By BARBARA SILVERSTEIN
The COVID pandemic has taken a toll on businesses across the world. With so many stores shuttered and restaurants relying on take-out orders, the recent release of David Sax’s book, The Soul of an Entrepreneur: Work and Life Beyond the Startup Myth (Public Affairs), seems well timed.
In a telephone interview, Sax, a Toronto-based writer, acknowledged the book’s relevance in this era of COVID. However, he said, the pandemic has not been conducive to book sales, given the economic climate. Sax, like the people he profiles in his book, is an entrepreneur himself and relies on book sales and speaking engagements to cover his mortgage and childcare bills.
He defines entrepreneur as a self-employed individual operating as an independent purveyor of goods and services. Varying degrees of financial uncertainty generally underlie the entrepreneurial experience. For some of the book’s subjects this unpredictability is an acceptable trade-off for the independence, freedom and pride that self-employment affords them.
Such financial risk-taking does not necessarily apply to the enterprises emerging out of Silicon Valley, the California-based Mecca of high-tech innovation. Sax views the tech startup as a “standardized, prescriptive model of entrepreneurship” mainly funded by venture capital. He describes the people pitching their ideas as “mostly wealthy young white men from Ivy League schools” who are coached to raise capital, and if their companies fail they are losing investors’ money rather than their own.
Given the media focus on celebrity tech magnates like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and PayPal founder Elon Musk, one would naturally think that the Silicon Valley model typifies U.S. entrepreneurship. But Sax points out that these ventures make up less than one per cent of American companies. He says the attention on startups minimizes the efforts of the majority of business owners.
He profiles a range of people who are more representative of North American entrepreneurs. The book begins with two Silicon Valley types in Palo Alto attempting to launch a startup. From there, Sax takes the reader to a cafe run by a surf-loving pastry chef in the New York City borough of Queens. He features a range of other businesses including a Syrian food shop in Toronto, a Californian dairy farm and an African American hairdresser in New Orleans.
While The Soul of an Entrepreneur is well researched, it’s not a dry account of business ownership. Sax intertwines the personal stories of the owners of the businesses he spotlights.
Their aspirations and struggles are compelling: whether it’s the dairy farmer trying to keep the family farm or the African-American hairdresser attaining social media stardom.
The focus on these entrepreneurs is the strength of this book. “I can’t imagine doing it any other way,” Sax said, pointing out that all his earlier books – Save the Deli, The Tastemakers and The Revenge of Analog – have revolved around personal histories.
Sax weaves his own story throughout the book. He is the third generation of an entrepreneurial family. Both his maternal and paternal grandfathers owned businesses. His father (Michael) is an independent lawyer and investor and his mother (Julia) ran a shmatta business.
He said his family typifies the Jewish experience.
“Our people relied on entrepreneurship for survival. We identify Jews with the shmatta business and diamonds and food. In the old countries where Jews were prohibited from so many professions, they had no choice but to create businesses,” he said. “It’s allowed us to thrive and re-establish our communities.”
There’s a parallel, he said, between the Jewish narrative and that of the Syrian refugees portrayed in his book. “Their story is not that dissimilar to the Jewish immigrants. If you were denied access to money and power you have no choice. They built it (their business) on their own like Jews.
“[The thinking is], ‘If no one is going to give me a job then what can I do within my community?’ That’s the bigger picture that we have lost sight of.”
He lamented that like so many businesses, these small ethnic establishments are vulnerable to the ravages of COVID.
Asked what kind of business he thought could survive the pandemic, Sax deadpanned: “Scuttling cruise ships.”