| By: By Stephen Deets Associate Professor of Politics Babson College*

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This article highlights a learning program we created to teach future entrepreneurial leaders how to be aware of and responsive to social context. The course starts with on-campus meetings to provide an overview of context and then follows with a short trip to explore another country and context. In this way, the programs encourage epiphanies and reflection. The natural toggling between being an observer and being a participant helps students identify the exotic in the local and the everyday in the global and to fully examine the social construction of local norms and values.

By developing an understanding of the origin and the nature of identity and behavior, it became possible for these future entrepreneurial leaders to imagine creating new ways of interacting within both their own and very different contexts.

Supporting Local Development Opportunities in Ghana

For five years, we have run a short course in which our students teach entrepreneurship and basic business planning in Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana. Most course participants encounter a social context in Ghana that is radically different from their own, forcing them to question and reconstruct some of their basic beliefs about business and entrepreneurship.

They learn that their knowledge about what constitutes economic rationality, marketing success, and financial management is culturally contingent. In other words, what are assumed to be universal laws in the United States, or even in developed countries, simply do not work in a Ghanaian town.
This overseas course is structured around a one-week experience in Ghana during which participants work in high schools, teaching students how to write a business plan and preparing them to participate in a business plan competition created for the program. Course participants also provide business consulting to adults. Outside of the program requirements, participants also have established a microfund and expanded an existing program for local high school students to teach elementary school students the importance of saving and other basic economic lessons.
Prior to traveling to Ghana, participants attend three weekend preparation classes in which they are introduced to the historical, political, and cultural context that surrounds Ghana and Africa more broadly. Discussions focus on the broader theoretical perspectives on state capacity, contentions between identity groups, and evolving debates on development. Finally, we discuss the business climate and the educational system in Ghana, as these are the aspects of the social context with which participants will interact most. While these discussions provide background, we know it is difficult to fully appreciate differences in context and perspective until one confronts those differences in person. As such, when one is focused on helping entrepreneurial leaders understand perspective and context, it is essential to provide them with opportunities to experience different social contexts firsthand.
There are a number of unique ways in which we structure the program in Ghana to help participants develop skills in recognizing and responding to differences in context and perspective. Participants confront myriad situations that do not conform to their own mental maps of how the world operates. The entire experience provides these provocative challenges to students’ entrenched ideas. Reflecting on his experience teaching high school students, one participant said:
"Before leaving, I mapped out how to teach our Ghanaian students entrepreneurship. However, as with any journey of discovery, at some point you must leave the map behind. It was not enough to simply understand entrepreneurship or to know there would be differences in culture and values. We had to understand our Ghanaian students. What motivates them to learn? What do they value? How do they view the world in which they live? What events have shaped their lives? Only after asking ourselves questions like these could we truly stand before our students and engage them."

Working with the adults also fosters intense learning opportunities. During these sessions, course participants are on their own with individuals who have businesses that they and their families depend on for survival. Below we share two such learning moments to illustrate how these situations enabled participants to break out of their cognitive locks and understand the importance of social awareness to engaging in entrepreneurial leadership.
In the first situation, course participants consulted with a woman who sold chips made of flour and butter. The woman put the chips into small bags, placed the bags into a giant bowl that she carried on her head, and, like many women in town, wandered around selling them. She asked the consultants to help her explore how to better promote her business without spending any money.
In considering this issue, the students initially focused on the fact that there was no company name, no location, and no way to differentiate the product. The business was so unlike any that the students studied that branding and marketing lessons were irrelevant. The woman’s complete lack of financial resources only compounded the problem. She was selling just like everyone else in town, and had a difficult time imagining another approach. As the students focused on the woman’s identity and context, they moved away from a predictive orientation to a creation orientation to consider the resources that she could garner. Because the woman had a beautiful voice, the students encouraged her to use this resource and sing during her route so that she might be easier to find and could become known as the “gospel-singing chip lady.”
In another situation, course participants worked with a woman who bought shoes in town for 5 Ghana cedis (GhC) and sold them in rural areas for 5.50 GhC. All of her customers wanted to purchase shoes on credit, however, and promised to pay her in two weeks. Two weeks later, her customers would tell her they could not pay the full amount but would pay in another two weeks. Everyone paid eventually. In the meantime the woman had no cash to buy more shoes or to buy food for her children. If she didn’t sell on credit, she believed that her customers would buy from another vendor who would sell on credit. While this was difficult for course participants to understand, as they asked more-insightful questions they identified a deeper issue: the woman was fundamentally afraid that people would call her a bad Christian and ostracize her if she didn’t sell on credit. Because the norms of selling were a constraint that could not be changed, participants explored with her ways she could better save money to create a cushion.
Through a process of questioning and reflective listening, participants came to understand the different role that religion plays in Ghanaian culture. Ghana has few active civil society organizations outside the church or mosque, particularly in the region where the course operates. Low crime rates and enforcement of contracts, as this example illustrates, seem to reflect religious values and the ability of churches and mosques, instead of civic culture, to enforce norms on members. Religion also is central to Ghanaian social networks. For years, multiple Ghanaians have told the students that while they do not really trust anyone in their own church, they would never even consider going into business with someone of another faith. For North American students who rarely consider how religion and religious context factor into a business decision, understanding the importance of religion enables them to explore fundamentally different solutions to the problems facing many Ghanaian entrepreneurs.
Through these experiences students also learn why contextual differences exist. While some reflect primarily differences in the role of religion or the fact that most people are perpetually short of cash, others arise due to differences in government policy. For example, very few people in Ghana maintain business records. Because sole proprietor businesses in Ghana do not have to pay taxes or comply with other regulations that would necessitate bookkeeping, it does not occur. Consequently, businesses are often extensions of the household. For example, if one has a “provisions store” (often a tiny kiosk in front of the house that sells such things as beverages and soap) and the children are thirsty, they take a soda from the store. As there is no accounting for what the household consumes, it is difficult to determine the profitability of this business. Our students learn that how they respond to these local differences will vary depending on whether the actions are connected to social behavior, government policy, cultural history, or some other contextual factor. This learning is essential, as it helps students establish strategies for how to respond to differences in identity and context.
The final component of the program design occurs when participants return home. After the overseas experience, they are required to write a paper that explores themes from the previsit work in conjunction with their observations, interviews, and experiences in Ghana. As most of the student-selected topics are related to issues of social practice, it gives students a focus for their observations and provides a route to engage Ghanaians in conversation about their lives. This paper cements students’ learning, as it forces them to critically reflect on their experience and really explore the deep and diverse perspectives that exist in Ghana. As one student noted, “Only after reflecting on our experiences could the lessons we learned be truly appreciated.”
With a little distance from the experience, participants can reflect on their own assumptions about Ghana and explore how they will approach context and perspective differently in the future.


Entrepreneurial leaders must be conscious of the roles of different types of learning, including participant observation. They must be prepared to observe, listen to, and engage individuals in conversations on perspective and practice. In both learning experiences discussed here, the initial response of many course participants to epiphanies about context was anger: “Why aren’t they more rational?” “Why aren’t they like us?” Only through further reflection do they realize how they have privileged their own perspective—that their beliefs and behaviors may not be “right” but simply one set among many. It is then that the students are on their way to becoming “enlightened” entrepreneurial leaders.

*This article is excerpted from The New Entrepreneurial Leader: Developing Leaders Who Shape Social and Economic Opportunity. We wish to thank Lisa DiCarlo, who contributed to the chapter upon which this article is based.