The power of entrepreneurial role models

I used to see most businesspeople as men; white men with a leased BMW and a fancy office suite. They did ‘deals’ and were ultra-competitive, displaying a ‘profit above all else’ ethic. However, this all changed when, in 1987, I read Paul Hawken’s book ‘Growing a Business’.

Hawken was one of the first to promote a concept we now seem to loosely call ‘inclusive entrepreneurship’. He is a man of his time who grew up in the social revolution of the 60s and wondered how his social justice and environmental concerns found a place within our capitalist system. Business, he claims, is an individual expression. Success in business grows from something deep within you, ‘something that can’t be stolen by anyone because it is so uniquely yours that anyone else who tried to execute your idea would fail’.

Business is simply a vehicle for doing things. It is a way of organising resources to achieve a purpose. Businesspeople are men and women, old and young, driven by a wide range of social, economic and environmental interests. While profit is not a dirty word, it is not the sole justification for being in business. Lifestyle is. Most of us go into business to make a living, not a killing.

The image of business and of a successful businessperson prevents many people from going into business in the first place. Indeed, the notion that entrepreneurship is a gene we inherit, rather than a skill we learn, also excludes many people from considering this option. Hawken was a member of what was then known as the Briarpatch network: network of businesspeople cooperating with each other and changing the role of business in society.

These concepts remain relevant today. We are increasingly aware of the importance of social inclusion in our development strategies and role models are powerful influencers on the choices men and women make.

The OCED focuses much of its work in entrepreneurship development on inclusion. It defines inclusive entrepreneurship as: ‘entrepreneurship that contributes to social inclusion to give all people an equal opportunity to start up and operate businesses’. It advocates for public policies to foster inclusion, including the promotion of ‘successful role models from all social groups involved in entrepreneurship, especially groups such as women, youth, seniors, people with disabilities and ethnic minority and migrant groups’.

Role models can be public figures, but they can also be found among the business community. The OECD argues that entrepreneurs gain multiple benefits from networks, including an expansion of their resource base, learning about business processes and opportunities, and generating reputation and legitimacy. Yet, entrepreneurs from under-represented and disadvantaged groups typically have limited networks because they are more likely to rely on friends and family who face similar disadvantages. Thus, it calls for the creation of ‘networks of growth-oriented entrepreneurs from outside the mainstream to help fill gaps in their access to entrepreneurship skills and finance’.

Linda Rottenberg from Endeavor describes how diverse role models, including women, minorities and role models from ‘the global poor’ affect the aspirations of their peers and employees. These entrepreneurs are also more likely to become mentors or investors, giving rise to future generations of entrepreneurs. ‘Young entrepreneurs and employees who are influenced by top-performing entrepreneurs… are more than twice as likely to become top-performers themselves’.

Role models present powerful messages about values and shape our aspirations. They can dissuade us from certain choices and encourage us toward others. We need to clearly examine the impact role models have on promoting a diverse and competitive business community. Diverse role models and business networks should be a feature of any entrepreneurship promotion strategy.

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