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Lady Wisdom, Entrepreneur

Excellence and sustainability in business find their roots in something deeper than profitability models — much deeper.

Wisdom is not on a throne or in a temple. When Proverbs closes in a 21-verse acrostic that sums up the book, Wisdom is found caring for family, leading a company, and, yes, trading in the marketplace.

I recently learned about a privately owned manufacturing company in central Iowa that builds industrial agricultural equipment. Serving construction, landscaping, excavation, and forage markets domestically and internationally, this company has employed more than 3,000 people over the last 50-plus years. I was interested to learn that the most recent former CEO of the company, for nearly a dozen years, was a woman. 

In American expressions of Christianity, there are wells of ink spent on what we call the Proverbs 31 woman. Most of these center around a gentile disposition and a curiously 1950s kind of wifehood. But a closer reading of the Bible’s wisdom literature shows a picture closer to this CEO from Iowa. Beyond that, I believe that Proverbs 31:10-31 has much more far-reaching applications than women working in business.     

Wisdom Is Trending.      

During the past 50 years, business research has demonstrated over and again that discernment and wisdom in business decision-making lead to employee well-being, productivity, profitability, and even a comparative advantage in the marketplace. 

I have spent the last decade exploring thousands of articles across a myriad of industries around the world that provide decades of empirical evidence demonstrating that companies can indeed do well by doing good work. I have been shocked by the apparent impact of kindness, love, and care in secular settings resulting in life-changing corporate cultures, while researching with Fortune 500, small, and medium-sized companies. The result of this 10-year journey exploring the relevance of Scripture for Christians pursuing discipleship in the marketplace, the consequence of my longing to hear Christians encouraged to live out Scripture in spheres where our culture holds church and state at odds, is what I call wisdom-based business.  

There is a tension between the promises of wisdom literature — the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, in the Bible — and the reality of the marketplace. Juxtaposed with the temptation of folly, wisdom beckons us from Scripture to cherish her. Solomon implores us, perhaps from experience, in Proverbs when he writes, “Cherish her, and she will exalt you; embrace her, and she will honor you. She will give you a garland to grace your head and present you with a glorious crown (4:7-8).”

Far from an American prosperity doctrine, the wisdom books of the Bible outline the benefits of wisdom while calling the wise to the greatest commandments — to love God and to love others by imparting well-being as a result of our work. Wisdom is worth far more than profitability, worth more than rubies, and is incomparable to any other business strategy. Along with prudence, knowledge, and discretion, wisdom was there at the beginning of the world and invites us into “the way of righteousness and the path of justice to bestow a rich inheritance” on those who love her (Prov 8). 

This wisdom is divine. It’s wisdom we receive as a gift from God, similar to the gift of grace or faith. Imagine Solomon asking God for wisdom in 1 Kings 3. God’s response to Solomon results in Solomon being gifted all the promises found in the wisdom literature: 

I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for — both wealth and honor — so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings. And if you walk in obedience to me and keep my decrees and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life.

The divine wisdom of Proverbs is in a different category than natural or practical wisdom. Early Greek philosophers separated Sophia from phronesis. Sophia represented divine wisdom. Sophia was deified as a goddess worshipped in Ephesus whereas phronesis, or practical wisdom, represented the sciences of logic, reason, and discernment. Interestingly, the Greeks’ conceptualization of the goddess Sophia is not altogether different from the depiction of Lady Wisdom in Scripture. In Proverbs, wisdom is also personified as a woman.

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Sophia on Main Street

Proverbs compares the Lady Wisdom to folly. Whole passages focus on marketplace transactions (if you don’t believe me, read Proverbs 22) and lead us to the most holistic framework of wise business I have found anywhere in Scripture or even in ethics literature. 

The book opens and closes with a woman characterized by wisdom. Proverbs ends in chapter 31 with Lady Wisdom as a woman of might and valor, a wife, an entrepreneur, and a mother. The passage features the work of Wisdom not in her home or the temple worshiping, but as a business leader in the marketplace. Drawing from early descriptions of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 1-9, the noble woman in Proverbs 31:10-31 leads a textile business with profitability and benefit to her employees, all while her husband and children praise her works.

In many ways, this passage did not end up being applied in the modern world as the model for the ideal wife. If it had, the marketplace would have the potential to be full of female CEOs. Yet, as of 2020, only 7.5 percent of CEOs in the Fortune 500 are women. The so-called Proverbs 31 woman has much more to offer the church than we have yet realized. 

For me, business viewed through the lens of wisdom literature offers an opportunity to view business itself as an act of service to God, a ministry — not merely a means to provide resources for those who do ministry in a more traditional understanding. Business then becomes a vessel to make disciples of Christ and change culture while also providing resources to the rest of the church.

Wisdom at Work Today

Building on the work of Bible scholars who have exegetically explored Proverbs 31:10-31 and my research in business over the past 10 years, I have developed an organizational model from Proverbs 31:10-31 that can be applied to any organization (non- or for-profit) but is specifically geared toward business. 

We see a textile company that has enough scale (market growth) to require suppliers and to draw customers from far away. The product is of fine quality, and all the employees (servants) are well cared for. In just 21 verses, we see the profitability of this small business as the noble woman sustains profits, buys and sells land and products, and guides her employees well. She’s others- and long-term-oriented. Her entire household calls her blessed. Each verse seems to demonstrate a business strategy that Wisdom established long before it was adopted by the Fortune 500: 

  • She is a servant leader. She cares for her employees, even rising early to provide food and tasks.
  • She is strategically oriented, and her path is the way of righteousness. 
  • She has a stakeholder orientation. Her perspective includes others.
  • Her business is sustainably oriented, with an impact on the earth, society, and economy.
  • Her perspective is long-term. No one in her household fears seasons or economic shifts.
  • The linens she makes are fit for royalty, they reflect her quality orientation.
  • With a supply chain strategy, she moved her operations beyond her home to include merchant customers and marketplace suppliers to have the supply needed to meet market demand.  
  • The result of her work is profitability, a reputation that carries to her entire family (including her husband, who is also praised), a comparative advantage (none compare to her wisdom and elusiveness), and her work positively impacts the kingdom of heaven as she teaches with kindness and wisdom and provides for the poor and needy. 

There are a growing number of Fortune 500 company cases that demonstrate how a company can do well by doing good. Over the past decade, I have worked with dozens of large, publicly traded organizations that exemplify many of the business practices of Proverbs 31:10-31. While their motivation may be profitability and not the love of God or neighbor, the result is the same. When organizational leaders are servant leaders and consider all the stakeholders of the company, goodness, peace, joy, and job security seem to follow. When companies consider the impact of their operations for shareholders and employees, customers, suppliers, and the communities that are impacted, the positive impact of the company is also increased.

Remember the woman from central Iowa? Not only did she grow the company over her decade in leadership, but she also became the first and only woman to lead the National Association of Manufacturers. 

Leading with wisdom, an exemplar of the Proverbs 31:10-31 model of business, she pursued quality with continuous improvement and worked hard to develop and maintain a skilled workforce. In conversations with leaders of distributors of industrial equipment, I learned of this woman’s ability to teach with wisdom and kindness and to disciple Christian leaders all over the country. 

Wisdom is best personified through these examples of Christians who recognize a need in the market and apply their gifts and skills to addressing and solving that need. The manufacturing company that started out of a need to make hay bales round instead of square grew into a large organization that provided quality products globally while providing a quality lifestyle for employees and business partners. Built on biblical principles, a desire to serve people, develop quality products, and be profitable, this company serves as one of many corporate case examples of how well businesses can do when they focus on doing good. 

Wisdom is not on a throne or in a temple. When Proverbs closes in a 21-verse acrostic that sums up the book, Wisdom is found caring for family, leading a company, and, yes, trading in the marketplace.   

This story is from Common Good issue
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