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Monday, December 30, 2019

How Jamestown Descendants Used an Entrepreneurial Mindset to Survive and Thrive by Hilton Barrett * [20]

Circa late 16th century, the Old World -- the early era of colonization. Why did our ancestors leave England to establish a colony in the New World? Why would they leave the “safe” conditions of England for unknown lands?

Most of England’s populace was ‘country folk’ with little education and even fewer choices as to life decisions. The vast majority of the people were peasants and received little education and had few vocational opportunities beyond being a peasant. There were comparatively few families we would call middle class. London was overcrowded due to a population boom plus arrival of peasants who could not find reasonable employment in the countryside. It was congested with an overwhelming stench. In society, self-indulgence was rampant, rudeness ruled, and social disintegration was evident. Corruption was rampant, at all levels of society.

Religion and church were major issues. The establishment Catholic Church was being challenged by Protestants. Europe and England were intensely divided over religion. Religious and social factions were under increasing attack from each other in England.

Spain had a head start in colonization and trade in the New World. England was becoming isolated and offered limited options for its people. England needed to expand its domain and how it viewed opportunities outside its sphere. Colonization in the New World was a means to increase its treasury and influence.

In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh sent two ships to the New World to establish a colony. Once established, shiploads of settlers would be sent to expand England’s domain. On July 4th, 1584, the ship sighted land – a long sand bar off the North Carolina coast. They went through an inlet and onto what is now known as Roanoke Island. They discovered a fruitful land and kind natives. The queen claimed all of America north of Florida as English property. Alas, the area was bountiful as to cropland but had none of the gold and silver found by the Spaniards in the areas now known as Mexico and Peru.

Were the colonists in America victims of the political and religious uproar within England and much of the rest of Europe? Relating to the power of the Church of England, there is evidence that the colonists were ‘separatists’ and did not receive the necessary support from the government and religious sector within England.

Given this historical setting, what are the profiles of people who would take the risk of moving their families to a new land of which little was known? Our premise is that these trailblazers exhibited traits that today we would call entrepreneurial and value creating.

These settlers had to fend for themselves under harsh conditions. They exhibited similar intrapreneurial characteristics that business practitioners might use to start a venture within a corporate structure. According to Covin & Slevin (1991), corporate entrepreneurship behavior is based on three key tenets: 1) innovation (launch concepts that have not been done before), 2) risk-taking propensity (go out on a limb since that is where the fruit is), and 3) proactiveness (take appropriate action in anticipation of future problems or needs).

According to Blue Ocean Outsource (2019), there are five major theories of entrepreneurship: economic, resource-based, opportunity-based, sociological, and psychological. The latter perspective (psychological) is representative of trait theory.

Trait theory can be expressed in numerous ways. For example, the “Trait Theory of Entrepreneurial Leadership” consists of twelve attributes in five trait-related areas (Erkkila, 2000):

  > creative, imaginative, and flexible

  > autonomous and high locus of control

  > achievement-oriented, diligent, initiative-directed, and problem-solving

  > leadership and persuasiveness

  > risk-taking (moderate)

With respect to the Jamestown colony, consider the following scenario:  

1    They were dissatisfied with their position in life and their opportunities.

2    They held religious beliefs which supported the ‘leap of faith’ to a better life for self and family.

3    They had a strong belief in themselves and what they could accomplish given the opportunity. They had a high locus of control (they, not outside factors, were basis for their success). 
In sum, they had the ability to understand their options, a degree of sociability (worked well with others), an ability to understand what were their feasible options, were accepting of moderate risks, tolerance of others and their ideas, and need for dominance when required, and industriousness. They believed in their own abilities to accomplish ambitious goals.

Failure was a learning process. They had a low need for conformity (after all, how many would have taken the risk to leave England and come to America?) Psychologically, they had or developed planning and problem-solving abilities. They had a high level of energy and willingness to work hard. And perhaps most importantly, they developed the ability to accept change.

As history revealed, the original colony did not survive. However, the commitment to colonize America had been established. In 1607, the London Company sent a colony that did become the first English settlement in America – Jamestown on the James River in Virginia. 

The characteristics of the original colonists and those who settled Jamestown had the same decision making and belief profile of the group of people we, today, call entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are not just people starting businesses, they are people who recognize and nurture new ideas that benefit society.


Blue Ocean Outsource (2019), Theories of entrepreneurship: traits of an entrepreneur, April 4,

Covin, J.G. & Slevin, D.P. (1991), A conceptual model of entrepreneurship behavior as firm behavior, Entrepreneurship Theory & Practice 16 (1), 7-26.

Erkkila, K. (2000), Entrepreneurial Education, NY: Garland.

* Dr. Hilton Barrett is a Professor of Business (Retired) at Elizabeth City State University, North Carolina. A renowned entrepreneurship scholar, Dr. Barrett is published in leading journals in marketing, management, strategy, and innovation. Dr. Barrett resides in close proximity to the original Jamestown settlement and gives historical talks on this subject. He may be reached at


  1. This topic does tie in well with history. To be successful, in most things, you need to take some quantity of risk. In the case of the first American colonies, it was a questionable decision. To be an entrepreneur you must be driven, calculated, innovative, and willing to take reasonable risks. I would not say that taking a ship to an unknown land is a reasonable risk but rather a mental state of a person who fleeing the country out of desperation and not a conscious effort that an entrepreneur might have. Under stress and pressure innovation is usually not cultured rather a person turns to survival mode and does what it takes to survive. Regardless, the article made a good point. It would have been interesting to know how business occurs in societies and to trace back how corporations were created directly from the simplest human settlements.

  2. I knew about the Jamestown settlement, but I never heard that were dissatisfied with their position in life and their opportunities. I did know that their ship landed on a sand bar off the North Carolina coast. Thank you for your time.

    Dev Patel

  3. this article explains the essence of what it is to truly be an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur is simply a person who sees something wrong in their environment/ecosystem and want to change it while at the same time benefiting from it. many articles, including this blog post claim that entrepreneurs love risk, and that could not be farther from the truth. Entrepreneurs don't like risk per say, we simply don't like doing things where the outcome is very predictable (where's the fun in that)

  4. This article was certainly interesting to read although the context of English colonies claiming this land as their own has never sat right with me. However, the original colonists definitely were entrepreneurs as they created something out of "nothing," which is key to becoming successful. I was reading the other comments on this post and one of them stood out to me. One individual wrote that it seems like a stretch to call them entrepreneurs when they were doing this out of survival mode; however, I think this is how a lot of small businesses are started. For instance, in just this year alone with Covid, so many people lost their jobs which led them to try something new. For instance, someone I know started selling their paintings out of desperation yet I would still consider them an entrepreneur. They did something to help them pay rent, yet they marketed their talent in an amazing way. 


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