Context is Everything

So I am currently musing over the words context and contextualization. This may not be surprising given that my edited collection Women and Global Entrepreneurship: Contextualising Everyday Experiences with Professor James Cunningham is due for submission in September. It has been said that I love context and for me, context in research (and in life) is not just the background story but is part of the story. In fact, entrepreneurship including women entrepreneurship is never conducted in a void; it is never context-less. Context is much more than just a passing reference to the particular domain or setting in which a study has been conducted or as a means of justifying unusual and /or unique findings or to report theory-free research. However, researchers to date have failed to be explicit in regards to how they understand and employ context in their particular study. This is worrying as context plays a critical role in new venture creation and a dynamic influence on entrepreneurial propensity, attitudes, and actions as it simultaneously provides individuals with entrepreneurial opportunities and constraints. It is also important to note that context is not just geographical but also refers to socio-economic, political, market, and institutional. Thus, a multiplicity of influences shape everyday entrepreneurship experiences.

Contextualising women’s entrepreneurship

The emergence of a focused and explicit discussion about context is relatively new within entrepreneurship and is particularly relevant in relation to women’s entrepreneurship. However, context is not a construct which only applies to those economies and situations which differ from the presumed norm of Western developed nations; adopting this stance is both discriminatory, myopic and blinkered in that it suggests a dominant model to which others should aspire. Consequently, adopting a more critical appraisal of how context is positioned within current theorising around gender and entrepreneurial behaviours offers potential to progress debate whilst acknowledging that competing and contrasting contextual influences require clearer recognition.

So coming soon Women and Global Entrepreneurship: Contextualising Everyday Experiences with Routledge Publishing.

Permission to be an Entrepreneur….

The cultural conversation around entrepreneurship tends to focus predominantly on the male experience. This is also reflected in academia, where the debate regarding entrepreneurial identity has drawn attention to the gender blind assumptions informing this analysis, thus suggesting that the normal entrepreneur is 35yr old male. These assumptions or biases can have serious implications for those considering entrepreneurship, who do not fit the ideal image of the male entrepreneur. Indeed, this lack of fit with the accepted mode of entrepreneurship has resulted in women being made invisible, marginalized and deemed the ‘other’, in the entrepreneurship field. Women must, therefore, reach into a social space that is fundamentally unsympathetic to their gendered characterization. For those women who decide to engage in entrepreneurial activity, they are positioned within the contemporary entrepreneurial discourse, including popular media, as a discrete and separate category with their own label – “female entrepreneurs”. This special classification only goes to confirm that there are normal entrepreneurs (men, family teams, partnerships) and, separate from them, are women. It is unsurprising therefore that women may be reluctant to claim the entrepreneurial identity and feel that they may need permission to do so. This reluctance is significant as “owning/claiming” is an important first step in the building of a credible entrepreneurial identity.

So my key message is to be aware that you do not have to wait until you get a degree, gain 10 years’ experience or reach some other self-prescribed milestone before you can be an entrepreneur – just do it. Only through action can you see actual results. Then, based on that data, you can determine what your next steps will be. As an entrepreneur, you have permission to act. So rather than waiting for permission, the right time and right circumstances, be ready to act.

When it comes to success, entrepreneurship is a mind-set not a business model

We broaden what we traditionally associate with entrepreneurship – new venture creation aimed at maximising profit and growth – when we reframe is as a mind-set. This enables us to consider other exciting forms of entrepreneurship, such as gig entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship, academic entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship.

The only differences between entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship – taking risks within a company as an employee to solve a given problem – are the risk context and the potential consequences, both positive and negative. The thinking, the skills, the activities and the mind-set are the same.

Both indigenous and multinational companies in Ireland stand to benefit from entrepreneurial thinking. Intrapreneurs add value through innovative thinking in the same way entrepreneurs add sustainable value via new venture creation and job creation.

“With our thoughts, we make the world.”

Action is clearly crucial in the arena of entrepreneurism but mind-set also matters when it comes to creating successful entrepreneurial scenarios. An entrepreneur approaches the world with some naïveté. Being naive has its advantages. Often it involves a lack of awareness of norms and traditional ways of doing things. Entrepreneurs believe they can make a change in the world.

Sometimes this is a response to change, sometimes it is the reason for change. Entrepreneurs are change agents for themselves, their markets and in the case of the intrapreneur, their employers.

Our own worst enemy

We need to start viewing our cognitive energy as an entrepreneurial resource. Squandering it through needless worry, especially when it could be used for something much more productive is an inefficient use of resources.

One of the greatest thieves of cognitive energy is so-called Impostor Syndrome – the fear of being singled out in a team situation or being found out for the fraud that we fear we really are.

It is important to realise that some of your most talented employees might experience the Impostor Syndrome – and that it has nothing to do with their competence. It tends to show up in very high achieving people.

Permission to act

It’s important to be aware that you do not have to wait to until you get a degree, gain 10 years’ experience or reach some other self-prescribed milestone before you can be an entrepreneur – just do it. You can dream for years about what might happen. Only through action can you see actual results. Then, based on that data, you can determine what the next steps are.

As an intrapreneur, you have permission to act. So rather than waiting for the right time and right circumstances, be ready to act.

Be a risk creator as opposed to a risk taker

There is an imperative to see failure differently – ie as an opportunity to learn and gain valuable fast feedback as to what will work or not. If Ireland is to truly evolve as an innovative culture, this requires creating safer opportunities for risk.

This is particularly relevant for intrapreneurs and large multinationals. At a recent event marking an exciting collaboration between the DCU Business School, Enterprise Ireland and Google, I spoke about testing, making smart mistakes and experimenting as high yield activities for a company’s economic growth and product innovation and improvement.

Google, which was voted the second most innovative company in the world in a recent Boston Consulting Group survey, challenges its employees’ normative mental models. It enables them to approach new product development and problem solving with a fresh pair of eyes.

A company which embraces “risk activities” provides the catalyst for innovative behaviour amongst its employees through its cultivation of an entrepreneurial “can do” mind-set.

Are you FTW or WTF?

So mind-set matters when it comes to creating a vision of what is possible. A clear vision creates the “scene” for our reality. It dictates what we pay attention to, what we dismiss, how we interpret what we see and what we believe is possible.

Once you begin to adopt a practice of thinking differently about new possibilities, what you see as possible becomes probable; you become focused on solutions (the “win”).

Our mind-sets can also act as unconscious constraints, limiting what is possible. You can become focused on problems. Mind-sets matter when it comes to intrapreneurship. So, are you for the win – aiming to be your best entrepreneurial self – or are you what the frack?

Article originally published in The Irish Times

Entrepreneurship: what’s gender got to do with it?

The cultural conversation around entrepreneurship tends to focus predominantly on the male experience. Indeed, the main character in the typical entrepreneurial narrative is the entrepreneur (which is derived from the French word to undertake) and not the entrepreneuse.

This may not come as a surprise. Entrepreneurship has traditionally been associated with men and was once considered a form of masculinity. In years gone by, some even claimed that entrepreneurship required high levels of testosterone .

Although this may now seem absurd, this traditional association of entrepreneurship with masculinity and its embedded assumptions can have serious implications for those considering entrepreneurship who do not fit the ideal image of the male entrepreneur – including women.

Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady wondered in exasperation: “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Men, he mused, “are so pleasant, so easy to please”. “Men are so decent, such regular chaps/ Ready to help you through any mishaps.”

Although dating back to 1964 and from the realm of musical theatre, the sentiment could easily be applied to the arena of modern entrepreneurship where a range of policy interventions have emerged to “fix” the problem of the female entrepreneur . This, essentially, has meant finding ways to provide them with the tools and skills to become more like men in order for them to compete in a man’s world and fulfil their entrepreneurial potential.

Mummypreneurs

For those women who decide to engage in entrepreneurial activity, they are positioned within the contemporary entrepreneurial discourse, including in popular media, as a discrete and separate category with their own label – female entrepreneurs or “mummypreneurs”.

This special classification only goes to confirm that there are normal entrepreneurs (men, family teams, partnerships) and, separate from them, are women. I have yet to hear a man introduced or introducing himself as a male entrepreneur or a daddypreneur.

If Ireland is going to truly evolve as an entrepreneurial nation, in addition to the language we use, we also need to change our cultural attitude towards entrepreneurship. This requires resetting our resilience to failure.

As a nation, we have a deeply embedded fear of failure – the shame of letting ourselves and others down and, heaven forbid, “What will the neighbours say?” An European Commission report found that almost three-quarters of Irish young would-be entrepreneurs are too scared of failure to start their own business.

Speaking at a recent DCU Business School event, Roslyn Bell of Commonhall Apartments defined failure as a “first attempt at learning”.

As a society we are not socialised to fail. We need to redefine what it means to fail. It is not the opposite of success, it is just feedback. And when it comes to entrepreneurship, testing, making smart mistakes and obtaining feedback are high-yield activities.

So how do we reframe the entrepreneurial experience? First, we need to accrue courage capital – the learning absorbed from our smart mistakes and experimentation.

Second, we need to learn the entrepreneurial pivot, which requires keeping one foot firmly in place as you shift the other in a new direction. Courage capital is the dance of entrepreneurship where the dance moves are learned over time, especially by interacting with others in your tribe or dance troupe.

Third, you need to surround yourself with a tribe of like-minded individuals who are doing big things. They will inspire you to do big things via their role-modelling behaviour.

We need to stop looking for differences and start focusing on inclusive entrepreneurship. There is a deeply embedded sense that men and women entrepreneurs are essentially different, yet critical research suggests there are more gendered similarities than differences.

At DCU we take this more inclusive standpoint – which we refer to as “entrepreneuring” – which broadens not only what is traditionally viewed as entrepreneurship and but also who can do entrepreneurship, regardless of social and cultural trappings.

So let’s change the cultural conversation around entrepreneurship by being aware of the language we use, the attitudes we adopt, the company we keep and the dance moves we strut.

Spotlight on Research: The Topic of Entrepreneurship with Professor Maura McAdam

In the Spotlight on Research series, the focus is on the topic of entrepreneurship wtih Maura McAdam, Professor of Management and Director of Entrepreneurship at DCU.

For the last 17 years I have been actively involved in researching, engaging with entrepreneurs and supporting prospective entrepreneurs in realising their potential. Within my research and the lecture theatre, I like to challenge the popular assumptions of entrepreneurship as being an individual-based form of organising with purely economic finalities. Rather I support the everydayness of entrepreneurship whereby it is a type of action deeply embedded within the fabric of society as opposed to traits possessed by a few heroic (male) individuals!

I believe individuals may dip in and dip out of entrepreneurship at different points throughout their life. It is not just for the young, and in their daily choices they make small discrete actions which cumulatively result in larger entrepreneurial efforts. By taking a more inclusive standpoint – which I refer to as ‘entrepreneuring’ – we broaden what is traditionally viewed as entrepreneurship (solely starting a business), and allows us to appreciate other exciting forms of entrepreneurial activities such as social entrepreneurship, civic entrepreneurship, gig entrepreneurship and academic entrepreneurship.

Do you think entrepreneurship can be taught in the classroom? What are your approaches?

Yes, I very much believe that entrepreneurial attributes can be positively influenced by entrepreneurship education, and that all students can benefit from the acquisition of “enterprise skills for life”. Skills such as negotiating, influencing and selling, which are all deemed important by employers and essential elements of entrepreneurship, can enhance the employability skills of all graduates, regardless of career path chosen.

To this end, I have taught entrepreneurship across a range of disciplines including nursing, engineering, pharmacy and dentistry. In order to aid the acquisition of enterprise skills of life, I am a supporter of experiential teaching and learning by doing, so rather than asking myself “what am I going to teach today? I ask “what am I going to have my students do today”.

Student learning is therefore promoted through creating an environment where students are encouraged to learn and practice enterprise skills in ‘live’ situations and to reflect on their learning.

Your research pieces speak about sexism in the work place, how do you hope to spread these ideas to your students? (https://theconversation.com/do-tech-accelerators-have-a-sexism-problem-47072)

My research into accelerators highlighted that, although portrayed as gender neutral, accelerators were in fact embedded masculine. As a result, women were self-selecting out of this business support mechanism because of a perceived lack of fit. Within my lectures, I want to ignite important conversations around inclusivity and equality. The world economy is driven by sustainable value and business growth, which depend upon attracting, optimising and retaining talent.

Therefore it is an economic imperative that every organisation is fully utilising and optimising the talents of their entire staff, including women. To accelerate closing the gender gap both in the entrepreneurial arena and the workplace, I hope to create gender awareness by encouraging students to challenge social norms associated with gendered role expectations and embedded masculine norms and also by providing access to credible role models. In so doing, I hope to help create not only the next generation of women entrepreneurial leaders but also gender aware male entrepreneurial leaders.

Your book, “Female Entrepreneurship” focuses on women’s experience in the world of business today. What key piece of advice would you give female entrepreneurs?

My intention with this book was to highlight the challenges and also the opportunities associated with women entrepreneurship. Women bring something unique and special to the entrepreneurial table, so my first piece of advice would be to celebrate this uniqueness and never underestimate the impact of your imagination, individuality, and unique ways of seeing things on the products and services that you are creating.

I also find that women entrepreneurs have difficulties with seeing themselves as entrepreneurs and are reluctant to say “I am entrepreneur”- so in addition to celebrating your uniqueness I would encourage female entrepreneurs not to shy away from owing their entrepreneurial identity and commit to their entrepreneurial career as they would to any other career. One way in which to aid self-confidence is to surround yourself with a community of people to help in your entrepreneurial development.

So my last piece of advice is to find your tribe, your own board of personal advisors. For example, a female accelerator programme such as the Ryan Academy Female High Fliers accelerator programme http://www.ryanacademy.ie/what-we-do/female-high-fliers-accelerator/ can help with the building of connections and finding your tribe.

You joined Dublin City University recently. What have you enjoyed most so far and what are you most looking forward to?

Given my own teaching and research philosophies I am already feeling very much at home at DCU and look forward to representing DCU, the University of Enterprise, on an international stage. I am also looking forward to putting gender on the agenda within the Centre of Family Business and enjoyed leading the first “Women in Family Business” workshop which took place in DCU. Given my work looking at women in accelerator programmes, I am also excited about getting involved with the Ryan Academy Female High Fliers Accelerator and working with Irish women entrepreneurs who are transforming their entrepreneurial potential into economic and social impact.

Finally, I have thoroughly enjoyed engaging with the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders – the DCU students!

s, the focus is on the topic of entrepreneurship wtih Maura McAdam, Professor of Management and Director of Entrepreneurship at DCU.

For the last 17 years I have been actively involved in researching, engaging with entrepreneurs and supporting prospective entrepreneurs in realising their potential. Within my research and the lecture theatre, I like to challenge the popular assumptions of entrepreneurship as being an individual-based form of organising with purely economic finalities. Rather I support the everydayness of entrepreneurship whereby it is a type of action deeply embedded within the fabric of society as opposed to traits possessed by a few heroic (male) individuals!

I believe individuals may dip in and dip out of entrepreneurship at different points throughout their life. It is not just for the young, and in their daily choices they make small discrete actions which cumulatively result in larger entrepreneurial efforts. By taking a more inclusive standpoint – which I refer to as ‘entrepreneuring’ – we broaden what is traditionally viewed as entrepreneurship (solely starting a business), and allows us to appreciate other exciting forms of entrepreneurial activities such as social entrepreneurship, civic entrepreneurship, gig entrepreneurship and academic entrepreneurship.

Do you think entrepreneurship can be taught in the classroom? What are your approaches?

Yes, I very much believe that entrepreneurial attributes can be positively influenced by entrepreneurship education, and that all students can benefit from the acquisition of “enterprise skills for life”. Skills such as negotiating, influencing and selling, which are all deemed important by employers and essential elements of entrepreneurship, can enhance the employability skills of all graduates, regardless of career path chosen.

To this end, I have taught entrepreneurship across a range of disciplines including nursing, engineering, pharmacy and dentistry. In order to aid the acquisition of enterprise skills of life, I am a supporter of experiential teaching and learning by doing, so rather than asking myself “what am I going to teach today? I ask “what am I going to have my students do today”.

Student learning is therefore promoted through creating an environment where students are encouraged to learn and practice enterprise skills in ‘live’ situations and to reflect on their learning.

Your research pieces speak about sexism in the work place, how do you hope to spread these ideas to your students? (https://theconversation.com/do-tech-accelerators-have-a-sexism-problem-47072)

My research into accelerators highlighted that, although portrayed as gender neutral, accelerators were in fact embedded masculine. As a result, women were self-selecting out of this business support mechanism because of a perceived lack of fit. Within my lectures, I want to ignite important conversations around inclusivity and equality. The world economy is driven by sustainable value and business growth, which depend upon attracting, optimising and retaining talent.

Therefore it is an economic imperative that every organisation is fully utilising and optimising the talents of their entire staff, including women. To accelerate closing the gender gap both in the entrepreneurial arena and the workplace, I hope to create gender awareness by encouraging students to challenge social norms associated with gendered role expectations and embedded masculine norms and also by providing access to credible role models. In so doing, I hope to help create not only the next generation of women entrepreneurial leaders but also gender aware male entrepreneurial leaders.

Your book, “Female Entrepreneurship” focuses on women’s experience in the world of business today. What key piece of advice would you give female entrepreneurs?

My intention with this book was to highlight the challenges and also the opportunities associated with women entrepreneurship. Women bring something unique and special to the entrepreneurial table, so my first piece of advice would be to celebrate this uniqueness and never underestimate the impact of your imagination, individuality, and unique ways of seeing things on the products and services that you are creating.

I also find that women entrepreneurs have difficulties with seeing themselves as entrepreneurs and are reluctant to say “I am entrepreneur”- so in addition to celebrating your uniqueness I would encourage female entrepreneurs not to shy away from owing their entrepreneurial identity and commit to their entrepreneurial career as they would to any other career. One way in which to aid self-confidence is to surround yourself with a community of people to help in your entrepreneurial development.

So my last piece of advice is to find your tribe, your own board of personal advisors. For example, a female accelerator programme such as the Ryan Academy Female High Fliers accelerator programme http://www.ryanacademy.ie/what-we-do/female-high-fliers-accelerator/ can help with the building of connections and finding your tribe.

You joined Dublin City University recently. What have you enjoyed most so far and what are you most looking forward to?

Given my own teaching and research philosophies I am already feeling very much at home at DCU and look forward to representing DCU, the University of Enterprise, on an international stage. I am also looking forward to putting gender on the agenda within the Centre of Family Business and enjoyed leading the first “Women in Family Business” workshop which took place in DCU. Given my work looking at women in accelerator programmes, I am also excited about getting involved with the Ryan Academy Female High Fliers Accelerator and working with Irish women entrepreneurs who are transforming their entrepreneurial potential into economic and social impact.

Finally, I have thoroughly enjoyed engaging with the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders – the DCU students!

Article originally published at DCU News


The tech industry is no picture of equality. shutterstock.com

Do tech accelerators have a sexism problem?

Airbnb, Dropbox and Reddit are all companies that emerged out of tech accelerators. These incubators of talent have been a crucial component in turning tech start-ups into businesses that can stand on their own two feet. As well as giving needy new companies financial support and office space, they play an important role in helping them develop through mentoring.

So it’s good news that the number of accelerator programmes is set to increase in the UK, to support what is one of the world’s most dynamic start-up clusters and the most prominent start-up ecosystem in Europe. But, as this takes place, there’s a huge need to address the industry’s gender imbalance. My research into tech accelerator programmes has found many (often unwittingly) cater for men over women.

You only need to take a quick look at any accelerator participant list to see that women lack status, visibility and voice within these programmes. The US accelerator Y Combinator, for example, has invested in more than 700 start-ups (including Dropbox, Airbnb and Reddit). Just 13% of these have been led by women. 

The situation in Europe is even bleaker. Some figures show that women hold a mere 5 to 10% share of accelerator programmes. This therefore begs the question as to whether accelerators offer equal access to women entrepreneurs, despite accelerators claiming to be “open to all”.

The well-rehearsed counter-argument to this imbalance is that this is merely a reflection of engineering and technology entrepreneurship – women just don’t feature prominently in the industry and the numbers in accelerator programmes reflects this. The evidence, however, indicates that within Europe women own around 15% of all science engineering and technology ventures. So, where are all the women when it comes to accelerators? Their minority status in the sector does not satisfactorily explain their absence from this important support mechanism.

Fighting stereotypes

Research I’ve carried out with my colleague Susan Marlow indicates that the absence of women is due to their perception that they are not the stereotypical accelerator candidate. This is intriguing given that it is assumed that these programmmes are free from prejudice, with the focus on the commercial potential of the venture and not the owner’s personal characteristics.

Susan Johnson, CEO of women.com and a Y Combinator participant, said of her experience

I didn’t think I was a candidate for this world-class accelerator. I didn’t think I looked like a ‘YC founder’.

Thus, women may be opting out of accelerator programmes because of a perceived lack of fit with the predominantly male tech and start-up culture.

For those women who do overcome this problem and get onto the programmes, they often then encounter prejudice and discrimination at the hands of the old boys’ club culture of many accelerators, which can manifest in rugby and golfing outings in addition to typical “boys talk”.

‘Boys talk’ at the golf club. shutterstock.com

Furthermore, in an attempt to blend in, women feel pressure to adopt a male persona. For example, the high tech women entrepreneurs we interviewed spoke of adopting particular gestures and dress codes in order to fit in and succeed.

Mentoring is one of the linchpins of any accelerator programme. Not only do the lack of women in accelerator programmes lead to a lack of female mentors. Our research also found that many women wanted a male mentor in order “to learn how to think like a man” – this being the perception of how to succeed in the tech industry. Thus, women’s efforts to adjust to the predominantly male culture of the tech start-up scene, leads to sexism in accelerators going unchallenged and camouflaged instead.

If we want to support the ambitions and great work being done by women entrepreneurs, we must question existing accelerator culture and what an ideal candidate looks like. Currently they only serve to reduce women’s confidence and interest in entering the programmes.

Furthermore, the lack of women within accelerator programmes results in a lack of female role models, making it challenging for a woman to imagine herself as a suitable accelerator candidate. We therefore need to continue the debate on the inclusivity of accelerator programmes as there remains a long way to go towards an equal playing field for women in the traditionally male-dominated tech and start-up industry.

Article originally posted at The Conversation