The Riveting Lives of Entrepreneurs

Between biographies and the movies, we have all the human interest aspects of entrepreneurship covered.

We all love a good story – one that has all the elements of human drama and personal struggle. Movies or books in which the main characters fight hard and prevail against all odds are up there in terms of entertainment value. That is why the lives of famous and wildly successful entrepreneurs are such gripping story material. There are many biographies that chronicle the trials, tribulations and triumphs of these individuals. Some accounts, like Walter Isaacson’s time on Steve Jobs are painstakingly assembled through interviews with the main subject and those who know him. Others are unauthorized ‘tell-alls’ that paint a complex portrait of the individual.

By the same token, there are also many stories of fictional entrepreneurs and their journeys that are equally riveting. But if we were to juxtapose a few of these with real life stories, we might find that fact is sometimes stranger than fiction. Clearly, when it comes to depicting drive, ambition, passion and other intense emotions behind entrepreneurial endeavors, art draws heavily from life with filmmakers seeking inspiration in the tumultuous world of business for their characters and plots. The scenarios that follow make it hard to distinguish one from the other. There is the story of a brilliant inventor and businessman whose maternal grandparents lived in Canada’s Saskatchewan province before moving to the suburbs of Pretoria.

Addicted to flying their single engine plane around the countryside, their freewheeling attitude to life in general may have trickled down to infect their grandson, who was bright but socially awkward as a child. As an adult, he put aside memories of a troubled Between biographies and childhood, as well as his own marital difficulties to become one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world today.

As Elon Musk prepares his two ventures, Tesla and SpaceX, to strive for new heights in automotive engineering and space exploration respectively, we once again ponder the question of whether entrepreneurial ambition of this order is a result of genes or environment. Ashlee Vance’s account of this 45 year old’s life so far may throw some light on this topic.

If chocolate is your secret passion, then it would be hard to pass up both the book and movie on this confectionery manufacturer who is on the lookout for a qualified individual to take over the reins of his enterprise. His test for unsuspecting candidates includes many points on the factory floor designed to tempt and trap them. Willy Wonka, the eccentric owner of the chocolate factory, is not perfect. He is judgmental and narcissistic to a large degree. But he also knows what he wants in his successor and is benevolent towards his employees, the disadvantaged Oompa-Loompas. A mixed portrait of the owner emerges, not unlike what one would find outside this genre of fantasy fiction.4

Unbridled ambition and the ruthless pursuit of power are the primary themes of yet another story on an initially idealistic writer who goes on to become a powerful newspaper magnate. The plot follows the graph of Citizen Kane’s life through political scandal, extramarital affairs, and a growing sense of megalomania to his eventual downfall. Kane’s character, played by Orson Welles, is widely believed to be based on the life of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst who spearheaded the trend of ‘yellow journalism’, among other innovative practices.

There are many other examples such as these, in life and in fiction. It is natural to wonder if some mix of unconventional upbringing and adversity is needed to draw out the entrepreneur within. As we delve into some of these stories, we get a sense for how tenacious these individuals are and how committed to their mission, even if it is somewhat misplaced as in Hearst’s case. Musk and others of his ilk will probably agree with this feel-good quote that is attributed to author Norman Vincent Peale: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”