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Article featured in The Society for Diversity: "Understanding an entrepreneurship model that works for all".

Inclusive entrepreneurship is attracting growing interest. Everyday more often are coming to light new promising entrepreneurship support programs that seek to assist less engaged and under-represented communities to achieve greater economic self-sufficiency through individual business activities. These programs are underpinned on the need to create new pathways to economic stability and economic independence of some particular groups of people where there is a dearth of wage-based employment (for example, people with disabilities, women, youth, seniors, the unemployed, ethnic minorities and migrant groups).

In the case of people with disabilities, the activity rate in Spain in 2014 was above 37%. In a deeper analysis of this activity rate, we find that above 11% were entrepreneurs or self-employed, against more than 88% that were working for organizations as employees. According to Luis Cayo Pérez, Chairman of the Spanish Committee of Representatives of Persons with Disabilities (CERMI), participation rates of people with disabilities in entrepreneurial programs are still low. However, entrepreneurship is the only labor option that many people with disabilities have, and the creation of small businesses within Social Economy is a formula that fits especially well the needs of people with disabilities.

In the United States, labor force participation rate of people with disabilities in 2015 was 17.5% compared to 65.0% for those without disabilities. According to US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate of people with disabilities was more than double the rate of those without disabilities (namely, it was 10.7%, compared to 5.1% among people without disabilities).

Despite of identifying self-employment and entrepreneurship as being important forms of meaningful employment for those under-represented in the labor market, these groups typically face, still, greater challenges and barriers in building entrepreneurial skills and networks than people from the entrepreneurship mainstream. Entrepreneurship opportunities, particularly those requiring higher level skills or specific expertise, are not suitable for all. There are several (interrelated) main factors hindering the entrepreneurial career paths of disadvantaged and under-represented groups. Highlighting some of them, inequalities arise due to a strong exclusion from network-rich contexts, the dominance of limited and informal entrepreneurship models at local communities, educational and cultural barriers, predominating misperceptions about self-employment, stigma experienced in entrepreneurship communities or a precarious financial position often associated with some prospective entrepreneurs.

“Unaccessibility” of training, tools and support services

Today I want to put the focus on an essential issue within entrepreneurial programs: their training, tools and support services. Certainly, it would indeed be a pity if people that can benefit most from entrepreneurship tools, training and entrepreneurial services do not know about them or do not know how to use them. However, mainstream tools, business model references and entrepreneurship terminology promoted by public agencies and support organizations are not equally accessible to all. The fact is that most entrepreneurs and companies do not have articulated or they can not articulate the business model behind their project (and every entrepreneurial endeavor has a business model, whether the business owner has consciously thought about it or not). Actually, as arises with technology, the growing pace of entrepreneurial tools is much higher than the introduction of Design for All or universal accessibility features embedded on them “by design”. This is leading, even more, to actively discourage disadvantaged and under-represented groups from entering self-employment.

Another important fact is that some of the most powerful tools for professional and entrepreneurial project development are on the internet and are mainly used by computer literate and young entrepreneurs. As it is promoted by ONCE Foundation in Spain through “emprende2020” entrepreneurship program for people with disabilities, new technologies may also satisfy especially well the needs and preferences of under-represented entrepreneurs by means of new flexible and more adapted working schemes. However, many groups targeted by inclusive entrepreneurship policies have substantially less knowledge of these tools and technologies.

Likewise, collaboration challenges arise in the structurally incompatible and poorly managed overlaps between traditional business tools and the new (and dynamic) world of social network tools. Current business tools are simply inadequate to deal with a new human-centric way of work, more flexible and participatory. There are normally poor linkages between the critical human interactions and business management. As a result, project and case variations become disruptive and change is noticed too late for effective response.

Regarding the underlying structure of support systems, problems also include the information asymmetries which exist between disadvantaged would-be entrepreneurs and support organizations or mentors and linear progression models they used. Support organizations are frequently ignorant as to the needs, personal lifestyle choices and potential of disadvantaged entrepreneurs. Often, their conditions force a slower and much less predictable, controllable pace of start-up, which is not compatible with current support services own reporting and funding structures. In the opposite direction, most times prospective entrepreneurs and their advisors or rehabilitation counselors often lack the tools needed to fully assess self-employment options on the basis of a solid business goal and implementation plan. Consequently, entrepreneurs with special needs often are caught between competing or not well-aligned support systems.

Entrepreneurship divide

Clearly, conditions above are creating a new source of exclusion of disadvantaged and under-represented entrepreneurs. So, perhaps, this is an appropriate time to emphasize and revitalize the discussion about the named “entrepreneurship divide”: it is not just about who has access to entrepreneurship, but what kind of access entrepreneurs and their communities have.

Combine this particular context with existing accessibility limitations in daily living and you can get an especially “disabling environment” where a support organization adopts a brand new online tool for teaching entrepreneurship that is completely inaccessible to most of their entrepreneurs. Definitely, it is more than desirable that we go further a “monolithic” model of entrepreneurship which hardly recognizes diversity and lead to the exclusion of most of their entrepreneurs with their projects. It is essential, hence, we put an increasing focus on those who experience entrepreneurship differently due to some form of socio-economic, functional or personal differences.

Open challenges and opportunities for an inclusive entrepreneurship model

This emerging holistic entrepreneurship support understanding need forces us to change our mindset when developing support on entrepreneurship projects. However, despite the increasing supply of entrepreneurship education programs, questions still remain unanswered, including several which relate entrepreneurial curricula to entrepreneurial learning:

    1. Disadvantaged and under-represented entrepreneurship is especially multi-faceted. It is the interplay of individual characteristics, combined with external factors such as location and connectivity, which contribute to a person’s overall level of disadvantage.

    2. There is a challenge for ensuring that the entrepreneurship infrastructure is accessible in a timely and cost-effective manner.

    3. A key challenge resides around how we can operationalize such learning (which connects the ‘knowing’ to the ‘doing’) in the realistic context of the entrepreneurs’ world and upon a solid evidence-based model.

    4. Entrepreneur system should provide strong evidence of alternative sources of “social capital” leading to strong-tie relationships, further networks of family and friends and fostering both business and “non-business” assets. To gain the agility needed to thrive in today's complex and demanding open markets, strategy must become an innovative design process focused on community value creation or, in other words, on community experience creation.

    5. Further innovation should be devoted to add new channels of peer-driven support to the traditional business counselling. Business-to-business peer-networking may work especially well to meet the often complex business-personal developing needs of disadvantaged entrepreneurs.

Interested on the topic? Keep reading more about Closefunding’s approach and tools for a practical implementation of an inclusive entrepreneurship model in this new article featured by The Society for Diversity.