a conversation one year ago with a university student who was presenting a very good and astute argument that that a large multinational such as Nestle, S.A. could easily become an EOC business. Nestle, of course, is one of the largest, most diverse, and global of our companies. It is certainly not a small entrepreneurial venture. Moreover, it is a company whose business practices from time to time have raised ethical and moral questions. But the student’s argument was that an EOC company must fulfill three criteria. It must devote part of its profits to meeting the needs of the poor, it must devote part of the profits to spreading and developing the culture of communion, and it must devote part of the profits to reinvestment in the business. And so, Nestle certainly reinvests in its business. Nestle also gives away a significant amount of money to development and to worthwhile charities and causes. So, if Nestle would start some sort of training institute to educate employees about the virtues of profit reinvestment and of philanthropy, then Nestle would be an EOC company. 

I disagreed with the student then, as I would do so now, but this argument raises an important question. Certainly the EOC is a concrete expression of the spirituality of unity in economic life. That is, the EOC is an opportunity for persons formed in the Focolare spirituality to practice that spirituality amid the challenges of everyday life. Can it also be a gateway for persons formed in the dominant culture of business to enter in to the spirituality? I believe that in principle the answer is yes, for we are all familiar with the differing ways that God works in our lives. At  times, this might be through the gentle and prayerful intercession on our behalf while we are busily pursuing some secular ends. Perhaps Monica praying for her son, Augustine is an example of this. But, others may experience a lightning bolt of intervention similar to that of Saul of Tarsus. So, in some ways, the question here is whether the EOC can be a “road to Damascus” for businesspeople not formed in the spirituality of unity. 

To all of these ends, there needs to be intentional, purposeful, structured, and ongoing conversation. And, the younger generation must be a part of these conversations. Business guidelines and recorded best practices will become the most visible and ongoing manifestation of that conversation but they must also be the “place” to hold this conversation in perpetuity.

 

1 Thomas Masters and Amy Uelmen. 2010. Focolare: Living a Spirituality of Unity in the United States. New City Press, Hyde Park, NY. Page 126 

2 Helen J. Alford, O.P., and Michael J. Naughton. 2001. Managing as if Faith Mattered. University of Notre Dame Press, South Bend, IN.

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