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Young, Scrappy and Hungry Immigrant Hustle: Entrepreneurship through the Eyes of Hamilton

Geoffrey M. Graybeal

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1Hamilton: An American Musical serves as a lens into both the practice of entrepreneurship and the entrepreneurial mindset that permeates U.S. and global business interests today. This piece explores entrepreneurship from pre-colonial times to today through Hamilton, the man, the musical and the main man behind the musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Immigration, representation, entrepreneurial hustle, and a culture of innovation are among the themes examined.

Hamilton captures the spirit of American entrepreneurship.
(President Barack Obama)

2Hamilton: An American Musical serves as a lens into both the practice of entrepreneurship and the entrepreneurial mindset that permeates U.S. and global business interests today, while both its creator and source material also offer entrepreneurial insights based on their historical natures and inclinations. Entrepreneurial hustle, immigration, representation and diversity, as well as teamwork are among the core concepts displayed through the musical ode to the nation’s first Treasury secretary.

3What would become Hamilton made its public debut long before most of its content had yet to be written. In 2009, Lin-Manuel Miranda was invited by President Obama to perform at the White House Poetry Jam. Rather than perform a scene from the Tony-award winning musical In the Heights, which had opened on Broadway a year earlier, Miranda decided to perform a scene from what he viewed at the time as The Hamilton Mixtape project. The audience laughs when Miranda says the founding father embodies hip hop before becoming mesmerized by the opening sequence, “Alexander Hamilton.” The YouTube clip of Miranda performing the narrating role of Aaron Burr went viral with over 9 million views on the Obama White House official channel. This helped illustrate market demand for this initial “proof of concept,” using entrepreneurial parlance. The entrepreneurial Lean Startup methodology suggests that entrepreneurs should create a prototype of a minimal viable product (MVP) to demonstrate to would-be consumers (Ries). Miranda debuting a song at the White House before much of the finished product was written served this entrepreneurial role. Four years later, in July 2013, Miranda and company were workshopping, a common theatre practice, the early stage of the Hamilton concept at the Vassar Reading Festival in Poughkeepsie, New York.

1. Hamilton, Hip hop, and (Entrepreneurial) Hustle

4From the first moment Miranda read Ron Chernow’s biography while on vacation, Miranda connected Alexander Hamilton with the hip hop genre attitude, and thus the entrepreneurial hustle connection was made between the man and the musical. Miranda and others brandished the founding father as being “hip hop” in the vein of slain rappers from the 1990s, Tupac Shakur and the Notorius B.I.G., who, like Alexander, were shot to death in their prime. President Obama referred to Hamilton as the original “hustler,” synonymous with tirelessly hard work and sometimes illegal means to elevate one’s status in life. Not coincidentally, many entrepreneurs in modern times adopt the same “hustle” mantra that has been applied to hip hop artists. Kajikawa notes that the rapper personality persona trope as nothing less than a reflection of fundamental American idealism is the overriding message embedded in Hamilton. Loren Kajikawa refers to the historical roots of Hamilton as the “dog-eat-dog world of Revolutionary America-cum-entrepreneurial capitalism” (472).

5While a majority of entrepreneurial ventures fail, rappers like Jay-Z and historical businessmen like Hamilton overcame the odds to find marked success. Fast forward to modern times and mainstream hip hop’s current celebrations of wealth and entrepreneurial spirit served as backdrops for President Obama’s own narrative of individual successes. Because Hamilton emerged during the Obama presidency and clashed with the Trump administration, Hamilton has long had a connection to the Obama presidency and its values, although the musical has been lauded by prominent politicians from both sides of the American political aisle. A popular refrain from Miranda and other principal creatives involved in the production of Hamilton is that “This is a story about America then, told by America now,” a reference to the intentionally multicultural cast chosen to portray mostly white founding fathers.

6Donatella Galella argues that “Alexander Hamilton” and “My Shot” best embody this “bootstraps ethos,” which is not surprising given that they were the first songs written for the musical (11). Ultimately, Hamilton can be seen as a collection of stories of celebration of the self-made American entrepreneur, but that approach has not been without its criticisms. Edward Peter Stringham takes issue with the notion that Hamilton the man being credited as the “founder of Wall Street” as exhibiting “the great man theory in action.” The “$10 founding father” served as America’s first treasury secretary, creating the National Bank and many of America’s financial systems that have persisted. He’s also credited with founding the New York Post and the Bank of New York among many other entrepreneurial accomplishments.

7While self-made men making a mark on business, music, or politics is not new, scholars have begun to study hustle as an operationalized concept. A recent study by Greg Fisher, Regan Stevenson, and Devin Burnell defines entrepreneurial hustle as “an entrepreneur’s urgent, unorthodox actions that are intended to be useful in addressing immediate challenges and opportunities under conditions of uncertainty” (1003). Whether it’s taking life or death matters into your hands on gritty streets or fighting for a nation’s independence in a bloody war, the environment was full of uncertainty for gangbanging hip hop artists or revolutionary colonialists.

8The musical’s hip-hop-history-hustle comingling was evident from the start. Miranda utilized a version of a common entrepreneurial tactic when creating the stage versions of the characters he envisioned for the historical figures starring in Hamilton. In creating a new venture, entrepreneurs often will create what is known as Unique Value Propositions, often described as the “X of Y.” These narratives are often utilized internally as concept sketches to help convey the idea with something familiar and easily recognized (Osterwalder and Pigneur). For instance, an entrepreneur working on creating a peer-to-peer storage concept might refer to it as the “Airbnb of storage,” referencing the popular peer-to-peer home stay service. Miranda mashed up popular characters of stage and film with popular hip hop artists to formulate the casting notes for some of the main Hamilton characters:

Aaron Burr: Les Miserables protagonist Javert meets Mos Def
George Washington: singer-songwriter John Legend meets Lion King leading father Mufasa
Hercules Mulligan: rapper Busta Rhymes meets Donald O’Connor (1940s movie star known for Singin in the Rain)
Maria Reynolds: singer Jazmine Sullivan meets Carla from Nin (Nelson 55)

9Hamilton the man and Miranda himself both exhibit characteristics commonly associated with the entrepreneurial hustle concept if not some of the hip hop hustle ethos as well.

10In a biography about Miranda, Kristen Rajczak Nelson writes, “Miranda has a rare combination of innate talent, work ethic, and creativity that is often described as ‘genius.’ While he would argue that timing and luck are part of the equation, the confidence others have placed in his capable hands show that it is more than that” (7).

11For his part, Miranda is quoted as saying, “I’m not... a genius. I work my [butt] off. Hamilton could have written what I wrote in about three weeks. That’s genius” (Nelson 67). As a teenager, Miranda had a part-time job working at McDonald’s. After graduating from Wesleyan, Miranda had to work other jobs to make ends meet while working hard on getting In the Heights to stage. He wrote jingles for his father’s political clients. He worked as a substitute seventh-grade English teacher at Hunter, the school he had attended as a child, before the school asked him to stay on as a part-time teacher. When not working on In the Heights, he was performing with his hip hop improvisation comedy group, Freestyle Love Supreme. The group featured Tony-winner James Monroe Iglehart (best known for playing the genie in the stage adaptation of Aladdin, but he would also go on subsequently to perform in a later cast of Hamilton) and Tony-nominee Christopher Jackson (whom Miranda cast as George Washington in the original Hamilton cast).

12According to Nelson, when Miranda asked his father on advice about the risky proposition of working full time on In the Heights, the elder Miranda wrote his son a letter telling him that although it made no sense for him to leave his job to pursue writing, he should do it anyway. Miranda was composing the music, writing the lyrics, and performing in the cast of his first Broadway production (Nelson). The ability and willingness to take risks, a drive often fueled by a pursuit of passion, a hard work “hustle” ethic, an ability to persevere amid difficult circumstances are all commonly cited and studied characteristics of entrepreneurial traits and mindset.

2. Hamilton and Immigrant Entrepreneurship

13Immigration is a central theme of the musical. Like Hamilton, Miranda’s family comes from an island in the Caribbean Sea. Thus, Hamilton and its origins highlight immigrants and how they “get the job done,” a boast that also rings true in entrepreneurship. A New York Times opinion piece writes,

In Hamilton’s tumultuous life, Mr. Miranda saw the drive and promise of the immigrant story of America. Already in 1782, the French immigrant Crevecoeur had defined ‘the American, this new man’ as one who moved to a new land in which the ‘idle may be employed, the useless become useful, and the poor become rich.’ Hamilton announces this entrepreneurial ambition early in the show: ‘Hey, yo, I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy and hungry.’ The night’s biggest applause line, ‘Immigrants: We get the job done!’ proclaims that, contra Donald J. Trump, immigrants are the source of America’s greatness and renewal, not its decline. (Frank and Kramnick 17)

14Hamilton emerged and rose to popularity amid the context of a contentious U.S. presidential election, changing administrations and thus, policies, including those over illegal immigration. The Trump administration sought to overturn the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy which begun under the Obama administration and aimed at clearing a pathway to U.S. citizenship for longtime residents who arrived via immigration at childhood. This action ignited a debate over the so-called “Dreamers,” and other illegal immigrants, and the entrepreneurship and economic advantages they may bring to the U.S. The role of immigrants in America was coupled in a broader context of southern border security with candidate and then incumbent Trump touting a new wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Despite accounting for only 13% of the population, immigrants start more than a quarter of new businesses in the country. Immigrants today are more than twice as likely to start a business as native-born citizens; thus, American entrepreneurship today has a decidedly immigrant bend (Bluestein).

15Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican descent, saw firsthand an immigrant success story in his father, who moved to New York from the tropical territory speaking little English before gaining stature through hard work and determination. Surveyed at a time when Obama had newly taken office in 2008, 8 in 10 Americans thought it “still possible to get ahead despite the current economy,” with a belief that personal attributes like hard work and drive were important determinants to economic mobility. Zulema Valdez interviewed Latinx entrepreneurs who preserved a color-blind lens because they did not think racial barriers would impede them personally despite acknowledging systemic racism (Galella). Galella reflects Miranda’s view to promote “scrappy entrepreneurship” to survive within material conditions, rather than seek to change them structurally. “Miranda celebrates the tenets of entrepreneurialism that link diligence and intelligence with deservingness,” Galellea writes (22).

16In the Times opinion piece, Frank and Kramnick chastise Miranda for solely focusing on what they deem “the self-making entrepreneurialism of the American dream,” at the expense of detailing seemingly contradictory positions as two sides of the same coin. The Times opinion writers argue that Hamilton’s commitment to the success of the entrepreneurial self-made man depends upon a deferential political underclass willing to do the heavy lifting. Despite such criticisms and a glossing over of class issues and only surface level dealings of slavery, Hamilton became a de facto celebration of immigration and a multicultural melting pot view of American idealism and opportunism, with Miranda supporting Latinx and immigration-themed causes and organizations like the Hispanic Federation. Miranda had to add bars to accommodate the audience applause from the initially improvised “immigrants we get the job done” line between Hamilton and marquis de Lafayette. “Why does it get such a delighted response?”; according to Miranda, “because it’s true” (Miranda and McCarter 121).

17Of course, while celebrating leading immigrant characters throughout the musical, Hamilton tackles issues of representation head on in the forms of who is playing the characters and for whom the work is meant, broadening Broadway boundaries in the process.

3. Hamilton and Diversity

18Miranda, who grew up in a community home to thousands of Dominican and Puerto Rican immigrants, was “curious about how music, theater and heritage could collide in new ways that were unique to the Latinx experience,” according to The Entrepreneurial Artist: Lessons from Highly Successful Creatives. When in high school, the casting of a largely commercially unsuccessful play called The Capeman caught Miranda’s attention. The Broadway show had three Latinx leads in the form of Marc Antony, Ruben Blades, and Ednita Nazario, which made an impression on representation and the types of stories Miranda wanted to showcase about his community. This desire to embrace his heritage and diversity would factor heavily in both of Miranda’s Broadway shows, In the Heights and Hamilton (Dworkin 46).

19By deliberately employing a cast of largely black and Latinx actors to portray mostly white Revolutionaries and their families, as well as incorporating hip hop styles into the classic musical theatre style, Hamilton exhibited a product differentiation strategy. Despite its popularity, hip hop had little success in musical theater prior to Hamilton. Shows like Rent and Bring It On (Miranda was a writer on the musical) used some rap and hip hop genres but not as the main delivery vehicle. While over 10 million people a year attended a Broadway show prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, with Broadway ticket prices continuing to soar, the Broadway audience has increasingly became “older, wealthier and whiter” (Jones 3). Broadway had been relegated to musicals about hip hop and rap not using it as a vehicle to tell stories, with prior efforts about hip hop largely commercial flops.

20One Hamilton number, “The Room Where It Happens” speaks of the need for the antagonist Burr’s desire to gain access to political power but could just as easily be seen as an interpretation and commentary on the importance of representation: “When you got skin in the game, you stay in the game / But you don't get a win unless you play in the game” (Miranda).

21From an entrepreneurial perspective, barriers to minority entrepreneurs come in the forms of gaining access to capital, institutional investors, or even an audience in which to deliver a pitch seeking funds, whether that be in exchange for equity or non-diluted means. And of course, slavery was used as a means of unpaid labor to build many of the foundations in place today, long before Black Wall Streets or successful minority communities proliferated before being torn down in many instances by violent means or political ones (putting interstates to divide communities; seizing land by imminent domain to create public lands, and so on). Later in the song, Burr intones, “God help and forgive me, I wanna build something that’s gonna outlive me” (Miranda). These lyrics from the musical speak to the very essence of entrepreneurship.

22Matthew Rousu argues that “The Room Where It Happens” is a good song to illustrate public choice theory of economics; in particular, the costs that can occur when a few people are given tremendous political power. The concessions made had impact on society as a whole, not just the politicians, engaged in negotiation in the titular location. Hamilton also tells the economic story of supply and demand. Before it expanded its reach to other cities (a long run in Chicago as secondary city), several national and international tours in the United States, London, Australia, and Puerto Rico, the Broadway show represented an elitist endeavor, with tickets costing thousands of dollars on the secondary resell market, particularly during the original cast run. But at the same time, the show introduced a daily lottery that sold 21 front row seats for only $10 (of course) to the fans lucky enough to obtain them. In June 2016, with the original cast still in place and just before it won the Tony for best musical, Hamilton raised its premium price seats—about 200 mostly center orchestra seats—to $849 but more than doubled the number of lottery seats available to 46 (Paulson). This pricing point opened Hamilton up to the masses, while weaving a tapestry of new musical genres in theory aimed at attracting a newer audience than traditionally attended theater.

23Erika Arivett reported that inner city children who had never seen a musical before could not stop talking about Hamilton once matinees became available for schools at The Public Theater in 2015. A year later, The Rockefeller Foundation bought $7.5 million in tickets for public high school students nationwide. The Foundation and the show’s producers agreed to bring 20,000 New York City eleventh graders, all from schools with high percentages of students from low-income families, to see Hamilton. So powerful was the pull of the ever popular musical that the U.S. Treasury department publicly reversed an earlier announcement that it intended to remove Hamilton from the $10 bill (Arivett).

24In a 2020 post from a blog devoted to “notes on innovation, entrepreneurship, and business history” dubbed The Occasional CEO, the author wrote the following about Hamilton’s entrepreneurial accolades:

Suppose you raised $12.5 million to launch a start-up that returned 600 percent to investors in less than 24 months. Even better, your start-up was forecast to gross $1 billion in its first decade—not including a pipeline full of product spinoffs. Those are the impressive results generated by Hamilton, a hip hop musical that became a windfall for its investors and redefined Broadway for the twenty-first century. Hamilton’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a textbook example of economist Joseph Schumpeter’s classic entrepreneur, an individual who brings a novel combination (or innovation) to market and creates new customers where none existed before. (Schultz)

25In the Miranda biography, Nelson writes,

The level of success Miranda has seen in his young career could easily go to his head, however, that is not Miranda. He continues to talk about working hard, following one’s passions, and giving encouragement to the next generation of actors and playwrights. Perhaps his humble demeanor comes from the example set by his parents or his grandparents in Puerto Rico. It could be his roots in the Inwood neighborhood in New York City and growing up feeling like an outsider in the communities he was a part of. His humble demeanor could also come from the inherently risky ventures—and frequent failures—of musical theater writers. (7–8)

26For his part, Miranda’s exploration of entrepreneurial themes was not new in Hamilton. He previously dealt with opportunity and hustle in his Broadway debut, In the Heights. It takes up themes of neighborhood gentrification, the renovation of a deteriorating house that elevates the standards but leaves poorer people without a home (Nelson). “I think most people think of Washington Heights as the place where Jay-Z goes uptown to get his drugs processed in his songs.... That wasn’t my reality growing up,” Miranda told the New York Times in 2008. In the Heights was also revolutionary for its musical genres and mostly Latinx casting in describing the neighborhood of Miranda’s youth.

4. Entrepreneurial Teams

27Part of the recipe of Miranda’s success can be attributed to turning to the same team for his various theater projects akin to a serial entrepreneur following a startup mentality for launching new ventures. Oskar Eustis said on a Broadway Backstory podcast, “part of Lin’s genius is that he surrounds himself with people who bring out the best in him and the best in each other.”

28Thomas Kail, who also attended Wesleyan, has turned into a lifelong collaborator with Miranda. Kail directed both In the Heights and Hamilton. Alex Lacamoire, the arranger, orchestrator, and music director for Hamilton, also collaborated with Miranda on In the Heights and Bring It On The Musical. Javier Munoz, who took up the role of Usnavi after Miranda left In the Heights followed him to Hamilton years later. Miranda’s fellow Freestyle Love Supreme members Christopher Jackson and James Monroe Iglehart took star turns in Hamilton, Jackson in the original Broadway cast as George Washington and Iglehart in a later Broadway cast as Jefferson and Lafeyette. Anthony Ramos, who played John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in the original Broadway cast of Hamilton, played Usnavi in the film adaptation of In the Heights (Miranda and McCarter). Stephanie Beatriz, who had a role in the film version of In the Heights took a starring role in another Miranda film project, the 2021 animated Disney musical, Encanto. Miranda turns to trusted collaborators in his many endeavors. While solopreneurs are common in entrepreneurship, more often than not it takes a team to launch, grow or scale a new venture. For tech startups, a minimal three-person team is the gold standard with collaborators comprised of so-called hipster (creative), hacker (technical person), and hustler (business person). Miranda exhibits this entrepreneurial trait of embracing team (Ellwood).

29While surrounding himself with a team since his artistic endeavors, Miranda has unleashed a slew of new projects and entrepreneurial endeavors since his star turn on The Great White Way. In addition to the two Broadway musicals he wrote and starred in, Miranda released a collection of his Twitter tweets in book form along with illustrator Jonny Sun titled Gmorning, Gnight!: Little pep talks for me and you. He made his directorial debut for the film adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical play, Tick, tick... BOOM!

30Miranda was also part of a group of investors who purchased The Drama Book Shop in Manhattan. Miranda’s relatives own a merchandise shop called TeeRico that sells Miranda-themed T-shirts, pins, mugs and other novelty items. Family businesses are another common entrepreneurial thread, with some small businesses passing from generation to generation. Another Hamilton song speaks to this notion of entrepreneurial creationism. The lyrics to “The World Was Wide Enough” ask, “Legacy. What is a legacy? / It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see” (Miranda). Multi-generational businesses grow and prosper long after the founding first generation.

5. Conclusion

31Hamilton: An American Musical not only shines a spotlight on America’s first treasury secretary founding father through a revolutionary tale but captures the essence of American entrepreneurialism as well. From its focus on portraying Alexander Hamilton as following a hip hop hustle ethos to the story of immigration as a central tenet of not only the musical but also the man and the man behind the musical, Hamilton embodies entrepreneurial mindsets. In addition to hustle and immigration, creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s deliberate choices to reflect diversity in the casting and his reliance on teamwork to “get the job done” offer other underlying entrepreneurial lessons to be found in the musical and speak to the acts of creation that is entrepreneurship.

32In the song “My Shot,” Miranda as the titular protagonist raps that, just like the country, he’s “young, scrappy and hungry” (Miranda). The story of Hamilton is that of the immigrant entrepreneur hustler who forged novel creations in the form of government, nation, policies, banks, press, and law practice alongside other founding fathers and statesmen of differing backgrounds and beliefs.

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Electronic reference

Geoffrey M. Graybeal, Young, Scrappy and Hungry Immigrant Hustle: Entrepreneurship through the Eyes of HamiltonEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 18-1 | 2023, Online since 19 February 2023, connection on 20 May 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Geoffrey M. Graybeal

Geoffrey Graybeal, Ph.D. is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute at Georgia State University. Dr. Graybeal is a media management scholar and entrepreneur who uses management theory to explore issues of media sustainability. He has published research in journals such as the International Journal on Media Management, Entrepreneurship Education & Pedagogy, and Journal of Media Business Studies.

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