Historical Entrepreneurship Case Series

The USC Marshall Greif Center
Historical Entrepreneurship Case Series

Innovations from decades past,
Insights for today.

Trailblazers championed new technologies, developed global brands and built new types of distribution channels. Their stories provide perspective on today’s business challenges and shed light on the opportunities innovators will be pursuing tomorrow.


business barbieEntrepreneurial Imagination:

Ruth Handler and the Barbie Doll

The case details the entrepreneurial journey of Ruth Handler (1916-2002), one of the most well-known female entrepreneurs in the post-war United States. She founded the toy company Mattel with her husband Elliot, and together they developed it into a global giant after launching the iconic Barbie doll in the 1960s. Students can explore the multi-stage process of “entrepreneurial imagination” and think through their own methods of finding and pursuing unrealized opportunities.

TOPICS: Business history, Creativity, History of capitalism, Managing creativity & innovation, Startup

Module Note: Historical Entrepreneurship

The module note addresses the subject of Historical Entrepreneurship as a way to introduce greater sensitivity to context, time and change into entrepreneurship education. It outlines a teaching module based on these seven cases from the USC Marshall Greif Center Historical Entrepreneurship Case Series. Each case examines an entrepreneurial opportunity historically, allowing students to consider the context for its creation, the entrepreneurial actions involved in its pursuit, and the broader changes it created in markets and societies. The module is structured around four waves of imaginative entrepreneurship, exploring opportunities rooted in, respectively, “Consumer Desire”, “Technology”, “Globalization”, and “Social Challenges.” Each wave is analyzed in two cases and learnings are applied to present-day challenges.

TOPICS: Business & government relations, Business history, History of capitalism, Startup

Business Model Challenges: The Electric Vehicle Company

Electric vehicles have been “the next big trend” for more than 100 years. The first commercially viable electric car was available in the 1890s but failed to become the dominant design. The case chronicles the development of the Electric Vehicle Company (EVC), founded in 1896, which by the turn of the century was the largest manufacturer and user of electric vehicles in the United States. Students evaluate the competition between the three different available engine technologies (gas, electric and steam) and their value propositions. Applying the Business Model Canvas, they explore the misfit between the immature technology and the ambitious sales strategy of EVC. The case guides students in designing a turnaround plan which addresses many of the challenges that electric car companies, such as Tesla, struggle with today.

TOPICS: Business history, Business model generation, Business model innovation, Business plans, Competition, History of capitalism, Startup, Value proposition

Danfoss and the Danish Variety of Capitalism

Danfoss is a traditional Danish family firm, deeply committed to its local community in Nordborg, Als. The case shows Danfoss’ rise as it becomes one of the biggest heating, refrigeration, and air conditioning companies in the world. With ever greater expansion into global markets, Danfoss experienced the challenge of creating a harmonious global portfolio, while trying to remain a socially-responsible company with Danish local roots. The case encourages students to reflect on the varieties of capitalism in markets around the globe.

TOPICS: Business & government relations, Business history, Change management, Corporate governance, Entrepreneurship, Family businesses, Familyowned businesses, History of capitalism, International business

Gramophone: Reimagining Music

This case traces the development of the early gramophone industry through the eyes of the American talent scout and producer Fred Gaisberg. The story explores the challenges facing the sound recording industry in the US at its outset, including defining the applications for the new technology, building a market and responding to critics. It then shows the difficulties gramophone entrepreneurs faced expanding globally and, in particular, focuses on the expansion into India, an unfamiliar market for these entrepreneurs.

TOPICS: Business history, Entering foreign markets, Entrepreneurial management, Entrepreneurship, Innovation focused strategy, International business, International entrepreneurship, National differences, Types of entrepreneurship

Josiah Wedgwood: Creating Desire in the 18th Century

Josiah Wedgwood was one of the most famed entrepreneurs of the First Industrial Revolution. He had a transformative effect on the pottery industry. Wedgwood’s innovations ranged from creating new products to improving operations and financial controls to revolutionizing marketing and distribution practices. The case explores how entrepreneurs like Wedgwood pursue “desire-based” business opportunities, building timeless brands and developing special relationships with customers. The story offers insights into their marketing and sales techniques, which have shown remarkable persistence from the 18th century to the present. This case also challenges students to analyze fashion trends and the processes that generate (and destroy) entrepreneurial opportunities related to them.

TOPICS: Business history, Creativity, History of capitalism, Managing creativity & innovation

Kenyan Community Currencies Kenya

This case recounts the story of social entrepreneur Will Ruddick and his efforts to introduce social community currencies in Kenya. Students explore the social challenges these currencies aim to address and examine the possible designs. They will delve into pressing problems with such currency models, including distribution, demurrage and community organization. In the end, students can analyze Ruddick’s efforts as he works to develop currency models for three informal settlements with distinct needs in Kenya’s third largest city.

TOPICS: Business & government relations, Business history, Community development, Currency, Economic development, Entrepreneurship, History of capitalism, Social entrepreneurship

Enhance the learning experience with the exercise "Kenyan Community Currencies Roleplay" where students take on the role of merchants and buyers in an informal Kenyan settlement.

The Miracle of Wörgl

Recent attempts by several big tech companies to create their own currencies, such as Facebook’s Libra, have drawn attention to monetary innovations. This case describes the wave of monetary innovation and entrepreneurship triggered by the unemployment and economic distress of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Students explore the obstacles that monetary innovator and entrepreneur Mayor Michael Unterguggenberger experienced. By examining the currency advancements of “Mayor U” in Wörgl, Austria, students learn about the socioeconomic dilemmas these systems aimed to address and the distinct monetary designs the innovators adopted. Students will also take on the challenge as they try to develop a monetary design to boost the local economy.

TOPICS: Business & government relations, Business history, Currency, Depression, History of capitalism

Available at Harvard Business Publishing and The Case Centre

Coming soon: Ivey Publishing