The idea of entrepreneurship seems to many of us intrinsically Western, bound up in all those ideas of Adam Smith's about how work redeems people as good (white) Christians and helps them to claim their proper role in the universe. (Which is not exactly what Smith originally said, which we will get to in a moment.) But in fact the spirit of entrepreneurialism is as universal as human society. Across the globe there are those who take on both the responsibility and the risk for starting or running a business - and do so with the belief (or at least the expectation) that they can make a profit by doing so. This paper examines the differences, and the continuities, between two groups of entrepreneurs, those working in west Africa and those working in Harlem.
While there are some distinct differences between these two subgroups, there are also overriding and important similarities as well. In both case the entrepreneur decides on what the product or service will be and assembles the needed requirements for getting this product or service to those who are willing to pay for it. This includes both labor and materials (which include the capital needed for start-up and initial maintenance costs). These are the attributes of entrepreneurial activity worldwide, so we should hardly be surprised to find them in New York and Africa.
However, even as both of these groups have to marshal resources and labor, there are key differences as well as Moss (1995) and Rauch (1996) suggest. The capital available to even poor African-Americans in Harlem is relatively much greater (with a very few exceptions) to the capital that is available to West Africans. However, African entrepreneurs may draw upon a wider labor pool, and may do so on a voluntary basis or at least a basis of deferred payment - an option that is generally not available to American entrepreneurs (although more so to those working within ethnically or racially defined enclaves than to others, as Lee  argues).
West African entrepreneurs can draw upon family and fictive kinship ties to assemble the labor and the resources needed to start a business; these in-kind loans do not necessarily have to be paid back, and certainly do not have to be paid back in the same way a loan from a Western bank does. People in villages in West Africa and even in the larger cities are bound to each other in sets of intergenerational mutual obligations, requiring that people help out when they are called upon to do so even as they know that they can call upon others when they need to.
The extent to which people in a community are bound to each other by informal ties of obligation varies from one community to another, and New York is famous for having a very low measure of mutual obligation. However, Harlem is no small measure an exception to this atomization of modern life (although the continuing poverty of the are tends to break down some of the forms of social obligation that African-Americans have maintained from traditional African life as well as developed in the face of the challenges that life in American presents to minorities.)
The (Western) stereotype of the entrepreneur is a loner, an innovator who works impossibly long hours on his (or less often her) own and with nerves of steel risks everything time and again to come up in the end with a jackpot. However, this stereotype is not particularly useful in a traditional society, where ties of obligation are intergenerational, and where the overall level of poverty makes sharing what wealth one has even more of a moral obligation than it is in the United States.
In fact, if we look back to the ur-text of Westen entrepreneurialism, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, we see that even he was not arguing that the entrepreneur is not someone who goes it entirely alone, and certainly not someone who sacrifices family and friends to earn a few more dollars. That particularly mercenary vision of the entrepreneur (which is rejected by nearly everyone in both Harlem and West African entrepreneurial communities, at least according to our readings) arises after Smith had laid out the ground rules. It is a product of the Industrial Revolution and in many ways applies to…