Can entrepreneurship grow into its own myth?

Despite undeniable evidence of its fallacy, a myth persists that presents the current entrepreneurial landscape as the meritocracy we’ve been dreaming of. Sure, for some, it might seem we’ve built as close to a level playing field as you get: all you need is a good idea and hard work.

I’m all for the perpetuation of that story as aspirational, as our North Star—yes, hope is a good thing—as long as we also agree to tackle more rigorously and intentionally the persistent barriers to equality of access that remain.

The average person didn’t always believe that they could change their socio-economic lot. Your status depended on who you were at birth, not what you might be able to achieve in life.

In the 21st century, social mobility is often viewed by many as something akin to a character trait, rather than being synonymous with privilege accumulated over generations through wealth transmission, higher education, class, race, gender, geography, and related access to opportunity.

In Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton explains how the dominant narrative surrounding social mobility and wealth shifted over time.

In the thirteenth century, the three orders of society—clergy, nobility and peasantry—yielded three main stories:

  1. The poor were not seen as responsible for their social position and were deemed the most useful to society for the labour they provided;
  2. Low status was not linked to moral worth (after all Jesus had been poor);
  3. The rich were sinful and unscrupulous in their exploitation of the poor and would eventually be punished for their hubris and greed.

As class structures and social mores evolved and Adam Smith’s classical free market economic theory took hold, three new stories emerged, with a decidedly different take on individual worth grounded in meritocracy.

  1. The rich are most useful to society since their spending creates wealth for everyone. The poor, on the other hand, are a drain on society;
  2. Wealth is linked to morality. In a meritocracy, with equal access to opportunities, success is solely dependent on someone’s abilities and performance;
  3. Poverty is a failure of character and intelligence. The poor get what they deserve and should feel shame for it as well.

In present day, the pervasiveness of these stories has hindered advances in human rights and economic development, but has also fragilised our collective self-esteem—and perhaps particularly for those in under-served communities—by disseminating the notion of imaginary universal social standards and equal access to these standards in health, education, resources, and opportunity. In a meritocracy, everyone wins, don’t they?

Enter entrepreneurship.

In the past 10 to 15 years, the celebration of entrepreneurs as members of the creative class has opened doors to new ways for individuals to rely on themselves to improve their own circumstances and by extension to contribute to society as a whole. Perceptions about the risk surrounding entrepreneurship have also changed. The 2019–20 GEM Global Report found that in 38 out of the 50 economies surveyed, more than half of adults considered they had the skills, knowledge and experience to start a new business and in 42 out of the 50 economies, less than half of those who saw good opportunities said they would be deterred by fear of failure.

In response to these evolving attitudes, we’re witnessing a global effort at creating entrepreneurial support hubs that run on giving first (peer and mentorship networks), on flattened hierarchies, on aggregating resources and adapting to varying geographical contexts, and on favouring humans over credentials. Despite these laudable efforts, the level of participation and funding available to new ventures are still overwhelmingly weighted to white, male founders.

So how might we, as ecosystem builders, actively address this persistent gap in access and diversity?

Discrimination in our societies happens all the time. In some instances, it’s justifiable. When we select athletes to compete internationally or allow surgeons to perform brain surgery, discrimination seems necessary, even desirable. But other, unjust, forms of discrimination occur based of who someone is—rather than their abilities or actions—thus preventing equality of opportunity for welfare and, in extreme cases, causing social exclusion.

Philosopher Peter Westen outlines that access to opportunity is a three-way relationship between a person, some obstacles, and a desired goal. However, opportunity can only be considered as such if it’s known, accessible, and the obstacles to reaching the goal aren’t insurmountable.

Race, social class, gender, religious belief or sexuality, legal discrimination or implicit bias, can all be more or less relevant obstacles in affecting access to opportunity.

If the number of people-of-color firms were proportional to their distribution in the labor force, people of color would own 1.1 million more businesses with employees. These firms would add about 9 million jobs and about $300 billion in workers’ income to the U.S. economy. — The Color of Entrepreneurship Report

As more and more entrepreneurial ecosystems are nurtured, their members might be judged more on the quality of their ideas than on their last name or alma mater. But though governments, foundations, educational institutions, funders and ecosystem builders are banding together to support the rebuilding of our economies crippled by the pandemic, are we intentional in ensuring equality of opportunity and unfettered access to a space that still venerates hockey-stick growth, acronyms, unicorns, and whiteness?

Affirmative actions are temporary measures designed to remedy basic rights deficits and level the playing field. They are often opposed by the dominant majority for fear of discrimination and by the subject populations for fear of tokenism. While they should be closely monitored to deliver on their intent and not create new privileges, could community-driven affirmative actions be co-designed and put in place to tackle the persistent racial and geographic wealth gap by broadening, even targeting, access to entrepreneurship?

We have to be willing to embrace the full autonomy of people who are less privileged and understand that equity means making access to opportunity easier, not deciding what opportunities they deserve.

— Mikki Kendall, Hood Feminism

In the context of ecosystem building, improving ease of access through affirmative actions can take many complementary forms. To succeed, I believe these measures must involve reminding ourselves that each entrepreneur has different motivations, lived experiences, resources and objectives — including the type of business they aspire to create.

Here are a few approaches we can already see getting results:

  1. Partnering with community colleges (or smaller universities) who support all types of learners and populations and act as anchor institutions to the ecosystem.
  2. Increasing the size of the network by adding more nodes through targeted outreach to partners that serve different communities outside the existing ecosystem. Mapping the system including BIPOC communities, women-, immigrant-, youth-focussed organisations, adjacent rural, or urban, areas to allow flow of information, capital, resources and knowledge — everywhere.
  3. Building feedback loops. We can’t rely on outdated ways of supporting entrepreneurs. Asking and listening is still the best way to continually re-evaluate how best to meet the real, current, needs of our entrepreneurial communities.
  4. Developing flexible schedules and offerings to support entrepreneurs who are also shift workers, or single parents, or who might have daytime constraints or an (in)visible disability. The ‘how’ is often as important as the ‘what’.
  5. Ensuring we have the capacity and know-how to support both entrepreneurs of opportunity (those who engage in entrepreneurship to explore a promising business idea) and empowered entrepreneurs (those opting into entrepreneurship because other employment is either absent or unsatisfactory — they are often called entrepreneurs of subsistence but it’s time for a more inspiring name!) Each of these entrepreneurs has unique needs and attitudes.
  6. Accounting for difference. Black and Brown founders, people with disabilities, LGBTQ2+ folks, all have different insights on solutions, have different ways of communicating, different access to resources. The more diverse our ecosystems, the more usual it will be for us to learn from each other. The more diverse the lived experiences of our teams, the better equipped we will be to meet entrepreneurs where they are and minimise the—perceived or real—need for code-switching.
  7. Setting goals, measuring progress and communicating it to our partners and community. We don’t have all the answers but an authentic and sustained effort will yield results!

Inequality is deeply rooted in our social systems and if we are to truly commit to the notion of #buildbackbetter and capitalising on the inherent value of all individuals then equal access to opportunity can’t be left to chance or to the broken mechanisms that have contributed to the enduring and systematic socio-economic marginalisation of folks our communities need to fully thrive. In time, everything matures; let’s hope entrepreneurship gets to grow up.

Isabelle Swiderski supports impact entrepreneurs and ecosystem building initiatives globally through Seven25 and Protagoniste.

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