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Generosity Through Entrepreneurship

The Maori practice of gift-giving is much more than a greeting card transaction; it’s the extension of one person’s self to another. Writing in 1925, sociologist Marcel Mauss explained, “The thing given is not inert. It is alive and often personified and strives to bring to its original clan and homeland some equivalent to take its place.” For the Maori, gifting is an extension of the individual’s very being and is something that requires reciprocity.

A similar undertone can be found in the word generosity. Generosity’s root “gen” means to beget or give birth to something. It’s where we get the words genesis and genetic. In its earlier Latin form, the word was used to describe someone of noble birth. The word has since evolved to refer to a noble and beneficent spirit.

Baked into the word is a suggestion that openhandedness might beget a similar inclination in others. Daily interaction shows that it is commonplace for individuals to reciprocate kind actions toward those who help them. Likewise, generalized reciprocity—or the paying-it-forward effect—can occur as well.

Adam Smith thought that this propensity was as inherent to an individual as the drive to barter, truck, and trade:  “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it,” Smith wrote in “Theory of Moral Sentiments.”

So what might this mean for entrepreneurs?

Part of the entrepreneur’s role is to combine forms of capital in new ways. But like any of us, entrepreneurs aren’t value-neutral synthesizers. They come with a particular value set with which they might flavor their capital combinations. Some may call this opportunity conscious capitalism, but Smith would suggest that it’s simply an individual making use of their inherent tendencies in equal measure.

Within the walls of the firm, this propensity could be directed to increase collaboration and employee engagement. IDEO, a design firm celebrated for its ability to innovate, has done just that by building a culture of help and generosity.

Furthermore, entrepreneurs can propagate generosity not only for productivity’s sake, but also in pursuit of human flourishing.  While entrepreneurs already contribute mightily to prosperity through innovation as well as job and wealth creation, they can bake generosity into the very DNA of their firm.

Take Buckskin Bikes in Anderson, Indiana, for instance, where owner Ben Orcutt’s community-embedded business serves the surrounding neighborhoods by teaching bike-repair skills to high school students while providing high-quality, sustainable transportation options to the city’s residents. Or consider Misfit Wearables in Silicon Valley where owner Sonny Vu integrated some strikingly untraditional language into his company’s corporate charter. “How about if we make the purpose of business to make communities to flourish, and to create opportunities for people to express their God-given capacities in meaningful and purposeful ways?” Vu asked Christianity Today’s Andy Crouch in this 2013 article.

The conversation isn’t about corporate social responsibility; it’s about the contiguous outflow of a virtuous entrepreneur expressing him or herself through their vocation. Not because they should, but because it’s who they are.

For anyone actually—entrepreneur or not—there’s an opportunity to beget generosity in others through extemporaneous habits of the heart that cause individuals to thrive and communities to flourish.