Combating entrepreneurial stereotypes through education

The popular stereotype of entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs or Elon Musk is of heroic individuals battling alone against the odds. These stereotypes are strongly embedded, but they are limiting, incorrectly framing entrepreneurship as attainable only through unique talent and exceptional skill. Recently published research from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, highlight how introducing questions of identity into entrepreneurial education can help break down these limitations and yield greater diversity in the field.

“Our research sheds light on the ongoing challenges associated with the prevailing stereotypes in entrepreneurship and its education. Addressing this issue is important for students and educators alike – to raise awareness of how easy it is to overemphasise the common examples of ‘Steve Jobs’ or ‘Elon Musk’, and how restricting these examples can be” explains Chalmers researcher Karen Williams-Middleton, who recently published the scientific article ‘The relatable entrepreneur: Combating stereotypes in entrepreneurship education’ in the scientific journal Industry and Higher Education, together with Stephanie E Raible at the University of Delaware.

“Stereotypes are prominent in entrepreneurship – and therefore entrepreneurial education – and brought into the classroom by both students and educators. They can be a significant limiting factor towards imagining oneself ‘becoming entrepreneurial’. Entrepreneurship educators should therefore aim to provide more and varied examples of entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial individuals. Key to this is training students how to practice ‘identity management’ – understanding and managing other identities they might aspire to, to learn how to ‘filter’ various social media and environmental influences for themselves,” says Karen Williams-Middleton.

Entrepreneurship is often stereotyped as attainable only through exceptional skill and talent, and often characterised exclusively by ostensibly ‘masculine’ qualities. The article raises discussion of stereotyping in entrepreneurship education, by using the stories of two current female entrepreneurs who themselves struggle with the issue. The two candidates were selected for the mixture of similarities and differences they shared, and because, importantly, both had only recently entered into entrepreneurship. Some of the factors investigated included whether they had co-founders, if they had children, if they received financial support from their spouse, and whether they themselves actually identified as entrepreneurs, or ‘small business owners’.

“The stories’ similarities and differences mirror the different perspectives and reactions to social media and other environmental inputs that students may experience themselves, thereby opening up for reflection and discussion. Identity management as an important tool in entrepreneurship pedagogy has previously received only limited research attention,” says Karen Williams-Middleton.

She continues, “the important thing is to be aware of stereotype use; and then to address it. Try to use a spectrum of examples and engage students in discussion about stereotypes and perceptions. It is surprising how easy and quickly we all fall into different stereotypical perspectives. We should – and do – know better, but it still happens, perhaps because of the lack of familiarity beyond the big names that are reified constantly in the media.”

The paper “The relatable entrepreneur: Combating stereotypes in entrepreneurship education” in scientific journal Industry and Higher Education is written by Stephanie E Raible, University of Delaware and Karen Williams-Middleton, Chalmers University of Technology.