Is it possible to be a good Christian and a successful entrepreneur? The Bible encourages believers to exploit their talents, which surely includes 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.” The most 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 services, to generate jobs and taxes, and to make full use of their God-given abilities. Not unlike those who have faith, entrepreneurs often see their work as a calling.
Moreover, they tend to display several characteristics that are part of Christian teaching: industriousness; passion; self-improvement; service; stewardship and charity. Indeed, some might argue that God – both creator and cultivator – was the first entrepreneur. Though not driven by commercial motives, God certainly possessed vision and was undoubtedly a risk taker. Yet the Bible frequently criticises the accumulation of wealth for its own sake. Matthew, for example, is no fan of 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 Christian ethics is not easy. One has to avoid activities that could be considered vices, such as gambling. 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, indulge in sharp practices, or succumb to the sense of power that flows from owning a large enterprise. For a good Christian, these must be resisted. One Christian entrepreneur of note is Gary Grant, who runs toy retailer The Entertainer, which has more than 130 stores. What is more astonishing is that they don’t open on Sundays, because doing so goes against the owner’s religious beliefs. Grant also donates 10 per cent of the company’s profits to charity according to Christian tithing custom, and they do not sell Hallowe’en goods, preferring not to celebrate what they consider to be a pagan ritual connected with the occult.
A branch of Christianity that had a remarkable impact on industrial Britain was the Quakers. Not only did they found Lloyds and Barclays banks, but they also started Cadbury’s confectionery and Clarks 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 per cent of residents there belong to a religious institution, so 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 faith of many in Silicon Valley.
The most high-profile Christian entrepreneur in America is David Green, who owns crafts retailer Hobby Lobby. It has 932 stores and Green is the sole proprietor, reputed to be worth more than $5bn. He donates half the company’s pre-tax earnings to evangelical ministries, shuts his shops on Sundays so staff can attend services, and keeps four chaplains on the payroll.
He believes that faith not strategy, and the power of prayer, saved his business from bankruptcy in 1985. I like working with religious entrepreneurs.
They are generally honest and have integrity. I admire the fact they work towards a higher calling, and, by being entrepreneurs, follow the Bible’s advice to “be fruitful and multiply”.
Luke Johnson is chairman of Risk Capital Partners and the Institute of Cancer Research. This article first appeared in the Sunday Times
Image credit: The Calling of Saint Matthew – the patron saint of accountants and bankers –(1599–1600), Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome