John Merlo-Coyne
Montgomery Blair High School
Silver Spring, Maryland
12th Grade
First Place Winner, Maryland

Empires: The Entrepreneurial Contributions of George Washington and Dr. Dre

            From Ford’s automobile assembly lines to Ray Kroc’s franchising of fast food, the innovations and risk-taking of business leaders are as instrumental to America’s economy as the workers who bring those dreams to fruition. However, two of the greatest American entrepreneurs are rarely seen as entrepreneurs at all. It’s hard to conceive of a schoolchild who would answer “whiskey distiller” or “tobacco grower” when asked about George Washington. Questioned about Dr. Dre, the same student might discuss the media mogul’s business acumen and successful headphone brand, but a more likely response is “I’m not allowed to listen to him.” Even though neither man is seen primarily as an entrepreneur, both displayed ingenuity and shrewd calculation that allowed them to make money while simultaneously changing society. Entrepreneurship involves more than just business; it’s about innovation, willingness to adapt, and exploration of new fields. Both men demonstrate these traits, even if other aspects of their lives are strikingly different. Through their shared entrepreneurial genius, the well-to-do son of a Virginia planter and the troubled young DJ from Compton made enduring marks upon modern America, rising past their peers and contributing to a culture in which capitalism is king.

As a general, statesman, and president, George Washington helped create, defend, and lead the first democracy of the modern era. He is most often recognized for his military genius and commitment to representative government. However, some of his greatest contributions to our nation at its outset came from his willingness to innovate and effectively use resources-- his ability to act as an entrepreneur. Washington’s most brilliant entrepreneurial contribution to American independence wasn’t a military technique that he used or a law he approved; it was his lifelong, enduring ability to play different aspects of his life off of one another, both to his benefit and to our nation’s. Washington’s first job was as a surveyor, charting territory in the Virginia frontier and near the Ohio River. When tensions escalated between England and France over land in the Ohio Valley, he shrewdly leveraged this surveying experience. Washington volunteered to act as military emissary to the French even though “he had no prior military service, spoke no French or Native dialects, and was inexperienced in matters of diplomacy” (Adams). Despite his inexperience, Virginia’s lieutenant governor chose Washington because of his knowledge of the land and connections to a surveying company with a stake in the Ohio Valley. Although his meeting with the French was ultimately unsuccessful, Washington used this experience to jump-start his military career, even starting a battle later on which “represented the opening salvoes of the French and Indian War” (Stoltz).

After the war, Washington used his newly-gained military status to increase his personal wealth, receiving thousands of acres of land around the Ohio River promised to veterans. Thus, through careful manipulation of his circumstances, our first president was wealthy and battle-tested at the outset of America’s fight for independence, and an ideal candidate for leadership of the Continental Army. His entrepreneurial skills allowed him to make the most of each role he was placed in, and prepared him for his most important role: General.

Washington also contributed to the American cause through his openness to innovation and adaptation. A key example of his ability to innovate is when, during the Revolutionary War, he saw the disastrous toll that smallpox infection was taking on the fledgling United States Army, saying that “we… have more to dread from it, than from the sword of the enemy” (Becker). In order to reduce smallpox deaths among his men, Washington had them all “variolated” (an early, crude form of vaccination). By giving each man a minor infection, he inoculated them against further harm. After this program began, disease rates in the Continental Army dropped from 35.5% to 17% (Becker). Washington’s willingness to embrace a relatively new treatment during wartime was risky, but paid off, creating an army that was stronger and more equipped to fight for American independence.  

George Washington achieved his military career and riches partially because he was a wealthy planter’s son. Andre Young (Dr. Dre) could scarcely have had a more different childhood. Growing up in Compton, California during the 1970s and 1980s, the rapper moved schools because of violence, neglected his grades, and fathered a child at age 16. However, Dre achieved his goals not in spite of his troubled upbringing, but because of it. By leveraging his connection to street culture and his own innate musical and business acumen, Dre dragged himself up from obscurity to fame and fortune, bringing about revolutions in rap music and consumer electronics along the way. Along with the other members of the rap group N.W.A., Dre pioneered gangsta rap, injecting his lyrics with candid discussions of violence, controversial verbal assaults on law enforcement, and unapologetically graphic descriptions of urban crime. Because of its content, many were critical of Dre’s music; N.W.A. even recieved a warning letter from the F.B.I. after the release of their song, “F*ck tha Police.” N.W.A.’s unprecedented style created space for a now-lucrative industry of gangsta rap music, foreshadowed by the fact that their breakout album, “Straight Outta Compton,” sold over three million records (Benton-Martin).

In addition to his role in N.W.A., Dre is best known for his eponymous headphone brand, Beats by Dre, which he co-founded in 2006. Although Dre is an entrepreneur for taking advantage of a market in which he had little experience, closer inspection reveals an even more impressive achievement: Dre created a luxury brand not solely because of the actual quality of the products, but because he carefully manipulated the headphones’ perceived quality through a variety of methods. For example, most Beats headphones contain metal inserts whose purpose is solely to make the product more attractive. According to Bolt’s Ben Einstein, these metal parts make up 33% of the headphones’ weight in some cases, and exist “to add a bit of weight and increase perceived quality...” (Einstein). Dre also made Beats attractive to consumers by optimizing the headphones to compliment his and other hip-hop artists’ music. Beats are notoriously heavy on bass, so they sound best when paired with bass-heavy artists (especially rappers) like Dre and his associate 50 Cent. Dre and his company engineered Beats so that regardless of actual manufacturing quality, the headphones look expensive, feel expensive, and work best when used to listen to Dre himself. As the Sydney Morning Herald’s Jesse Dorris put it, “Beats by Dre aren't really cutting-edge technology. They aren't trendy fashion accessories at heart, either. Beats by Dre are actually bass-delivery systems” (Dorris). This careful engineering, when paired with many celebrity endorsements, have made the brand a consumer electronics titan. Dre created a line of headphones that sometimes sell for 15 times their manufacturing price, and sold the company to Apple for three billion dollars in 2014, making him the “richest man in hip-hop”.   

From state-building to surveying to music production, George Washington and Dr. Dre’s shared entrepreneurial spirit made them both successes, even in different eras and in vastly different fields. While Dre’s impact on modern consumer culture and rap music has been profound, George Washington’s entrepreneurship enabled the birth of a new democracy. For that reason, our first president’s contribution is undoubtedly more important.

But Dr. Dre is the greater entrepreneur of the two. This is true for the simple reason that although Washington achieved more, he also started off with greater resources, access to his parents’ wealth, and a social status that almost predisposed him for success. Dre started out poor and obscure, living in an area known for swallowing up young men and spitting them out. From those origins, he was able to build himself up not only because of musical talent, but because of his ability to innovate, take advantage of new markets, and carefully calculate his steps to financial and social success. The ultimate mark of entrepreneurship is creating something where nothing existed before, and Dre did exactly that, transforming himself from a troubled young man with few prospects into a multimillionaire celebrity and business owner. Just as Washington spent much of his life trying to escape an empire, Dre dedicated himself to building one. His remarkable success in doing so can be traced back to his embrace of new art forms and technologies, and his unfailingly entrepreneurial spirit.

 

Works Cited:

Becker, Ann M. "Smallpox in Washington's Army: Strategic Implications of the Disease during the American Revolutionary War." The Journal of Military History 68.2 (2004): 381-430. George Washington's Mount Vernon. Web. 15 Jan. 2017.

Benton-Martin, Erika. "N.W.A.'s 'Straight Outta Compton' Album Certified Triple Platinum."Music Times. Music Times, 08 Dec. 2015. Web. 16 Jan. 2017.

Dorris, Jesse. "How Beats by Dre Knocked out Better Headphones." Editorial. Sydney Morning Herald n.d.: n. pag. The Sydney Morning Herald. The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Sept. 2013. Web. 22 Jan. 2017.

Einstein, Ben. "Yup, Our Beats Were Counterfeit (But They Cost About the Same to Make as the Real Ones)." Blog post. Bolt Blog. Bolt, 8 July 2015. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

George Washington Digital Encyclopedia. “Growth of Mount Vernon.” The Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington. The George Washington Presidential Library. Web. 16 Jan. 2017.

Stoltz, Joseph III. “Jumonville Glen Skirmish.” The Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington. The George Washington Presidential Library. Web. 14 Jan. 2017.  

Dorris, Jesse. "How Beats by Dre Knocked out Better Headphones." Editorial. Sydney Morning Herald n.d.: n. pag. The Sydney Morning Herald. The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Sept. 2013. Web. 22 Jan. 2017.