While preparing a presentation on entrepreneurship for a recent overseas assignment, I came upon someone described as such from the 15th Century. Interestingly, this was some 400 years before the word entrepreneur came into existence.
What was even more interesting was that the person concerned was the Pope in the Vatican at the time. His name was Pope Sixtus IV and he is remembered for a number of things he did in Rome.
This Pope was the one that had the Sistine Chapel built, as well as donating items that started the Vatican library and the museums of the Vatican. He was praised as well for the many developments in Rome itself, including restoring the aqueduct to give dress water to Rome and in providing wide roads for the populace.
However, one could argue that these were much more the acts of an efficient administrator or leader of the time. This would make him not necessarily an entrepreneur but simply a good ruler.
But there were other things, that although not necessarily the actions of a God-fearing catholic, nevertheless demonstrated some of those characteristics that we would later associate with entrepreneurship!
How often have we see entrepreneurs develop through a family business and Pope Sixtus IV was no exception. During his reign as Pope he promoted no less than six of his relations to Cardinals in addition to giving other relations key positions within his organisation.
But the true mark of an entrepreneur is the ability to see an opportunity and, with the advent of the Spanish Inquisition, he saw a real opportunity. Not only did he support the Inquisition, he then identified a way to make money from the victims.
When someone died it was necessary to spend time in purgatory to atone for their sins before passing into heaven. Pope Sixtus IV informed the Catholic community that they could reduce the time that their loved ones spent in purgatory by donating to the Vatican coffers.
While there is no doubt that the scheme falls into the concept of entrepreneurship, it clearly is a bit dodgy and not an enterprise to be condoned.
However, it has a present day message in this story. Entrepreneurial thinking is good when applied to positive contributions to society, but the very characteristics that make an entrepreneur can also be used for things that are not reputable.
Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than with Pope Sixtus IV who, on one hand, could be responsible for the Sistine Chapel but, on the other hand, could sell dodgy absolutions to grieving family members.