The Entrepreneurs' Princess

The Entrepreneurs' Princess

April 28, 2011
Originally published in The Wall Street Journal - Europe

From across the pond, I have watched with interest the debate and speculation on the significance of Prince William's wedding to longtime girlfriend Kate Middleton.

Much has been made of the fact that Kate is a "commoner"; her mother and father started out their careers working as a flight attendant and flight dispatcher for British Airways, respectively. Yet she has known many of the privileges of aristocracy, because her parents built a multimillion-dollar business that supported elite educations for her siblings and her.

Some have asked if Kate will be a "people's princess," in the mold of Prince William's late mother, Diana. But Kate and her family actually embody a noble, if relatively modern, tradition of their own, a tradition of bettering oneself and one's family while improving the lot of society at the same time.

The tradition that Kate and her parents and siblings embody so well is that of entrepreneurship. For centuries in Britain, commercial activities were looked down upon by many in the aristocracy, whose wealth lay in landownership and who would not deign to dabble in trade. This week's wedding can be seen as the culmination of a long process of elevating the social status of entrepreneurship itself.

The story of the Middletons' rise to wealth has been told, but its significance and its implications for British culture and public policy have been little explored.

When Kate was five, her mother, like many aspiring entrepreneurs, saw a niche that could be filled to help others in her situation. As described on the website of the family business, PartyPieces.co.uk, "Carole Middleton founded Party Pieces in 1987 after finding it difficult to source fun, simple party products for her children's parties."

Somewhat like successful American firms from Microsoft to Google that had their beginnings in residential garages, Party Pieces started out in a shed in the Middletons' garden. There, mail orders were taken for boxes with pre-selected party favors to fit a certain theme.

The Middleton's business really took off with the advent of the Internet, and today, one can go on the web site and order plates, cups and napkins themed from Barbie to the Transformers. If one of the royal duties is to ensure the happiness of subjects, Kate's family has given her a head start by bringing joy to so many British parents and children.

And happiness through individual initiative is something Kate could encourage once she joins the royal family, by pointing to her family's entrepreneurial background and championing Britain's innovative firms, many of which have origins similar to that of Party Pieces. Margaret Thatcher has written that "however pervasive an enterprise culture is, most people are not born entrepreneurs." But the Middletons, through the story of their success before Kate even met William, will serve as a constant reminder of what enterprising men and women can achieve.

Over the three decades that span the lifetimes of Kate and Prince William, the commercial classes have attained newfound respect in British culture. The idea of ordinary people building successful businesses—a concept often called the "American Dream"—is now idealized in British programs such as BBC's "Dragons' Den."

If the royal family were to utilize Kate's background to help encourage and spread this culture of entrepreneurship, the effects in Britain—and possibly much of the world—could be incredible. The people of the United Kingdom would be much richer, and not just in material terms. "Earned success gives people a sense of meaning about their lives," writes the social scientist Arthur Brooks, who is president of the American Enterprise Institute think tank.

Indeed, studies show that in both the U.S. and U.K., many blue- and white-collar workers prefer to have the opportunity to advance, even if this means a less equal income distribution. A study of thousands of British employees by Andrew Clark, associate chair of the Paris School of Economics, found that measures of these workers' happiness actually rose as their demographic group's average income increased relative to their own.

These findings suggests that as people see members of their peer group gain wealth—even surpassing them—it gives them hope that they can improve their lot as well. As Mr. Clark put it in his study of British workers, "income inequality . . . need not be harmful for economic growth" if it "contains an aspect of opportunity."

The Middletons symbolize the opportunity that exists in a free-market system for those who take advantage of it. It is worth noting that they founded Party Pieces during the Thatcher era, when the Conservative government focused on lifting barriers to entrepreneurs through lower taxation, less regulation and privatization. Coincidentally or not, the year Kate's parents started their business, 1987, was also the year that their longtime employer British Airways was sold off, with shares of stock going to its workers.

Even though Kate's family has long been in the spotlight due to her relationship with Prince William, recent comments by Carole Middleton show that she still sympathizes with the small entrepreneur. In an interview on the Party Pieces website, she says: "I still work through to the early hours to hit a deadline and never take our success for granted."

The union of Prince William and Kate has been called a modern royal marriage, and in many ways it is. But it will also fulfill the traditional function of merger of families in a new way. When this couple says their "I dos," the royal family will officially be wed to the dreams and aspirations of millions of entrepreneurs in the United Kingdom and throughout the world.