America has always been a place of progress and possibility, so we should recognize the people who helped us get here. In honor of National Entrepreneurs’ Day, I’ve dug around to find history’s most inspiring business-people. Some of them are old favorites like Ben Franklin, while others are unexpected risk-takers and dreamers. What do they have in common? They helped build our country to what it is today.
I’m proud to share a home with these inspiring entrepreneurs:
1. Benjamin Franklin Being Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin can be thought of as America’s original entrepreneur, at least by today’s terms. Franklin had a lot of ideas on how to change the world, but unlike many other historical greats, he was intent on putting these ideas into practice for the sake of business. Franklin did it all—he wrote books, refined his productivity, invented bifocals, and helped create a whole new country.
2. The Fur Traders of the 18th Century
Beaver, beaver, beaver! All the rage for hats. In the 18th century, shortly after Lewis and Clark explored the country, fur traders swarmed in to do business. Like today’s entrepreneurs, these traders recognized opportunity. They were willing to give up physical comfort in order to take advantage. John Jacob Astor, a fur trader and American business man, set up posts in the West, soon overtaking British trade. He soon became the richest man in America.
3. Anyone Who Went on the Oregon Trail
Can you imagine selling everything you own, buying some oxen, and going to the moon? In the 1840s and 50s, that’s what people did. With paper guidebooks in hand, they went west without checking Wikipedia first. They had no idea what waited for them, and were pulled by the idea of a place that was better than the one they left behind. Sure, these pioneers don’t seem like entrepreneurs, but they pursued their dreams and accepted risk. Dropping everything they knew, they crossed the country, and started businesses.
4. Henry Ford and His Fleet of Faster Horses
Henry Ford is the most famous American business man for a reason. This dude pretty much invented mass production, and is credited with “Fordism,” which is the idea that a company can mass produce stuff inexpensively while paying workers fairly. Because of his commitment to keeping prices low, he came up with all kinds of ways to mitigate costs, including the assembly line. Ford was a marketing whiz, too. When the Model T debuted in 1908, Ford made sure that every newspaper ran stories and ads about the new car. For years, the only car on the road was the Model T.
5. Jay Gatsby, The Dreamer
Jay Gatsby is a fictional character, but he’s a compelling one. The guy had nothing to speak of, and, in desperation to win over Daisy’s heart, he built a bootlegging empire. Gatsby was special—he cared more about the dream of what could be rather than the money along the way. His eyes were always on Daisy, and he worked tirelessly to create a life that would lure her in. Maybe we shouldn’t go as far as Gatsby did (and we should probably choose legal endeavors), but his dream and hope is inspiring. He’s a true American entrepreneur.
6. John von Neumann, The Quiet Thinker
Entrepreneurs aren't just the rich guys profiled in Forbes. There are a lot of quiet inventors tinkering away, paving the way for huge advances. One such quiet thinker is John von Neumann, one of our nation's most esteemed mathematicians. As you're reading this, you have von Neumann to thank-- he made the computer possible. This guy's contribution to quantam mechanics, mathematics, and nuclear physics are insurmountable. Von Neumann proves that being flashy is over-rated. There's something to be said for the quiet entrepreneurs, the ones who are more intent on working to move forward, rather than talking about it.
[caption id='attachment_16474' align='alignnone' width='681'] John von Neumann's self-reproducing universal constructor.[/caption]
7. Andrew Carnegie: Rag to Riches to Philanthropy
The pursuit of happiness. At its best, that’s what the American dream is about. You can start out eating scraps off the street, and wind up as successful as Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie’s family business completely collapsed during the industrial revolution, leaving him poor and hungry. But Carnegie didn’t believe poverty was his fate: he took a job as a railroad assistant and began investing. Soon, Carnegie had created Carnegie Steel, which grew into a gigantic company. Carnegie didn’t hoard his money. Instead, he spent his last 18 years donating to causes (he’s responsible for many of our nation’s parks, museums, and education programs—does Carnegie Mellon ring a bell?).
8. Oprah Winfrey's Total Triumph
Oprah is a woman of many things. Like Andrew Carnegie, Oprah lived the American dream. She hosted one of the most popular talk shows in history, has been a film actress, and is a savvy entrepreneur. She overcame poverty, neglect, and abuse to become extremely successful, always believing that she was responsible for her own destiny. Oprah tried to make it in hard news, but was fired for expressing too much empathy towards the subjects. In 1986, she founded Harpo Productions and began The Oprah Winfrey Show, where she was able to freely express that empathy. She was the first African-American and the third woman in American history to own her own entertainment company.
9. Walt Disney's Magical Everything
It's hard to imagine a world without Mickey Mouse, and we have Walt Disney to thank for that. Disney started out early, pursuing art by selling his pictures to friends, family, and neighbors. Walt Disney's first company failed, but that didn't stop him. Soon, he began releasing animated films that the world loved. Walt Disney wasn't just an entrepreneur and animator-- he was a man propelled by a vision. He believed in optimism, storytelling, and magic.
10. The Geniuses Who Started Tech Companies
Like it or not, the Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world have revolutionized it. Before we had companies like Amazon, EBay, Google, and others, we had, well, we didn't have them. These massive companies have forever changed the way we operate. We're thankful to all the American revolutionaries who understood that the future could be more inter-connected.
Your Turn: Who's your favorite entrepreneur in history? Why? Please share.