Why we need more diverse images on entrepreneurship

By Tine Holvoet, senior research associate Vlerick Business School

People need to start thinking about entrepreneurship in an entrepreneurial way. To change to a contemporary view of entrepreneurship, we have to shift the focus from the number of entrepreneurs to the various qualities and appearances of entrepreneurship. If we wish to expand Flanders in a sustainable way, a stronger entrepreneurship culture is desired to realise new ideas in our society. We need to highlight every aspect of entrepreneuring, literally the way in which individuals and collectives fundamentally take their fate into their own hands. Entrepreneurship is too varied and too important to be reduced to a single dimension.

Politicians make no secret of their wish to increase the number of entrepreneurs: ‘1000 start-ups by 2020’, ‘Entrepreneurs are the heroes of our time’, ‘More funds for start-ups than ever before’. Over the past decade, entrepreneurship has become political. A recent study by Vlerick Business School showed that civil society organisations and politicians are the most active participants in news reports about entrepreneurship. These news reports do not just feature companies, directors or managers: between 2003 and 2013, UNIZO, Karel Van Eetvelt, Kris Peeters and Yves Leterme were mentioned most frequently in news reports about entrepreneurship on the 7 o’clock news programmes on VRT and VTM. French research reveals similar results whereas in the UK, politicians have been more cautious about celebrating new entrepreneurship since the Thatcher period.

Low level of interest

Less good news for people who would like to see more entrepreneurs: 6% of the working population of Flanders intend to start a new business within the next 3 years, a lower score than in all the neighbouring countries. There is an untapped entrepreneurship potential among the 89% of Flemish people who do not (yet) identify as a start-up or established entrepreneur: around 1 in 3 can identify enough opportunities to start a business in the next 6 months and feel that they have the knowledge, skills and experience required to start a new business. This was revealed by the most recent Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM). This study also shows that successful entrepreneurship in Flanders enjoys relatively little appreciation and media attention. So what is going on?

In times of crisis, we tend to see higher overall levels of entrepreneurship in response to fewer opportunities on the labour market. As a result of this realisation, ‘more start-ups’ is no longer a positive political goal. The focus is shifting to qualitative aspects of the entrepreneurship culture in a region: how we deal with fear of failure, detecting opportunities, creativity and market openness? The number of start-ups is losing ground to alternative quality criteria for successful entrepreneurship. Successful entrepreneurship and the added value that is created must be understood in a broader context and not just compared with the impact on the number of jobs and the gross domestic product. We must zoom into the sustainable and inclusive aspects of growth, social impact, ambitions and work-life balance.

Own jeans

Today, do you really need to start up your own company to have an entrepreneurial way of life? Entrepreneurship itself is in a state of transition and is creating fundamental changes in society. What can SMEs learn from freelancers? How can large companies implement a start-up-mentality? What is the impact of peer-to-peer entrepreneurs on social wellbeing in society? Does discovering opportunities in your own flat (Airbnb), car (Uber) or jeans (Mud Jeans) make you happy?

For now, we can conclude that these questions do not feature in the already sparse reports about entrepreneurship in Flanders. Two-thirds of news reports about entrepreneurship are financial and economic in nature, innovation and creative ideas only feature in 4% of the news reports. The entrepreneurship palette that is represented is limited and this is disappointing, certainly when we are aware of the impact of positive role models as a lever for new enterprise.

There is an urgent need for entrepreneurship to become a contemporary and/and story, including SMEs, social entrepreneurs, micro-entrepreneurs, growth companies, start-ups, peer-to-peer entrepreneurs, freelancers, enterprising employees in existing organisations and all the hybrid forms in between. A strong entrepreneurship culture reflects reality and places a wide range of entrepreneurial stories in the spotlights.

Tine Holvoet, together with Professor Hans Crijns and dr. Niels Bosma provides insights into the concepts of entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship culture in Flanders. Their research is conducted in the framework of the policy research center STORE (Steunpunt Ondernemen & Regionale Economie) for the Flemish government.

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