“Who am I”? – Understanding the identities we inhabit
Entrepreneurs have been type-cast as in it for the money.
Type ‘successful entrepreneur’ into a google image search and you will be inundated with pictures of suit-clad, high-flyers climbing the figurative ladder to success; entrepreneurs are typically presented as being motivated purely by economic drivers.
More recently, there has been a growing recognition that there is another type of entrepreneur – those motivated by social drivers, heralding a rise in social enterprise. In this blog post, I argue that such polarisation of the values that lie beneath an entrepreneur’s decision to act in particular ways over simplifies the myriad of social and personal influences on their behaviours. This is important both in order to understand the complexities involved in the emerging identification as an ‘entrepreneur’ experienced by individuals and in recognising the different implications of these motivations.
This formulaic ‘painting by numbers’ approach to understanding how an entrepreneur constructs their sense of self (their identity) during the process of becoming an entrepreneur; as either a purely economically-driven individual who wants to build the elusive Unicorn, buy the Ferrari, exit and move on to the next project or a socially-driven, pro-vegan, zero-plastic consuming superhero individual who wants to ‘change the world (carnivores may also apply) gives sparse attention to the multitude of other ‘logics’ affecting an entrepreneur’s decision-making and the subtleties within the range of motivations.
My research focusses specifically on the identity construction of nascent entrepreneurs, who, when embarking on the process of becoming an entrepreneur, ask themselves the question; “who am I now?”, and, “who do I want to become”? In doing so, I follow a movement in academia that is beginning to recognise the complex, often conflicting identities that shape who and what a person is. One who identifies themselves as a an entrepreneur, may for example, also identify themselves as a founder, an inventor, a ‘cool tech’ entrepreneur specifically, a son or daughter, a parent, a house mate, a friend, an ex-semi professional sportsperson, a business-tycoon-in-the-making or any other multitude of micro-identities at any given time.
My research argues that during the process of becoming an entrepreneur, individuals employ identity management strategies in dealing with or negotiating these multiple, often conflicting identities. I take a more free-form approach to understadning entrepreneur identity than the dichotomy of social do-gooder versus avaricious would-be millionaire. To further draw on the artist analogy; painting with all the colours available, in a messy, ‘not keeping within the lines’ kind-of-way as suggested by an academic article published in the Academy of Management Review earlier this year.
‘Painting with all the colours available’ I argue, requires loading the artist’s palette with a host of squidges of gouache and oil paints and working with a range of brushes and palette knives of various shapes, sizes and materials. So too, in understanding how an entrepreneur constructs their identity during the entrepreneurial process, a variety of theoretical models and lenses should be applied to work with the myriad of micro-identities the entrepreneur associates with if we are to paint a picture that represents the whole, complex, often conflicting ‘self’, rather than defining the entrepreneur solely according to their motivations (economically driven or socially motivated).
One such example of a theoretical model I use within my research to understand how an entrepreneur manages their identities when starting up their own company is ‘Optimal Distinctiveness Theory’ which characterises the relative strength of boundaries and synergies between the micro identities of an entrepreneur so as to determine the most effective strategy to manage these multiple identities in order to reach the optimal balance between being distinctive (and therefore setting themselves apart from and gaining competitive advantage over other entrepreneurs and their start up companies) at the same time as fulfilling their need to feel a sense of belonging (as part of the entrepreneur community).
Shepherd and Haynie’s model (2006) suggests we have two options available in managing our micro identities; compartmentalisation (which requires strong boundaries between those micro identites and low synergistic effect in order to keep our ‘worlds’ separate); or integration which, conversely, requires weak, permeable boundaries and high synergistic effect so that our ‘worlds’ may overlap, intertwine and enrich each other.
If I choose to keep my worlds apart; for example; my identities as a spouse, an environmentalist and a founder through compartmentalising these aspects of my ‘self’ then where boundaries are blurred and there is no synergistic effect (benefit from blurring the boundaries), conflict can arise. I could, for example, experience conflict where my work overflows into my homelife, thus challenging my work-life balance, blurring the boundaries between my professional and personal identity. In order for the compartmentalisation identity management strategy to be effective in this case, requires strong boundaries so that my work and home life are kept distinct – there are few interuptions requiring transitions between the identities.
Where integration is the strategy; weak, permeable boundaries are required so that I can easily transition between identities or enact several micro identities at once, benefitting from the synergistic effect of the culmination of the micro identities.
The fast-paced, time-pressured environment in which entrepreneurs operate where stress and strain are well reported (see the recent Gallup Well-Being index report here), makes this an interesting phenomenon to study how these micro identities are managed and negotiated as a founder sets up their business.
Adopting an identity management strategy that fits the strength of boundaries and synergies of an entrepreneurs’ micro-identities is one step an entrepreneur can take to help alleviate the stress and strain of otherwise conflicting identities, thus improving their personal well-being. In order to determine the most effective identity management strategy to employ, the entrepreneur firstly needs to recognise the many identities they inhabit.
My research, through in-depth narrative interviews with graduates enrolled on the Alacrity Programme, seeks to provide a sense-making opportunity in which the nascent entrepreneurs, maybe for the first time, can reflect on the question; who am I? and who do I hope to become? In doing so, they are giving voice to the multiple identities within, considering the strategies they use currently and may adopt in future to manage those identities.
“Who am I”? and “who do I hope to become”?
This opens up the metaphorical paint-box for the entrepreneur to consider the multiple, potentially conflicting, latent and active identities they possess and choose to give salience to through the self-narrative they give (the story they tell of who they are) through opening up a palette of colours and materials that are available to them in the form of identity work as they construct their sense of who they are rather than being limited by the primary colours of being economically driven or socially driven. This, in itself presents new ways for the entrepreneur to understand who they are and who they are becoming and to find a strategy of managing and negotiating their identities throughout the process of becoming an entrepreneur so as to alleviate some of the stress and strain reported.
To learn more about my current research project, please do connect via
(This research project is funded by the Economic Social Research Fund).
Pan, N. Gruber, M and Binder, J. 2019. Painting with All the Colors: The Value of Social Identity Theory for Understanding Social Entrepreneurship. Academy of Management Review. 44 (1). pp:213-226.
Shepherd, D. and Haynie, M. 2006. Birds of a feather don’t always flock together: Identity management in entrepreneurship. Journal of Business Venturing. 24. pp:316–337.
Witters, D. Agrawal, S. and Brown, A. 2012. Entrepreneurship comes with stress, but also optimism. Available at: https://news.gallup.com/poll/159131/entrepreneurship-comes-stress-optimism.aspx. Accessed on: 26/04/2019.
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