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Entrepreneurs of All Kinds

Heidi Neck

Heidi Neck  Photo: Patrick O’Connor

To find fulfillment, most Americans don’t look to the workplace. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 71 percent of American workers are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” with their job. That’s an astounding amount of people who check out once they punch in.

New research points out, however, that this isn’t the case with entrepreneurship. As part of an ongoing investigation into the day-to-day lives of entrepreneurs, the Babson Entrepreneur Experience Lab released findings in October documenting how people work entrepreneurially within organizations such as companies, nonprofits, government agencies, and religious entities.

The study’s participants don’t conform to the stereotypical idea of who an entrepreneur should be. Among the 40 or so participants were a reverend of a church, a university president, a public transit director, and an acquisition analyst for the Department of Defense. Taken together, they represent entrepreneurs employed in a wide range of settings and jobs. They are the people we see everyday working all around us. “We intentionally created an eclectic sample to better understand the experience of creating inside organizations,” says study co-author Heidi Neck, associate professor of entrepreneurship and the Jeffry A. Timmons Professor of Entrepreneurship.

What the researchers found were people who are extremely engaged and motivated. Within their organizations, they worked to create new services, structures, initiatives, and departments. “There is nothing more energizing than creating and executing something,” Neck says.

The data on internal entrepreneurship follows research that the lab, a collaboration between the College and the Business Innovation Factory in Providence, R.I., released last year tracking entrepreneurs pursuing startups. The two batches of research followed entrepreneurs in vastly different environments but found that internal entrepreneurs face challenges, risks, and fears like any person starting something new. “They’re not as drastically different as one would think,” Neck says.

That said, differences do exist. For instance, as opposed to entrepreneurs working on startups, whose biggest concern may be fiscal capital, the biggest worry of entrepreneurs within organizations is capital of a different sort: social. Their reputations are on the line. Any failure will be glaringly public among colleagues and managers. “They may lose legitimacy and respect and status,” Neck says.

While entrepreneurs launching startups often have programs and networks to assist them, internal entrepreneurs frequently are isolated. There may be no role models inside their organization for what they’re doing, and networking opportunities outside their agency can be limited. And it can be difficult to navigate the rigid structure and culture of an institution when trying to do something different. A company or nonprofit may have been started by entrepreneurs, but ironically, it might not be equipped to encourage them inside its ranks. “They don’t know how to manage these people,” Neck says. “You can’t take someone who has been trained corporately and tell them to be an entrepreneur.”

The Babson Entrepreneur Experience Lab will continue trying to understand the lives of entrepreneurs in greater detail. Next up will be research investigating social entrepreneurship, Neck says. Ultimately, all this data will be put to concrete use, helping to create, among other initiatives, new curricula for entrepreneurship education and new venture accelerator models. “We want to take it from the white board to the real world, from paper to practice,” Neck says. —John Crawford