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The International Journal of Management Education 12 (2014) 490e499

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The International Journal of Management Education

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Constructing entrepreneurial identity in entrepreneurship

Anne Donnellon a, Susanne Ollila b, Karen Williams Middleton b, *
Management Division, Babson College, Babson Park, MA 02457-0310, USA
Department of Technology Management and Economics, Chalmers University of Technology, 41296 Gothenburg, Sweden

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: While increasing demand for entrepreneurial competence has led to constant growth in
Received 29 January 2014 entrepreneurship education, few programs provide robust outcomes such as actual new
Received in revised form 8 April 2014 ventures or entrepreneurial behavior in real contexts. This is due to a gap in our theoretical
Accepted 13 May 2014
understanding of what it takes to become entrepreneurial. Research suggests that beyond
Available online 10 June 2014
acquiring knowledge and skill to act entrepreneurially, entrepreneurial learning also in-
volves the development of an entrepreneurial identity. Yet most accounts of entrepre-
neurship education do not include this concept. We explore entrepreneurial identity and
Entrepreneurial identity
Entrepreneurship education
how it is constructed within an entrepreneurship education.
Venture creation Connecting entrepreneurial learning theory with literature on identity, we developed a set
Entrepreneurial learning of categories addressing the construction of an entrepreneurial identity. In a case study at a
European technical university, we used these categories to sample and analyze narrative
data developed as students created new ventures. The results support our supposition
that, in the context of a new venture creation program, students experience challenges
that lead to the development of entrepreneurial identity. Based on these ndings, we argue
that, if the educational objective is learning for the practice of entrepreneurship, then
identity construction needs to be seen as important a goal as the development of
knowledge and skill.
2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction

Entrepreneurship has long been identied as a factor in economic prosperity (see for example Baumol, 1986; Baumol,
Litan, & Schramm, 2007), and as a result policy makers and practitioners increasingly call upon the need for entrepre-
neurial competence to drive growth in their regions (OECD, 2011; World Economic Forum, 2011). Emphasis on developing
new entrepreneurs that can deliver this competency is marked by the continued growth of entrepreneurial education pro-
grams (Finkle & Deeds, 2001; Katz, 2003; McMullan & Long, 1987; Solomon, 2007). However, not all lead to the development
of entrepreneurially acting individuals or the creation of new rms (Gruber, 2007; Honig & Samuelsson, 2012; Karlsson &
Honig, 2007). While it is widely acknowledged that higher entrepreneurial education should include experiential peda-
gogy in order to enhance learning and innovative capacity (Barrett & Peterson, 2000; Collins, Smith, & Hannon, 2006; Honig,

* Corresponding author. Department of Technology Management and Economics, Div. Management of Organizational Renewal and Entrepreneurship,
Chalmers University of Technology, 41296 Gothenburg, Sweden. Tel.: 46 (0)31772 1913.
E-mail addresses: (A. Donnellon), (K. Williams Middleton).
1472-8117/ 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
A. Donnellon et al. / The International Journal of Management Education 12 (2014) 490e499 491

2004; Johannisson, Landstro m, & Rosenberg, 1998; Lundstro m & Stevenson, 2002; Pittaway & Cope, 2007; Vinton & Alcock,
2004; Yballe & O'Connor 2000), there are still various ways to deliver entrepreneurship education.
Varying pedagogical approaches distinguish between education conducted about, in, for or through entrepreneurship
(Chang & Rieple, 2013; Co & Mitchell, 2006; Heinonen & Poikkijoki, 2006; Hytti & O'Gorman 2004; Kirby, 2004; Mwasalwiba,
2010; Pittaway & Edwards, 2012). Ollila and Williams Middleton (2011) argue that the about and in approaches to
entrepreneurship education are insufcient when attempting to stimulate entrepreneurial behavior and develop new ven-
tures. They argue that students need to do the real work of creating a new venture in order to develop entrepreneurial
competency. Of the four main types of entrepreneurship education described above, only the latter (through) incorporates
engagement in actual venture creation.
Among the rst to describe approaches to learning through entrepreneurship, Gibb (1996) identied an enterprising
teaching approach as essential for connecting conceptual knowledge to a range of entrepreneurial behaviors. Following Gibb,
specialized approaches have been developed to facilitate learning through engagement in the practice of entrepreneurship
(see for example Heinonen, 2007; Heinonen & Poikkijoki, 2006). Ollila and Williams Middleton (2011) introduce a venture
creation approach which integrates incubation of viable ideas into the educational process. The approach allows students to
test the water by involving them in real entrepreneurial and business activities as the leading actors (the entrepreneurial
team). This facilitates a number of key learning aspects identied by others: learning by doing, reection upon actions taken
(Cope, 2003; Cope & Watts, 2000), development of decision-making logics (Chandler, DeTienne, McKelvie, & Mumford, 2011;
Sarasvathy, 2001) and prioritization of activities, all with the intent of successfully creating new ventures. Scholars even argue
that in order to stimulate entrepreneurial behavior, education must go beyond simulating it by including actual venture
creation as part of the formal curriculum (Ollila & Williams Middleton, 2011; Williams Middleton & Donnellon, 2014). When
students act as entrepreneurs in the course of their education e doing the tasks of creating a new venture e it is inevitable
that they take on this new identity to some extent. Entrepreneurial learning scholars have discussed the importance of the
self in learning and some have discussed identity.
Researchers studying those who learn to be entrepreneurial by starting and managing a venture suggest that this com-
petency is far broader than skills and knowledge (see for example, Breslin & Jones, 2012; Harrison & Leitch, 2011; Karatas-

Ozkan, 2011; Morris, Kuratko, Schindehutte, & Spivack, 2012; Pittaway & Thorpe, 2012; Rae, 2004, 2005, 2006). As
Obrecht (2004) argues, in order to act entrepreneurially, individuals need a set of capabilities which are personal, organi-
zational and societal. Thus, components inuencing entrepreneurial capability include identity and knowledge as well as
networks, legitimacy and locality (Obrecht, 2011). Entrepreneurial learning scholars (Hytti, 2003; Pittaway & Thorpe, 2012;
Rae, 2006) nd that learning in this context leads to consideration of who I want to be and construction of an identity that
enacts this aspiration.
In his work, David Rae argues that entrepreneurial learning is not only retrospective, but also incorporates current
experience and future thinking and claims that, in entrepreneurial learning, knowing, acting and making sense are inter-
connected (Rae, 2000, pg. 151). Others have elaborated on this argument, nding that work to develop entrepreneurial
identity involves not only internal self-reection, but also social engagement e through talk and action (Radu Lefebvre &
Redien-Collot, 2013; Rigg & O'Dwyer, 2012; Watson, 2009). But when engaging socially, particularly with established so-
cial groups, individuals endeavoring to take on the identity of entrepreneur are often challenged with how this new identity
ts with existing identities and roles (Williams Middleton, 2013).
These accounts of the entrepreneurial learning process are an almost identical match with the emergent theory of
identity construction in the literature on work role transitions, in which case individuals are found to create, test, and
integrate provisional-selves relative to a role they have or seek (Ibarra, 1999). Organizational theory too provides a strong
case for the importance of identity at both the individual and organizational levels (Ashforth & Mael, 1989; DeRue, Scott
& Ashford, 2010; Gioia, Price, Hamilton & Thomas, 2010; Lounsbury & Glynn, 2001; Navis & Glynn, 2011). For example, at
the individual level, Sveningsson and Alvesson (2003) emphasize that identity is central to meaning, motivation,
decision-making, and other activities that can be seen as critical for entrepreneurial action. At the rm level, Glynn and
her associates have done a number of studies of the process and effects of identity work vis a vis its external
Theories of individual and organizational transformations, along with those regarding entrepreneurial learning, thus
recognize that identity construction is an important part of creating entrepreneurs (Wigren, 2003). However, neither the
literature on entrepreneurial theory nor on entrepreneurship education has signicantly addressed the process of identity
construction over the course of an education nor how entrepreneurial identity work may be integrated with individual skill
and knowledge development. We aim here to ll this gap by addressing the following questions: how is an entrepreneurial
identity constructed through the process of new venture creation; and how can entrepreneurship education foster identity
Our article comprises a theoretical framework developed from the literature on entrepreneurial identity construction as
well as an empirical application of this framework to narrative data collected from an entrepreneurship education that
utilizes the learning through approach. Our Methodology Section describes the context, method and ndings of our case
study, and is then followed by a discussion and conclusions section.
The main theoretical contribution of this article is to the eld of entrepreneurship education. We build on theories about
entrepreneurial identity to explore what an action-based education can do to facilitate not only venture creation but also
entrepreneurial identity construction. In so doing, the article connects the separate elds of entrepreneurial learning and
492 A. Donnellon et al. / The International Journal of Management Education 12 (2014) 490e499

entrepreneurship education. Practically, we hope our ndings will foster the educational innovations that will develop
greater entrepreneurial competence and stimulate more entrepreneurial behavior and new venture creation.

2. Theoretical framework

2.1. Entrepreneurial identity construction

We conducted a literature search in the database Scopus, using two search terms: identity and entrepreneurship. The
search was limited to peer-reviewed journal articles in social science publications up to year ending 2012, resulting in 160
publications. The majority were published within the last two decades (with one exception), with more than half of the
articles published between 2008 and 2012.
It became evident through our review that much of the literature did not specically address how entrepreneurial identity
is constructed, but rather discussed description of the individual identity, or entrepreneurial identity associated to a rm,
industry or nation. Upon review of all 160 articles, we selected 24 that were relevant to our interest in the processes of
entrepreneurial identity construction. Through deeper analysis, we identied four main themes as contributing to this
phenomenon. Table 1 presents the articles organized according to four main themes. Next, we discuss the themes in detail,
including presenting suggestions from the literature towards application of identity construction in education.

2.1.1. Socialization and collectivity

One theme stemming from the literature is that entrepreneurial identity results from an individual's socialization, and can
be part of a collective identity. Professional identity develops in cultural context and social groups that individuals relate to
professionally, for example through professional norms. Education contributes to a collective identity development through
creation of a mindset during the entire schooling process, both in terms of subject content and learning style/method. For
example, in a study comparing students' values, Aaltio (2008) argues that the educational process by which identity is
constructed is relevant, but equally relevant is its content. According to Aaltio, the use of narratives, the stimulation of tacit
knowledge of the participants, collective sharing of experience and reecting on these experiences all support identity
building and therefore should be part of management education aiming to meet new economic circumstances.
Along the same line of reasoning, Shepherd and Haynie (2009a) discuss the challenge entrepreneurs face in balancing
between fullling a need for distinctness and having a sense of belonging in order to maintain psychological health (as studies
show that humans seek out both a sense of self through distinctiveness, but also have a psychological need of belonging). The
authors argue that for entrepreneurs, the risk is an imbalance towards distinctiveness is great, as this relates to the entre-
preneurial role associated with a new venture, which must be distinct. The authors suggest that the distinctiveness bias might
be balanced through micro-identities associating with other areas of the individual's life to facilitate a sense of belonging.

2.1.2. Strategic positioning

The second theme we identied is the strategic positioning that the individual undertakes as he/she claims the organi-
zational role of entrepreneur. For entrepreneurship students creating new ventures, the identity of entrepreneur develops

Table 1
Summary of selected literature.

Identity construction themes References

Socialization and collectivity Aaltio (2008)
Chand and Misra (2009)
Falck, Heblich and Luedermann (2010)
Obschonka, Goethner, Silbereisen, and Cantner (2012)
Rigg and O'Dwyer (2012)
Shepherd and Haynie (2009a, 2009b)
Wry, Lounsbury, and Glynn (2011)
Strategic positioning Essers and Benschop (2007)
Hytti (2005)
Jones and Spicer (2005)
Madsen, Neergaard, and Ullhi (2008)
Nadin (2007)
Visual and oral symbols Anderson and Warren (2011)
Boje and Smith (2010)
Clarke (2011)
Down and Warren (2008)
Smith (2011)
Storytelling Fletcher and Watson (2007)
Haynie and Shepherd (2011)
Harmeling (2011)
Jain, George, and Maltarich (2009)
Johansson (2004)
Rae (2005)
Steyaert (2007)
A. Donnellon et al. / The International Journal of Management Education 12 (2014) 490e499 493

over time as does the identity of the rm. Actions must be taken to legitimate the new venture among other stakeholders and
in the marketplace, and these actions also shape the evolving identity of the entrepreneurial individuals and their emergent
organizations. Consciously or not, these actions represent a strategic positioning of the self in the role (Jones & Spicer, 2005).
Rigg and O'Dwyer (2012) argue that the entrepreneurial aspect of human identity is emergent and relational and it is
developed through dialogue with family, customers, employees, suppliers, competitors and others. They illustrate how
mentor networks in the education program can stimulate the aspiring entrepreneurs' learning how to be, thus enabling
acquisition of status and identity. The authors argue that individuals learn the most when acting at the edge of familiarity.
The boundary of the familiar can be extended through the social interaction with mentor networks, including not only
verbal, but non-verbal contributions as well.

2.1.3. Visual and oral symbols

How do entrepreneurs persuade relevant stakeholders to become part of their venture despite a lack of tangible evidence
of competence? In attempting to legitimize their venture and convince others of the feasibility of their entrepreneurial idea,
entrepreneurs depend upon their own efcacy of symbolically employing speech and visual presentation.
Visual and oral symbols are also seen as contributing to entrepreneurial identity (Boje & Smith, 2010; Clarke, 2011; Down
& Warren, 2008; Smith, 2011). Clarke (2011) demonstrates how entrepreneurs use visual symbols to present an appropriate
scene to stakeholders, create professional identity and emphasize control/regulate emotions. Visual symbols used include:
setting e ofce furniture, space and external surroundings; props e pictures/paintings, displays of prototypes, framed patents/
historical documents; dress e formal or informal, to impact on audience; expressiveness e visually conveyed emotions or
thoughts through body or facial movements.
Oral symbols like cliches e a discursive means by which to explore the possibilities of incorporating new or otherwise
unfamiliar experiences into the individual's ontological narrative e are also used to secure entrepreneurial self-identity
(Down & Warren, 2008). The cliche d language, including elements such as risk, ambition, growth and control, is seen to
potentially evoke vivid imagery more safely.

2.1.4. Storytelling
Research on entrepreneurial identity emphasizes storytelling as an important part of identity construction (see e.g.
Fletcher & Watson, 2007; Harmeling, 2011; Hytti, 2005; Johansson, 2004; Rae, 2005; Steyaert, 2007). Harmeling (2011)
offers a conceptualization of the entrepreneurial identity construction process as re-storying, in which individuals un-
dertake to develop, maintain and exhibit both personal and social identities. (pg. 746). She argues that entrepreneurship
education can be an identity workspace where individuals can gain not only knowledge, but experiences including
development of self-narrative. Through studying the contrasting life stories of two entrepreneurs, Johansson (2004) argues
that storytelling is used to illustrate perceived and enacted windows of opportunities involving dialogues, which the
entrepreneur has both with himself and with others. Rigg and O'Dwyer (2012) illustrate ways in which the entrepreneur
negotiates dialogues and stories in interaction with critical others to legitimize the identity being constructed. It is through
such storytelling, and the associated negotiating and interaction with others, that the entrepreneur demonstrates entre-
preneurial experience gained.

2.1.5. Summarizing the themes

When reviewing literature addressing processes of entrepreneurial identity construction, the rst and perhaps obvious
observation is that identity construction happens over time (Falck et al., 2010), as individuals grapple both internally and
externally with the new identity. Internally, entrepreneurs, like all humans, struggle to nd the balance between their needs
for belonging and distinction (Madsen et al., 2008; Nadin, 2007; Rigg & O'Dwyer, 2012; Shepherd & Haynie, 2009a). They also
struggle to reconcile the personal and social tensions that come from having multiple micro-identities derived from their
belonging to multiple social groupings (family, religion, ethnicity, gender, race, etc) (Chand & Misra, 2009; Essers & Benschop,
2007; Hytti, 2005; Obschonka et al., 2012; Rigg & O'Dwyer 2012).
Entrepreneurial identity is constructed through engagement and inuence of peers (Falck et al., 2010; Obschonka et al.,
2012). Entrepreneurs negotiate with critical others to gain legitimacy (Clarke, 2011; Essers & Benschop, 2007; Nadin,
2007; Wry et al., 2011) as part of a socialization process and induction into a collective identity. The most commonly dis-
cussed means of constructing an entrepreneurial identity is through story-telling and narrative (Anderson & Warren, 2011;
Boje & Smith, 2010; Down & Warren, 2008; Fletcher & Watson, 2007; Johansson, 2004; Smith, 2011; Steyaert, 2007; Wry
et al., 2011). Storytelling and narrative are natural and valuable means for use in entrepreneurship education, as they
stimulate articulation of tacit knowledge from students and other participants. This verbal interaction and use of narrative
allows for collective sharing of experience and reection on experiences. These support the construction of an entrepre-
neurial identity, and will be discussed further in the nal section.
Examples from the articles also point to the relationship between the processes of entrepreneurial identity construction at
both the individual and rm levels. Boje and Smith (2010) found that the companies of entrepreneurs co-manufactured the
identities of their entrepreneurial-leaders by inter-mingling the corporate intentionality of the images and narratives with
fragments of direct discourse. The relationship between the individual and the rm is also discussed in Rae's (2005) model for
entrepreneurial learning, which includes the individual's personal and social emergence, contextual learning and negotiated
enterprise. Personal and social emergence come from learning about oneself which informs the development and testing of
494 A. Donnellon et al. / The International Journal of Management Education 12 (2014) 490e499

entrepreneurial identity. The contextual learning and negotiated enterprise continue the narrative development of identity,
but expands to include the story of the rm, not just the entrepreneur.
These articles represent the published knowledge about how entrepreneurial identity is constructed, and provide a
valuable foundation for theorizing about for entrepreneurial identity work that can develop and should be fostered within
entrepreneurship education. We use the theoretical framework to analyze entrepreneurial identity construction within an
action-based, venture creation program, seen as utilizing a learning through entrepreneurship approach.

3. Methodology

The case study relies on insider action research principles, which allow for the generation of new scientic knowledge
through the utilization of context-based insights while simultaneously enabling continual and additional capabilities within
the setting under investigation. First we will introduce the empirical setting of the case study in order to qualify the setting as
representative of a learning through approach to entrepreneurship education. Then we present the methods used for
collection and analysis of data relative to the theoretical framework developed from literature.

3.1. Setting e a venture creation education

The study investigates a venture creation program, in existence since 1997, at a technical university in Europe. The pro-
gram exemplies a learning through approach to entrepreneurship education. The two-year masters program, averaging 35
students per cohort, provides education and guidance, and engages students in actual venture creation during the second
year, with the objective to incorporate the venture if possible. The program collaborates with a specially designed pre-
incubator, dened as an early-stage business incubator, responsible for recruiting and contractually securing venture ideas
for the program as well as providing seed-nancing coupled with management support, and entrepreneurial role-sets
including mentors, researchers, advisors, etc. For each cohort, students are formed into teams of 2e3 and allocated a ven-
ture idea. Should ventures illustrate market viability, they are incorporated at the conclusion (or sometime thereafter) of the
education. Students [graduates] continuing with the incorporated venture after completion of the education have both an
equity share and employment position. As educators at the school, we have access to an empirical context deemed viable for
exploring identity construction.

3.2. New venture creation and entrepreneurial behavior outcomes

This program has experienced considerable success in producing entrepreneurial actors; outcomes that support our belief
that explanations beyond skill and knowledge must also be taken into account if we are to understand how to produce a
broader set of competencies. In the fourteen years of its existence through 2011, a total of 304 graduates have educated from
the program. A total of 148 ideas were incubated in the course of the education. As of end of 2011, a total of 50 companies had
been incorporated, of which 40 were still in existence, representing an 80% survival rate of incorporated ventures.
In addition to the measure of new venture creation, the program also demonstrates development of entrepreneurial
behavior (Lacke us, 2013). Alumni are found to be practicing entrepreneurship in many different capacities. For example, in
nearly all of the 50 incorporated ventures, at least one of the students involved during the educational period became a
founder-employee in the venture when incorporated. In addition, a number of other companies have been founded by
alumni, after graduation from the program. While this is more difcult to quantify because of the challenges of tracking
alumni over time, prominent examples have arisen, including an alumni company recently listed as one of the 33 hottest
young technical companies in the country in 2012, and another alumni, the CEO of an independently formed company, listed
as the 2012 Super-talent of the Year, in the nation's leading business journal. Finally, in a recent alumni survey, the majority
of respondents (total 121, thus representing 40% of the entire alumni base) identied themselves as working in an entre-
preneurial capacity. 64.3% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they had the knowledge, skill and experience
required to start a new business, and 88.4% agreed or strongly agreed that they had the knowledge, skill and experience
required to start a new initiative within an existing organization. Clearly, a collective entrepreneurial identity has been
fostered, as have individual identities. But what is the process by which these are constructed?

3.3. Data collection and analysis

Empirical data are routinely generated in this program as part of the educational enterprise and were available to be
sampled and analyzed to explore the process of constructing an entrepreneurial identity. Data come from several sources and
interactions that occur as a part of the educational design, including: student journal entries, structured faculty-student talks,
structured faculty-student team talks, and debrieng events. For the purpose of this article, data was selected from sources
collected between 2005 and 2013.
In the analysis for this paper, the theoretical framework of entrepreneurial identity construction was used, i.e. data was
selectively coded to gain insight into elements of socialization and collectivity, strategic positioning, visual and oral symbols
as well as storytelling that are naturally occurring in an action-based entrepreneurship education. The procedure of the
analysis followed two main steps: in the initial phase of analysis, the authors went through the transcripts and used open
A. Donnellon et al. / The International Journal of Management Education 12 (2014) 490e499 495

coding to nd excerpts where identity was at issue for further analysis as prescribed by Strauss and Corbin (1990). In the next
step of the analysis, the accounts were structured into the four themes of the theoretical framework in a process of axial
coding (Strauss and Corbin, 1990). See Table 2. The analysis involved two of the authors of this paper.

4. Identifying entrepreneurial identity construction themes in an educational setting

The excerpts provide illustrations of entrepreneurial identity construction. Within the action-based entrepreneurial ed-
ucation, students learn which activities are appreciated and associated with an entrepreneurial identity through feedback
from peers and other stakeholders. The language students' use and the way they interact with their stakeholders exemplify
s and symbols of entrepreneurship, the entrepreneurial role, the entrepreneurial team, and the entrepreneurial
stories, cliche
venture. They use these linguistic means to construct an identity for themselves, which they can then negotiate with others in
order to build legitimacy and recognition in the role they aspire to. In each excerpt, students produce visual images and
narratives as part of their process of creating the venture.
Excerpt 1, taken from a student journal entry, illustrates how a student perceives his role in the entrepreneurial team, and
how this shifts based on feedback from peers.
Excerpt 1 (student journal entry): we have been talking within the group about our roles and how we are perceived by
the others. This is something that I appreciate very much since I get to reect over what my group is telling me and then think
about it in action so to speak. One concrete example of this is how I act during meetings. I usually take a lot of space and talk a
lot and sometimes I feel like I should take a step back and let the others speak more. But my group members have now told me
that they appreciate that I can take the lead in meetings or in discussions. Today, Friday, we had a meeting with [Henry] and
after this meeting my group members told me that I was very good during this meeting by raising some important questions
and aspects and that they appreciated that I was not afraid of taking the discussion with experts within their own elds.
This was a very good experience for me and now I know that this side is appreciated even though I should think about when it
is suitable to use it more and when it is suitable to use it less.
Excerpt 1 is an example of entrepreneurial identity construction through visual and oral symbols (Boje & Smith, 2010) in
the way the student is acting by taking a lot of space when speaking to key stakeholders and on critical meetings, and then
socially secured by feedback from the team. Thus, the student is also working to both gain and then maintain legitimacy in the
desired role of entrepreneur (Somers, 1994; Williams Middleton, 2013).
In Excerpt 2, taken from a student-faculty development talk midway through the venture creation process, the student
describes how he and his teammates create a story of the management team, and then position themselves relative to other
key stakeholders. However, they do not actually accept the identity of the management team until they have engaged in
certain activities.
Excerpt 2 (faculty-student talk, mid-term): it's a question of how we, how we actually used our position as the man-
agement team the two, three last weeks of the project were like, we started to be the real management team. We started to
look up things, we started to actually call people, and paint our own picture of how the world looks, and not the researchers'
view of it. And then when we presented it at the board meeting, they were actually surprised, like: oh! And as [my
teammate] said, one of the idea providers actually said that: maybe, that's actually the world that youre supposed to go in,
but the research world is much different. And [we thought], okay, but we're not going to make any business in the research
world. And I feel like, okay, we're the management team. I agree with [my teammate], we were from the beginning. But
then again we weren't the management team because we didn't act [as] the management team until we started to critically
actually look and paint our own picture and how it was out there.
Excerpt 2 illustrates how students use dialogue and storytelling to constructing an identity as an entrepreneurial team.
Constructing the identity as the management team of the entrepreneurial rm is enabled through storytelling of actions as a
way to legitimize the identity, rst toward critical stakeholders of the venture, in the way that the business decisions are
presented, and then again in the retelling of the story to a faculty member as illustration of achieved and validated role of
management team, showing how mentors are used as means towards identity construction (Rigg & O'Dwyer, 2012).
Excerpt 3 is taken from a faculty discussion with an entrepreneurial team, midway through the venture creation process in
the education. The student uses symbolism to communicate the change process he has undergone, and how that changes the
way he presents himself to his friends outside the education.

Table 2
Axial coding of the descriptive excerpts.

Identity construction themes Excerpts

Socialization and collectivity 4, 5
Strategic positioning 1, 2, 3, 5
Visual and oral symbols 1, 3, 4
Storytelling 2, 3
496 A. Donnellon et al. / The International Journal of Management Education 12 (2014) 490e499

Excerpt 3 (faculty-student team talk, end of term): in the beginning, you pretended to be an entrepreneur, or you pretended
to be an owner of a project. You were telling [your friends] this and that. And now you can actually put it down in a couple of
words and say: this is what we do, and their like: oh. And that says a lot because in the beginning it was: this is what we
have, and this is what were going to do, and I feel more like an entrepreneur now than I did 4 months ago. I feel like okay,
now I can actually stand for the words, more or less. Sometimes you have to turn at the corner, and then you know you've
changed, but sometimes it's like the world goes like this (showing shifting motions), and all of a sudden you're here and you
know that you turned a corner, but you weren't aware of that when you did it, and when you look back [you see that] you did.
So it feels more like a process of that kind than a radical change.
Like excerpt 2, excerpt 3 illustrates how students use storytelling with their role-set (Harmeling, 2011; Navis & Glynn, 2011;
Nielsen & Lassen, 2012; Smith, 2011), which may include powerful actors, to illustrate and negotiate an entrepreneurial identity
(Williams Middleton, 2013), often by establishing and testing provisional identities (Ibarra,1999) through the emergent process
of the venture being formed. In addition to this, there is a useful distinction which can be made between the evolving capability
that occurs as a result of the context and challenges, compared to the intentional actions a student takes (or is prompted to take
by the education) to construct an entrepreneurial identity. Excerpt 3 starts out showing the latter, but also in the end also shows
the tacit competency development the student achieves through the process of interaction with the stakeholders.
In Excerpt 4, taken from a student journal entry, a student reects upon interactive seminars he/she has attended within
the educational environment where he/she was exposed to practing entrerpenurs.
Excerpt 4 (student journal entry): This week I have attended three presentations where entrepreneurs tell the story of their
life. The rst one was with [Andy] and he talked about his journey with a lot of focus on the important factors when it comes
to having a successful venture. I found his presentation to be very helpful in a way that it became clearer to me what role the
different individuals are supposed to have in a venture. I particularly liked the way he described the entrepreneurs as being
the ones in the driver seat contributing to the project with drive and enthusiasm. It kind of boosted me to even more, if
possible, try to convince our idea providers that we have the drive and ability to make this a successful venture. From the
other two presentations, [Olle and Martha], I tried to take notice of what words and expressions that caught my attention in
order for me to be able to sell myself and our idea. I tried to think about this during the mingle session
Excerpt 4 also exemplies how students use role models to help develop provisional identities for the role entrepreneur.
The students adopt referent power (Martin, 1978), building on the perception of an established entrepreneur, and adopt
words and expressions as the cliche s (Down & Warren, 2008) in order to help establish an entrepreneurial identity.
Excerpt 5 gives an example of a socialization process, where John's activities are translated through his teammates in order
to shape their own identities and that of their emerging venture.
Excerpt 5 (debrieng event): [John] was the core driving force behind Project Delta e there was no question of his
entrepreneurial drive and vigor for the progression of the project. He was quite talented in networking and bringing together
key personnel and really understanding the needs of making the business grow. However, he was so caught up in driving the
project that it was consuming him. He became increasing reliant on his team-mates, [Mary and Steve], to anchor his ac-
tivities, help him capture and organize in written and illustrative form the critical needs, next steps, and longer term ob-
jectives of the project. We had countless talks through the course of the education, both one-on-one and in a group about
how to attempt to balance activities, allow time for reection and summarization while at the same time increasing ef-
ciency and effectiveness of the project and educational activities.
For some students, it is difcult to separate the construction of the entrepreneurial role and the development of rm. John,
in excerpt 5, is dependent upon his teammates to help structure how he can effectively contribute to the emerging rm.
Delegation and organization of tasks potentially falls to different actors in the entrepreneurial team, creating a potential strain
between the individual and collective identity. This also illustrates the challenge of balancing between the individual
entrepreneurial identity and the development of the venture, as discussed by Shepherd and Haynie (Shepherd & Haynie,
2009a, 2009b).

5. Discussion and conclusion

This article seeks to explore how the process of entrepreneurial identity construction evolves in, and can be facilitated
through, an action-based entrepreneurship education approach. We argue that the construction of an entrepreneurial
identity is as critical a part of developing entrepreneurial competency as are skills and knowledge development, particularly if
the educational objective is learning for the practice of entrepreneurship.
It is clear that context is an important contributor to entrepreneurial identity, as it provides the social cues that inuence
the individual's sense of belonging and/or differentiation from their social groups. Context can also create social conicts as
individuals progress toward the new identity. Research reports that identity conicts associated with entrepreneurship occur
in some cultures and social groups, thus there may be a portion of students that struggle more around their developing
entrepreneurial identity within the educational setting. The students enter the education with at least one salient identity
(Stryker & Serpe, 1982), and likely vary in the degree to which their identities are shaped by their personal, psychological
make-up or their social afliations (Jain et al., 2009; Obschonka et al., 2012). Each person will likely confront his or her own
A. Donnellon et al. / The International Journal of Management Education 12 (2014) 490e499 497

internal dialogue about how the entrepreneurial identity ts with his or her social groups' expectations and demands. In
addition, each will have to engage in negotiations about the legitimacy of his/her entrepreneurial identity with these social
groups, and others.
An entrepreneurial identity is mainly associated to a professional role e that of the founder of a start-up company e but is
also inuenced by social norms about the personication of the role. Thus, construction of the entrepreneurial identity often
develops through interaction with critical stakeholders who can conrm or deny legitimacy claims (Williams Middleton,
2013). Even when focusing on the creation of the venture's identity, the importance of narrative and storytelling in one's
own identity work is strongly apparent in the case study.
In entrepreneurship education, there is potential for building student awareness of how certain episodes are important
from an identity construction perspective. Students could learn to recognize and utilize critical incidents/events to their
purpose, for example as symbols to be incorporated into the storytelling and negotiated narratives used to gain legitimacy.
Assignments that require student to reect upon, analyze, and discuss their evolving identities, group and personal conicts,
provide a space for them to use these experiences for their own learning (Aaltio, 2008; Harmeling, 2011; Rae, 2005). We
propose that educational experiences which call attention to critical incidents, label them as manageable, and provide op-
portunities for aspiring and acting entrepreneurs to reect on, prepare for, and negotiate around such experiences, can in-
crease ability to construct an entrepreneurial identity.
It is important to note that our empirical ndings stem from a setting with a learning through design, but not a specic
design oriented towards entrepreneurial identity construction. Still, the ndings illustrate that the means and need for
entrepreneurial identity construction develop as part of the engagement in creating a new venture, i.e. the learning through
approach. Thus, we argue that entrepreneurial identity construction can be facilitated using a learning through approach,
where construction of the organization (and the organizational identity) is done in parallel with the entrepreneurial identity.
Previous research has shown the connection between the individual entrepreneur and the rm (for example see Bruyat &
Julien, 2001; Fauchart & Gruber, 2011; Mugler, 1990), and building upon this we propose that within an action-based
entrepreneurship education, where learning through is the approach used, the identity construction of the individual and
the venture are often intertwined. The development of the story of the rm is constructed in parallel with the individual's
entrepreneurial identity, in that both the individual role and the concept of the rm are negotiated and legitimized through
interaction with signicant others, such as key stakeholders or shareholders. This intertwined identity construction is in part
based on the learning through approach of action-based entrepreneurship education which use the creation of a real-life
venture as the learning vessal. There is need to further research how action-based entrepreneurship education can and
should support joint construction of the individual identity of the entrepreneur and the organizational role of the venture
being found.
Entrepreneurial identity construction requires further investigation and discussion. It is pivotal for both faculty and
students of entrepreneurship educations to strategically work with identity construction as students transition into an
entrepreneurial career. Creating a learning space (Kolb & Kolb, 2005), including time for individual and collective storytelling
and reection, allows students, and surrounding stakeholders, to make sense of experiences in relation to entrepreneurial
identity construction. Suggested learning space settings already exist within various action-based entrepreneurship educa-
tions (Barr, Baker, Markham, & Kingon, 2009; Meyer, Aten, Krause, Metzger, & Holloway, 2011; Ollila & Williams Middleton,
2011; Rasmussen & Srheim, 2006), but these settings have not specically been investigated to explore how entrepreneurial
identity is constructed in situ during student tenure. For example, additional research needs to be done to investigate the
ways in which the three components of effectual space (Sarasvathy, 2008), associated with the decision making logic of expert
entrepreneurs through the theory of effectuation (Read, Wiltbank, & Sarasvathy, 2003; Sarasvathy, 2001), are or may be
incorporated in the learning space of action-based entrepreneurship education, and how this may impact identity con-
struction (Nielsen & Lassen, 2012). These are principles areas for future research.


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