By Dale Dawson
If private enterprise, rather than charity, is the sustainable solution to poverty in Africa, then how do Americans help? One innovative idea taking root in Rwanda is to draw faith-motivated U.S. businesspeople to the country to lend their talent and invest their resources to promote entrepreneurship and private sector growth. This essay journals the transformation of one boomer-age American entrepreneur as he reignites his passion, redefines success in business into a divine calling and encourages the next generation to fuse a social mission into their careers.
My granddad was a cowboy preacher that dedicated his life to God and to ministering to the hardscrabble working poor of the Texas Panhandle. My dad was a milkman and my parents were small family entrepreneurs. I grew up thinking that I could choose one life or the other. I chose business.
Today, I get to do both. Seven years ago, I decided to set aside my comfortable position at a private investment firm to devote myself to building businesses and supporting education in Rwanda – a tiny, poor and inspiring country in the heart of Africa. While faith calls and challenges me to do what I do, no one confuses me with a pastor.
I always wanted to be a “deal” man and entrepreneur. For 22 years after college, I worked as a corporate tax consultant, investment banker, entrepreneur and finally, as the CEO of a private company that distributed truck and trailer parts. I sold the business when I was 46 years old; inexplicably lost my passion to do another big deal; and entered a season of life called “halftime”.
Bob Buford, a successful businessman and protégé of the management guru, Peter Drucker, coined the term “halftime” to describe the common experience of thousands of successful business people when they reach middle age–and get the surprise of their life. They look around and instead of savoring their success, they wonder what it all means. In his books, Halftime and Finishing Well, Buford advises: “For ‘Halftimers’ to reignite their passion and to finish life well, they must move from success to significance…in their second half, they will need to find a mission that allows them to use their time and talent in service to others.” For people of faith, it often means finding God’s call on their lives.
In his book, The Call, Os Guinness asks the question,
“God’s calling is the key to igniting a passion for the deepest growth and highest heroism in life. Do you want to accept a challenge that will be the integrating dynamic of your whole life? One that will engage your loftiest thoughts, your most dedicated exertions, your deepest emotions, and all your abilities and resources, the last step you take and the last breath you breathe? Listen to Jesus of Nazareth; answer his call.”
During my personal “halftime” experience, I began to realize that passion is not self-inspired, but actually a gift from God–a mysterious divine gift of consuming purpose and energy–that seems to come and go of its own accord. I also became convinced that to get my passion back, I would need to redefine my idea of success and align my priorities with what God valued.
My dilemma: Does God really care about business? I was willing to change my life to get my passion back. But I loved being an investment banker and entrepreneur – it’s what I do and who I am. For me, the critical question became, “If I make myself available to work full-time for God, how will He use me? Can building businesses be Kingdom work?”
Business as a vocation for the followers of Jesus has always been a subject of considerable reflection, even for the leaders of the early Christian church. St Augustine of Hippo, the influential fourth century African bishop, offered support for believers working in the marketplace. He taught that sinfulness is not inherent to any occupation, including commerce, but it is up to the individual to live righteously. Augustine regarded private property as a natural condition and approved of “profit” because it is natural and lawful for “you wish to buy cheap, and sell dear.”
Over the centuries, trade, commerce and private enterprise have had a massive impact on transforming the world. Europe’s ability to explore and dominate the globe beginning in the sixteenth century is often attributed to the rise of capitalism – the economic system that originated in Europe which significantly increased human productivity, investment capital and technical and organizational innovation. What is less well known is the important role the medieval Christian church played in capitalism’s birth.
In The Victory of Reason, author Rodney Stark contends that Catholic monks in the early ninth century were responsible for developing the earliest forms of the modern commercial enterprise. Despite having forsaken worldliness, these entrepreneurial monastic estates were vitally intent on creating wealth to ensure their own long-term financial sustainability. Motivated, disciplined and literate, the estates flourished by introducing productivity gains, new technology, merit-based management, specialization and trade. Led by men who had surrendered their lives to God, the monasteries grew prosperous and became the early entrepreneurial engines that raised the economic tide for their communities and Europe.
In the documentary, Call of the Entrepreneur by the Acton Institute, Rev. Robert Sirico expresses the view that entrepreneurship is a divine vocation reflecting God’s creative image:
“When God fashioned man from the dust of the earth and breathed into him the breath of life and spoke those first words of vocation to the human family, He invited us to be co-creators with Him…working with Him in the continuation of the creation of the world. What an awesome vocation that is.”
Classic entrepreneurs are visionary, driven individuals – motivated by the desire to create something where nothing exists. True entrepreneurship is not a zero-sum game that requires someone to lose, but rather a way of orchestrating the talent and energy of others to create something of value – new wealth. Entrepreneurs create products, services, jobs and expand economies. They improve people’s lives. To compete, entrepreneurs must focus on satisfying the needs and desires of others. They are tested by the marketplace, and they are rewarded for how well they serve their fellow human beings.
I had the answer to my question: Of course God cares about business…He cares about every aspect of our lives. The more important question is “will entrepreneurs – who organize, manage and assume the risks and challenges of creating businesses and private enterprises – accept the divine call to be a driving force in God’s transforming work on earth?”
Stay tuned for Part 2