This Blog post is the second in a series of pre-summit blogs, from the GLI cohort attending the Global Entrepreneurship Congress in Medellin, Colombia. In these blog posts the students discuss issues which they are likely to interrogate further in their research at the summit.
By Liz Kohorn-Hill (Economics)
Why is it that entrepreneurs are seen as heroes in some Countries; put on a pedestal, looked up to and romanticised, whereas in other Countries, these same people are seen as greedy and selfish caffeine fuelled charlatans. I think much of the answer to this stems from culture, the fundamental underpinnings of any society, economy or country. But what are the implications of this, and is there potential to use culture as a tool for change?
WHAT IS CULTURE?
Culture is the rules by which we all play; unconsciously following a strict and extensive set of informal rules which constrain the way in which we conduct ourselves in our day to day lives. These are the rules that stop me from stealing your pint in a pub, or incentivise me to give up my seat for a pregnant or elderly passenger on the tube. These are the shared values and beliefs that shape the behaviours we all expect from those whom we encounter.
These are deeply embedded into our society, working through self-reinforcing feedback loops such that with each generation they become more ingrained. Holding power over our political, social and technical systems, and coupled with this reinforcing characteristic, we can see how important culture is, and what an influential tool it could be for driving positive change.
However, every coin has a flip side, and all that can be used to drive change can also promote stagnation, trapping countries through a set of negative or impotent societal behaviours.
FROM THE ABSTRACT TO THE ENTREPRENEUR: THE ROLE OF CULTURE
This may all seem a little abstract regarding entrepreneurship; thus far I have set out the power of culture in that it prevents me from stealing your pint. However, what interests me is how the deep rooted cultural beliefs about the traits we associate with entrepreneurship could be hindering the entrepreneurial sector, and therefore how changing the cultural perception with regards to this could have positive spill over effects for the many.
Broadly we categories a “pro-entrepreneur” culture as being in favour of individualism, assertiveness, more equal distribution of power and lower uncertainty-avoidance. Intuitively therefore, we can associate a society more prone to collectivism and unequal distribution of power, as lacking a preference for entrepreneurs. Further, given that culture is the rules by which we all play, we can assume these areas will subsequently have lower incidence of entrepreneurs.
Whether or not these generalised traits hold in practice is open to contention and debate. For example, the US, one of the most socially polarised countries in the world, is also one of the most entrepreneurial; birth place of JD Rockefeller and Steve Jobs. This may seem to fly in the face of the conventional theory set out by Hofstede, however I would argue that a key aspect of power is an individual’s right to speak up and be heard.
This is a right all Americans have as part of their civil liberties, a cornerstone of the institution in America. Through this interpretation, of power the distribution is theoretically equal. This becomes slightly more skewed in reality if we look at to what extent an individual feels they can freely express themselves, however compared to many countries with “bad” institutions and subsequent poor civil liberties, the US power distribution is still far more equal.
CULTURE AS A TOOL FOR CHANGE
Nothing changes without an input force to drive this change, and in a society that perpetuates anti-entrepreneurial behaviour, the costs, monetary or social, associated with going against the grain are in most cases going to outweigh any gains. Consequently, the incidence of entrepreneurs that could catalyse a change is likely to be insufficient for any chance to occur. The negative feedback loop maintaining the status quo.
In this environment an exogenous shock may be required to disrupt this loop, to start a revolution of common thought and begin a movement towards a new status quo.
I seek to develop the thinking around the ways in which we could work as a collective to use culture as a tool for change, promoting the entrepreneurial mind-set. What are the specific mechanisms in the negative feedback loop? Where can these be disrupted in order to instigate a change towards the entrepreneurial mind-set and towards innovation?
I am not so ambitious to think over the course of a few days at the Global Entrepreneurship Congress I will find a solution to a problem as old as man, however through sharing, consolidating and challenging lessons already learnt in this global community we have a fantastic opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way to this theme.