26th March, 2017

Praise the Lord and keep the faith in start-ups!

Is it possible to be a good Christian and a successful entrepreneur? I was inspired to ask this question thanks to an excellent new book entitled A Voice to be Heard, written by Kina Robertshaw and Richard Higginson. They discuss how a strong faith in God can be compatible with the job of growing a thriving business, and interviewed 50 Christian entrepreneurs as part of their research.

The Bible explicitly encourages believers to exploit their talents, which must surely include the ability to found and run a business. As it says in Ecclesiastes 9:10, “whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.” Most of the more impressive entrepreneurs I’ve known, whether religious or not, don’t really do it for the money. They build businesses to provide the world with their products and services, to generate jobs and taxes, to contribute productively to society, and to make full use of their God-given abilities. A little like those who have a religious faith, entrepreneurs often see their work as a calling, rather than just work.

Moreover, entrepreneurs in general display several characteristics that are part of Christian teaching: industriousness; passion; self-improvement; service; stewardship and charity. Indeed, some Christians would argue that God was, in a sense, the first entrepreneur, since he was the ultimate creator and cultivator. Of course he was not driven by commercial motives — but God certainly possessed vision and was undoubtedly a risk taker.

Yet there are also plenty of examples from the Bible that criticise the accumulation of wealth for its own sake. Matthew, in particular, is not keen on Mammon: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Matthew, 19:24.

Managing a business using strict Christian ethics cannot be easy. One has to avoid activities that could be considered vices, such as gambling. Staff, competitors and suppliers all have to be treated with respect at all times. That can be hard in the rough and tumble, litigious world of business. For example, companies suffer endlessly from crime — in recent weeks, different firms with which I’m involved have experienced a burnt-out vehicle, a robbery, and a minor fraud. These troubles have to be dealt with stoically. And there can be no room for any of the deadly sins, such as pride, envy or greed. Meanwhile, the devil tempts entrepreneurs to pay less tax, or indulge in sharp practices, or succumb to the sense of power that flows from owning a large enterprise. For a good Christian, all these practices must be stoutly resisted.

One prominent Christian entrepreneur is Gary Grant, who runs my youngest son’s favourite shop, The Entertainer. This is a toy retailer with more than 130 stores, one of the few such high street chains still in existence. What is even more astonishing is that they do not open on Sundays, because doing so does not accord with the owner’s religious beliefs. He also chooses to donate 10% of the company’s profits to charity according to Christian tithing custom, and they do not sell Hallowe’en goods, because they prefer not to celebrate what they consider to be a pagan ritual connected with the occult.

A particular nonconformist branch of Christianity that had a remarkable impact on the industrial landscape in Britain was the Quakers. Not only did Quakers found the original Lloyds and Barclays banks, but they also started Cadbury’s confectionery and Clark’s shoes. Considering that in 1851 there were fewer than 20,000 Quakers in the entire country, these achievements are proof that culture matters greatly when trying to understand entrepreneurship.

Even in Silicon Valley, the church plays a big role: 43% of residents there belong to a religious institution, showing that there is a strong element of faith even in the centre of the technology industry.

Most of the religious locals are Catholics or Evangelicals, but there are also plenty of Hindus, Zen Buddhists and Jews. I suspect some of the idealism so prevalent across the tech start-up universe is influenced by the religious beliefs of many in Silicon Valley.

The most high-profile Christian entrepreneur in America might be David Green, the owner of arts and crafts retailer Hobby Lobby.

It runs 520 superstores and Green is the sole proprietor, reputed to be worth more than $5bn. He donates half the company’s pre-tax earnings to a number of evangelical ministries. He too shuts his shops on Sundays so staff can attend services, and keeps four chaplains on the payroll.

He believes that it was faith rather than strategy, and the power of prayer, that saved his business from bankruptcy in 1985 during a downturn.

I like doing business with religious entrepreneurs because they are generally honest and possess integrity. I admire the fact that they work towards a higher calling, not simply laying up treasures upon this earth, and, by being entrepreneurs, follow the Bible’s advice to “be fruitful and multiply”.