Her arrival gets attention, clad as she is in an impeccably tailored hot-pink dress and towering black stilettos. Her monogrammed, patent-leather briefcase—designer, of course—contains just the basic tools of the trade: smartphone, tablet and chic little clutch in case today’s meeting spills over into cocktail hour. A woman of the 21st century, the things she needs to do business are largely digital: a LinkedIn profile (updated regularly with her latest achievements), a clear and instructive PowerPoint presentation, a snappy hashtag for optimal Twitter traction. She is Entrepreneur Barbie, and her business is inspiring more young girls to consider starting their own companies.
It’s easy to roll your eyes at the doll Mattel released with great fanfare in June, given Barbie’s impossibly polished countenance, and the stereotypically feminine ventures she encourages girls to pursue (which include, among others, jewellery-making and baking). But she is, in many ways, a perfect emblem of the current status of entrepreneurship in the zeitgeist.
There was a time, not long ago, when few people aspired to be an entrepreneur. If the term was used at all, it was generally employed as a way to characterize anomalous geniuses with a preternatural knack for building companies (at best) or as a euphemism for someone forced into self-employment for lack of any better options (at worst).
While there were plenty of people running their own businesses, the general propensity toward growth-oriented, innovative, dynamic venturing—the type associated with successful entrepreneurship today—was limited, especially in Canada.
That was before Dragons’ Den became a ratings juggernaut, bringing conversations about business plans and valuations to prime time. Before entrepreneurship became a credible part of the curriculum at secondary and even elementary schools. And before the world’s most iconic doll got a “be your own boss” makeover.
In 2014, entrepreneurship stopped being a fringe pursuit; it became a hot career choice. The airwaves, multiplexes and bestseller lists were chock full of stories of entrepreneurial achievement. HBO’s Silicon Valley earned near-universal critical acclaim; Aaron Sorkin wrote a Steve Jobs biopic; the press waited on Elon Musk’s every move. This heightened profile is having very real effects: Studies show that young people are increasingly skipping entry-level gigs to start their own businesses. A recent study of 21,000 business school alumni found that 45% of entrepreneurs who have graduated since 2010 started their businesses straight out of school, compared to just 7% among those who graduated prior to 1990. That’s a positive trend. Mostly. The job market isn’t exactly friendly toward young people these days, and Canada won’t solve its innovation crisis by pumping out an army of corporate yes-men. There’s no doubt that our economy needs more entrepreneurs willing to strike out on their own.
But there are some serious risks of painting the vocation as an easy-breezy ticket to a life of wealth and freedom. Entrepreneur Barbie is just a toy, but she’s symptomatic of a troubling, and growing, tendency to romanticize entrepreneurship.
The harsh truth is, not everyone can be an entrepreneur. It’s rare to find a successful one whose journey hasn’t been characterized as much by stress, risk and insane hours as it has been by flashes of insight and triumphant wins. Those who build the business of their dreams don’t get there by simply wanting it. It takes work—grinding, questioning-your-sanity work. They’ll all say it’s worth it, but few will say it’s easy. To position success as a natural outcome of a simple choice is to set up the entrepreneurs of tomorrow for failure.
The next generation of visionary entrepreneurs will be made up of those who understand the unglamorous, underappreciated effort involved in building an amazing business, and who can’t wait to do it anyway. And that’s not a message that’s easily conveyed by a popular TV show or a little plastic doll.
Deborah Aarts is senior editor of Canadian Business