• Innovation

Supporting Unconventional Entrepreneurs

A recent study argues for a holistic view of diversity and inclusion in the area of entrepreneurship


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Workforce diversity allows organizations to access alternative ways of seeing the world to be better tuned to its rapid changes. In the entrepreneurship space, where unlocking innovation and embracing new insights is key, this aspect of diversity is particularly valuable.

Diversity hits a barrier when outweighed by the human tendency towards conformity with group norms and a wariness of unconventionality. Consequently, organizations are often hesitant to employ unconventional people—for instance those with a physical or cognitive disability. This hesitancy is reflected in the makeup of intrapreneurial teams in organizations and in the willingness of stakeholders to support individual unconventional entrepreneurs. At a time of low economic growth when talent is scarce, this represents a shameful waste of potential.

In the case of disabled people, even those with appropriate qualifications are seriously underrepresented in the UK workforce. The employment rate for disabled people of working age is 53%, compared with 82% for the wider UK population. As with physical disability there is also a hesitancy to employ neurodiverse people. While large companies, from Accenture to Virgin, have recognized that people with neurological conditions such as autism spectrum disorder and dyslexia can have extraordinary skills in pattern recognition, general cognitive ability and memory, the general rule is underrepresentation. What's true for the overall workforce will be true in the entrepreneurial space.

Racial, gender and age-related diversity—the usual suspects when it comes to lack of inclusion—will also figure in the failings in the entrepreneurship area. Then there are wider sources of unconventional entrepreneurial talent—refugees; ex-offenders; immigrant entrepreneurs; etc.—groups potentially able to bring innovation and competitive advantage, but unlikely to get a look in. Defining who is ‘unconventional’ depends on context. In the narrow context of a West European organization ethnic minority entrepreneurs might be considered unconventional, whereas in another cultural setting female entrepreneurs would be. 

In a recent paper Associate Professor René Bakker of Rotterdam School of Management and Professor Jeffery S. McMullen of Kelley School of Business offer support for inclusive entrepreneurship, in calling for “a shared theoretical conversation about unconventional entrepreneurs.” They argue that previous focus on each distinct group, e.g., disabled or black or elder entrepreneurs, has meant that broader lessons across the whole piece have not been picked up as much as they should have been, and important questions are not being answered through a failure to look for shared wisdom across all groups.

The authors refer to some of the considerable evidence that has been compiled around unconventional ‘underdog’ entrepreneurs—many of whom have succeeded despite being stigmatized, and occasionally actively impeded in pursuing their entrepreneurial efforts. Accepting that each group of unconventional entrepreneurs has separate attributes, they now specifically call for researchers in this area to start looking for similarities where they might exist as a way to generate shared insights across the various groups. Understanding the insights that may emerge from this shared approach will give employers, investors and other stakeholders a better way to assess the value of unconventional entrepreneurs.

The authors identify four common questions that broadly apply to unconventional entrepreneurs, that they believe employers and supporters should consider:

i) How to overcome stigma when appealing to stakeholders?

ii) How can entrepreneurial ecosystems be made more open and inclusive?

iii) How can new offerings transcend from niche markets to Main markets?

iv) How does unconventional become conventional?

A shared approach to finding answers to these questions—for example finding strategies unconventional entrepreneurs may enlist in engaging stakeholders and in tackling stigma—will be very valuable not only for would-be entrepreneurs but for a range of stakeholders, from employers to investors and ultimately to the wider economy.

Diversity and inclusion have rightly become boardroom priorities in recent years. There have been genuine successes but too often initiatives just lead to ‘box-ticking’ that has little effect on business performance. Entrepreneurship has the potential to transform performance, but not if locked in conventional or groupthink. Being open to new ways of thinking and viewing the world through employing or investing in unconventional entrepreneurs offers a potential way forward.


Read the full paper: ‘Inclusive entrepreneurship: A call for a shared theoretical conversation about unconventional entrepreneurs,’ René M. Bakker and Professor Jeffery S. McMullen. Journal of Business Venturing, January 2023.

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