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To compile our top 30, we sought the selections of professors and authors, whose criteria included mass commerce and distribution of wealth
Who are the greatest entrepreneurs of all time? We could spend a lifetime compiling a list without ever agreeing on who deserves a mention. From the pirates of Silicon Valley to the captains of industry, there are far too many figures to choose from to give anyone the final say.
In other words, we acknowledge our list's inherent subjectivity. To compile it, we picked the brains of professors, authors, and BusinessWeek staffers. Our criteria for entrepreneurs to be considered among the greatest was simple. If they had the vision to create new markets or tap into underserved markets, changing the way people lived in the process, then they were candidates on a list we whittled down to 30 players.
More Than Just Wealth
Some founders won recognition not just for their companies' success, but for what they did with the wealth they accumulated. For Jeff Cornwall, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at Belmont University, entrepreneurs-turned-philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie and Bill Gates made the top of his list.
"Look at entrepreneurs who had a profound impact that goes beyond just raw business success, as we often define it on Wall Street," says Cornwall, whose book on the subject, The Good Entrepreneur (Regal), will be published next year. "The great ones to me are the ones that understood they were building more than just that wealth."
Many of the pioneers we chose also created businesses that in turn encouraged others to start their own enterprises. Microloans from Muhammad Yunus' Grameen Bank have helped thousands of poor Bangladeshi women lift themselves from destitution (see BusinessWeek.com, 10/13/06, "What the Nobel Means for Microcredit"). And how many businesses has Pierre Omidyar's eBay (EBAY) made possible? "He wants to encourage free enterprise around the world," Cornwall said. (See BusinessWeek.com, 6/21/07, "Axe the SBA.")
Todd Buchholz, author of New Ideas from Dead CEOs (Collins, 2007), says the founders on his list distinguished themselves by a belief in "the democratization of commerce."
"The 20th century, socially and economically, was about more people participating in a large way," says Buchholz. Ray Kroc, for example, made many of his McDonald's (MCD) franchisees rich before him. Sam Walton created the world's largest retailer in Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) by giving customers the world's lowest prices. "A theme that goes through many of the stories that I chose is kind of betting on the masses." (See BusinessWeek.com, 6/6/07, "Book Views: Todd Buchholz").
Above all, the entrepreneurs we chose transformed their times. Admiral Zheng He created a vast trade empire for China during the Ming Dynasty. Henry Ford brought the car to the mass market.
And Gates, Steve Jobs, and Andy Grove ushered in the information age. "All three of them played key roles in putting computers on everybody's desks and now in everybody's pockets," says Richard Tedlow, a Harvard Business School professor and Grove biographer. "That's why you have one on your desk right this minute."
So, who are the 30 greatest entrepreneurs of all time? Click through BusinessWeek's slide show to find out.
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