Understanding Entrepreneurial Identities
During the period between October 2018 and June 2019, I undertook a number of ‘narrative’ interviews with the 2018/2019 cohort of the Alacrity programme through which we explored how identities change during the process of becoming an entrepreneur. Narrative interviews enabled the participants to respond to broad questions around their identity through telling their stories of both who they say they are, and who they say they are in the process of becoming. At the start of the programme, the participants were asked to give their life story – what got them to the place they were at when they started the programme and how they identified themselves at this point. I also asked them what they hoped to become at the end of the programme. Towards the end of the programme, participants were then asked to present a narrative account of their time on the programme including highs, lows and any conflicts experienced and again were asked how they identified themselves at this stage and how if at all they felt this had changed.
The narratives presented in response to these questions were coded and thematically analysed with a number of themes emerging from the data. A detailed overview of the findings in relation to the three research questions posed by the study is provided below. In summary, the findings showed that the entrepreneurial process resulted in either identity conflict (doubting or questioning if they had taken the right path in life) or identity crystallisation (a confirmation that they had taken the right path) for the participants as they considered their identity (ies). Value-based forms of rationality were shown to guide the participants’ identity work as they negotiated who they were and were in the process of becoming with intrinsic satisfaction in the form of ‘pursuing my passions’, ‘being the best I can be’ and ‘attaining personal fulfilment’ from their work given the greatest salience in terms of logics guiding their behaviour and actions. Identity management strategies employed throughout the entrepreneurial process reflected Optimal Distinctiveness Theory (Brewer, 1991; Shepherd and Patzelt, 2018) which proposes that entrepreneurs strive for a balance between feeling distinct from others and a sense of belonging to a community. All of the participants voiced feeling the need for being distinct at the same time as experiencing a desire to belong. Alignment strategies were given the greatest salience by the participants as a means of reconciling their personal and professional selves so that their personal values were aligned with the business values and thus not compromised by their work. Strategies to separate their personal life from their professional life were largely deemed unsuccessful with the effects of one spilling over into the other.
In addition to the emergent themes in response to the three research questions posed within this study, the participants also made reference to a number of aspects of the Alacrity programme which fall outside of these themes, for example, questioning whether taking away elements of risk and providing the safety nets of an income, a team and a project was a good thing or not and expressing a desire for greater support around the demand-led projects.
This research has practical implications for nascent entrepreneurs who themselves are considering embarking on the process of becoming an entrepreneur, such as potential future applicants of the Alacrity programme, and for those involved in delivering entrepreneurship development programmes and incubators such as the Alacrity Foundation through understanding some of the identity conflicts experienced by nascent entrepreneurs and their guiding rationalities in managing this process of ‘becoming’ an entrepreneur. Awareness of the ‘dark side’ of entrepreneurship (Shepherd and Haynie, 2009) that comes from potential identity conflict, and conversely, of the possible benefit of identity crystallisation arising from functional elements of identity conflict can provide those working with nascent entrepreneurs and the nascent entrepreneurs themselves with opportunities to improve their well-being. The importance of mental health well-being was given salience within this study with 3/10 participants specifically talking about their own poor mental health at times, thus, recognising the importance of a supportive work environment. The participants also frequently spoke of the ‘cathartic’ nature of the interviews undertaken within this study and commented on the value of having the time and space to be able to take a step back and reflect on what they were doing and where they were headed outside of the immediate pressures of the programme day to day.
This research project was undertaken for the dissertation element of my Masters in Social Science Research Methods at Cardiff University. The full dissertation project can be viewed here and a more detailed summary of the findings relating to each of the research questions is provided below. I will soon be posting a blog which sets out the wider PhD research project that I am undertaking with Alacrity UK. In the meantime, for more information on my research, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, at http://linkedin.com/in/katherineparsons1 or twitter; @pars_katherine
(This research project is funded by the Economic Social Research Fund).
Research findings overview:
This research question considered broadly how the participants’ sense of who they are develops during the entrepreneur development programme. Three themes emerged; ‘being an entrepreneur’, ‘becoming an entrepreneur’ and ‘anticipated future self’.
‘Being’ an entrepreneur.
Surprisingly, the majority of the participants considered themselves as already ‘being’ an entrepreneur at the start of the programme as opposed to in the process of becoming an entrepreneur. The differentiation between participants’ meaning ascribed to ‘being’ an entrepreneur was striking. There was a distinction between those who felt that in order to assume the position of ‘being’ an entrepreneur, they must first accomplish a pre-determined set of criteria and those for whom the notion of ‘being’ an entrepreneur is a cognitive choice; they have chosen to ‘be’ an entrepreneur. There was a distinction here, therefore as regards the orientation of their perception of what is meant by ‘being’ an entrepreneur. For those who saw being an entrepreneur as a cognitive lifestyle choice, their being an entrepreneur was orientated towards an inward self-perception of who they are or will become. For those who perceived being an entrepreneur as determined by and judged in accordance with their actions and achievements to date appeared orientated towards a more outward-looking perception of who they are, based on what others say they are. A further sub-set within this group identified as already ‘being’ an entrepreneur due to their previous experience of having set up a start-up prior to the programme. Their hangover identity of having already started up their own company was transferred to their current position resulting in their identification as an entrepreneur presently. Their ‘self-concept’, therefore, consisted of “multiple identities that can be situated in either the past, the present, or the future” (De Boeck et al, 2019, pg.533).
‘Becoming’ an entrepreneur.
Over half of the participants referred to themselves in the first narrative as in the process of ‘becoming’ an entrepreneur. Of the other participants, there was an explicit dis-association with the term entrepreneur, preferring the business as the loci of their identification, identifying themselves as being part of a team who were building a business rather than as an entrepreneur per se. Others, although recognising the work they were undertaking and the environment they were working in as synonymous with being an ‘entrepreneur’ did not like to identify with the term either, preferring to identify themselves as becoming an expert in their industry rather than an entrepreneur.
Anticipated future self.
A vocalisation of the participants’ anticipated future self emerged from the narratives as they considered who or what they were now and who or what they were in the process of becoming. 4/10 of the participants considered that they were operating in an industry that they had never imagined themselves working in prior to the programme and spoke of developing more than just an acceptance of this new anticipated future self but of growing an emotional connection with the industry in which they were operating in and could see themselves continuing to work within that industry in the future. For some participants, however (3/10), the process of ‘becoming’ an entrepreneur brought with it an element of identity conflict as they considered their anticipated future self and how near or far they were from achieving that future self as a reality. Some felt a dissatisfaction or even despair with their progression on the programme as regards achieving that anticipated future self, questioning whether it was the right path for them. For others, however, the second narrative presented a more positive reflection on how far they had come in relation to their anticipated future self as they reflected on their learning and growth throughout the programme. The entrepreneurial process, therefore, brought about ‘identity crystallisation’ in confirming that they had chosen the right path. There was a further sub-group here whom accepted that their anticipated future self of ‘being an entrepreneur’ would need to be put on the ‘back burner’ for a while as they pursued the current opportunities presented within the programme as an employee of a start-up company, but that this dream could be realised further in the future, suggesting these participants were exercising what Dahm et al (2019) refer to as ‘time-bending sense-making’. My findings showed that for some of the participants, putting their entrepreneurial aspirations on the back-burner temporarily enabled them to cognitively make sense of their current identity by “expanding the lens of time through which individuals present their self concepts” (Dahm et al, 2019:1195).
Research findings overview:
This research question sought to understand the logics driving the participants’ identity work as they constructed and negotiated their identities during the entrepreneurial process. The forms of rationality given salience to as guiding the nascent entrepreneurs’ decision making throughout their identity work can broadly be split into three categories; social, economic and values based with the latter given much greater salience.
Values based forms of rationality guiding identity work.
The values referred to related to internal satisfaction, control and growth with the majority of participants giving salience to internal satisfaction being the guiding logic in their identity work through a motivation to ‘pursue my passions’, ‘be the best I can be’ and to achieve ‘personal fulfilment’. Half of the participants referred to ‘pursuing my passions’ as being a key influence on their decision-making within the second narrative. Within this sub-theme of ‘pursuing my passions’; working in ‘cool tech’ was given the greatest salience as participants spoke of their hopes and aspirations for their future self and projects they would like to be involved with. For some, working with ‘cool tech’ was, however, not just the end goal but a desirable way of reaching a much bigger aspiration to do social good, showing the interplay between values and social based forms of rationality guiding this participant’s identity work. ‘Being the best I can be’ was given greatest salience in the first interview. Participants spoke of this either being a trait that they could track back throughout their life history in that they ‘always’ endeavoured to be the best they could be or of how they had made a conscious effort within the programme to be the best they could be within the team/ business/ project they were working with. As regards achieving ‘personal fulfilment’, the emphasis was either on gaining personal gratification such as ‘feeling good’ about themselves, gaining external validation that they were doing a good job or gaining an internal sense of achievement in doing something challenging or difficult. These values-based forms of rationality were given greater salience than the social and economic drivers suggesting that values were not a means-end form of rationality for the participants but, for some, were a means in itself.
Social based forms of rationality guiding identity work.
Socially orientated forms of rationality were also given salience by all participants, more so in the second than in the first narrative where there was more of a general reference to ‘doing something good’, whereas in the second narrative, more nuanced descriptions of the type of ‘social good’ emerged including; making a significant positive impact on society, adding value for the customer and making a difference to the environment. Within the participants’ reference to social forms of rationality, economic and values-based forms of rationality were also discussed, suggesting how the three can combine to produce an overall guiding ‘logic’ to deal with identity-based situations and decision-making in answering the question: who am I? and who am I becoming?
Economic based forms of rationality guiding identity work.
References made to economic drivers were brief and not given as much prominence in the narrative as values based and social drivers. They related primarily to ‘earning just enough’ to gain ‘financial freedom’ or towards making a socio-economic impact on society with the vast majority of participants stressing that their economic drivers were to have just enough to be able to give them the financial freedom they need to be able to pursue the things that are really important to them. Money, therefore, was seen not as a primary driver but a means-end for the participants. There was a sub-set of participants, however, who made an explicit statement that their motivations were NOT monetary, giving voice to values based forms of rationality such as ‘meaningful work’ or social based forms of rationality such as ‘giving back’ instead.
Research findings overview:
The focus of the last research question was on understanding the strategies employed by the participants to manage and negotiate their identities during times of identity conflict experienced on the programme. Four identity management strategies emerged from the data; differentiation, association, separation and alignment.
All of the participants referred to wanting to set themselves apart as distinct from others so as to reinforce who they are or are becoming and how they are unique from others who may be taking a similar path or are grouped in the same category as them, for example, ‘entrepreneurs’. This was achieved by the nascent entrepreneurs comparing themselves with others, for example; ‘big corporations’ and people who work for them, less experienced peers on the programme who have no prior start-up experience or friends at home and their comparative accomplishments at a similar life stage. The reasons attributed to these comparisons were labelled as ‘comparison for personal competitive advantage’. There was also a group of participants who seemingly made ‘comparisons with others for the purposes of gaining a team advantage’, by comparing the team dynamics and skills mix within their team or business compared to others.
In contrast to the differentiation strategy, all of the participants also spoke of associating with a community of ‘like-minded’ people; the ‘entrepreneur’ community broadly or more specifically ‘social entrepreneurs’, the ‘tech’ industry or their team. Affiliating with these communities seemed to help the nascent entrepreneurs reinforce who they were and were becoming through alignment with the shared values and social or economic drivers of these ‘likeminded’ people – people they perceive to ‘be like them’ and people who hold similar values. The associations were made with either the industry community (‘tech’ or the industry the business was operating within) or the ‘social entrepreneur’ community specifically. A subset within this group vocalised a dis-association with the entrepreneur community, preferring the association with the industry instead.
More than half of the participants also referred to separation strategies in managing and negotiating their identity throughout the entrepreneurial process. Separation was referenced with regards to separating their professional life from their personal life and their work projects from their passion projects. Within both, a range of strategies and techniques were applied to maintain the separation between these two worlds. In managing the separation between personal and professional self, the participants spoke of stepping back or taking a break to reflect on how they were operating within the two worlds, separating the two worlds so that they compartmentalised their time and energy to one at a time (although recognising difficulties in doing this in practice and the two worlds colliding and affecting one another), altering the way they spoke in their personal and professional capacity, and for one participant, by ultimately resigning from the programme so as to focus on personal goals and aspirations. As regards separating work and passion projects, the participants spoke of strategies to balance the two so that they could work on them concurrently, again, recognising the difficulties in doing so ultimately resulting for some participants in a switch of strategy in putting their passion projects on the ‘back-burner’ as they concentrated on pursuing their work projects, hopefully coming back to their passion projects again in future.
Contrary to ‘separation’ techniques, the vast majority (9 out of 10 of the participants) referred to alignment strategies in managing and negotiating their identity throughout the entrepreneurial process. Alignment was described in relation to actively seeking opportunities to produce alignment between their personal and work goals. Strategies employed included either self-evaluation and a deliberate conscious effort to remain true to personal values and identity or ‘sense checking’ with external sources (such as family and friends) to ensure that they are still acting in accordance with their personal values on their work project. Others chose to focus 100% on the job in hand and put their personal goals on the backburner again for the time being, such that their work self becomes their personal self (‘all encompassing’).
Brewer. M. 1991. The social self: On being the same and different at the same time. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 17 (5). pp:475–482.
Dahm et al (2019). Identity affirmation as a threat? Time-bending sense-making and the career and family identity patterns of early achievers. Academy of Management Journal. 62 (4). pp: 1194–122
De Boeck. G, Dries. N and Tieren. H. 2019. The Experience of Untapped Potential: Towards a Subjective Temporal Understanding of Work Meaningfulness. Journal of Management Studies. 56 (3). pp:529-557. doi:/10.1111/joms.12417
Shepherd. D and Haynie. J. 2009. Birds of a feather don’t always flock together: Identity management in entrepreneurship. Journal of Business Venturing. 24 (4). pp: 316-337. doi: /10.1016/j.jbusvent.2007.10.005
Shepherd. Dean A and Patzelt. Holger. 2018. Entrepreneurial identity in Entrepreneurial cognition. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan. pp:137-200. doi.org/10.1007/978-3
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