Biographies as a Key to Revitalize Entrepreneurial Studies

Albers Bros. Milling Company)Portland, hometown of German-American immigrant entrepreneurs Gert Boyle (Columbia Sportswear), Max and Harold Hirsch (Hirsch-Weis Company, White Stag), department store owners Meier & Frank and Bernard Albers (1864-1908) and his brothers (see the image of the main building of today’s company Albers Bros. Milling Company to the right), was the place of this year’s Business History Conference. The key topic “reinterpretation” inspired several innovative initiatives, among them a workshop on “Historical Approaches to Entrepreneurship Theory & Research,” organized by Dan Wadhwani, editor of the Immigrant Entrepreneurship project’s volume 5, Christina Lubinski (Copenhagen Business School), and David Kirsch (University of Maryland). While business schools are often less interested in a historical analysis of entrepreneurs and focus on questions of decision making and resource management, this workshop discussed the establishment of a “new entrepreneurial history.” The ambitious goal was to analyze entrepreneurship as “the study of the processes through which actors, individually and collectively, make sense of and pursue the development of future goods, services, and markets, thereby transforming markets, industries, and capitalism from within” (Wadhwani and Lubinski, 2015).

Entrepreneurial biographies, this is the argument of Uwe Spiekermann, the Immigrant Entrepreneurship project’s general editor, can be a crucial way of linking entrepreneurial studies to the “real” (historical) world. In his presentation “Entrepreneurs as Actors: Biographical Approaches and the Analysis of Entrepreneurship,” Spiekermann integrated the rise and fall of the genre of biography in business history into the general theoretical development of the profession, discussed the “biographical turn” in history and sociology and the emergence of a theory-guided “new biography.” He also gave examples for current uses of biographies for a deeper and more realistic understanding of entrepreneurship. In Spiekermann’s words, “Although the habitual and intellectual problems of a systematic use of reconstructions of the lives and agencies of entrepreneurs, retrieved and reconstructed from a broad range of sources, are significant, entrepreneurial biographies can contribute to a better understanding of entrepreneurship itself because this is always the story of the transformation of markets, industries and capitalism.” The results of the workshop will be published in a special issue of “Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal.”

Spiekermann also presented the Immigrant Entrepreneurship project in a lightning round during the Business History Conference’s plenary session on “Digital Business History,” one of the new features established by BHC president Margret Graham.