Babson Entrepreneur Experience Lab

Elements of the Entrepreneur Experience


What's in a Name?

For entrepreneurial activity to increase, it’s critical that people see the role of the entrepreneur as a viable path and an attainable possibility for themselves. Common stereotypes of entrepreneurship–white, male, tech-centric, VC-backed, and high-growth–crop up again and again. In this version, entrepreneurship seems out of reach for many. Most people know this isn’t the whole story, but see few other representative experiences to identify with. In the absence of visible alternatives, some adapt and express themselves through current systems and languages, while others struggle to find identities and communities that support their roles and ventures. 


  1. How can we reflect and leverage the true diversity of entrepreneur identity without resorting to stereotypes?

  2. What stories and tools can we develop to help more people in a variety of work contexts see entrepreneurship as a path?

  3. How can we create more useful descriptions that empower rather than isolate social entrepreneurs?

  4. How can we build support around entrepreneur’s diverse motivations and entry points?

No single definition

No single definition


Mike identifies as a number of different roles, and feels that entrepreneurship is a way of looking at the world.


According to Bijoy, entrepreneurs create new business models; that is their role and ultimate goal.


Even after starting his first venture, Rich still doesn't feel 100% like an entrepreneur.


Lara describes her definition of entrepreneur.


Brian's definition of being a founder is someone who can easily switch between many roles.


Bennett thinks good business is finding solution to a problem, and that 80% of time spent thinking is of new opportunities.

The question “What is an Entrepreneur?” seems deceptively simple. But getting insight into people’s values and beliefs about this core question is incredibly important if we hope to help more people choose entrepreneurship as a path. Even among communities of self-identified entrepreneurs, there are no clear definitions expressing, what exactly, an entrepreneur is or who they consider to be one. For many, the term ‘entrepreneur’ connotes ideas of risk, creativity, ownership and leadership, and the drive to start and build new things. But, ‘founder,’ entrepreneur,’ ‘CEO,’ and ‘small business owner’ are all terms used interchangeably or in combination to capture different aspects of entrepreneurship. For instance, when asked to explain what the title ‘entrepreneur’ meant to them, participants came back with a wide range of responses. One said that it’s a person who “owns many businesses or investments that make money for them;” another said “a creator of new things;” one felt the term should be reserved only for those bringing innovation to the marketplace; a few felt the title has lost meaning through overuse; and yet another said that “entrepreneur for me is more a state of mind; a way of thinking through things.” And when participants were asked to select the term that best describes their role, the results were incredibly varied with just as many people choosing the term founder over entrepreneur to denote the difference between developing an idea and taking it into production.

Identities, not Identity

Identities, not Identity


Meg describes herself and her venture differently depending on who she's talking to.

Despite the lack of definition (or possibly due to it), crafting an identity requires learning how to navigate the identity politics at work in the entrepreneur experience. People carefully construct different identities to gain credibility and acceptance into different communities critical for marshalling resources and support around an entrepreneurial endeavor. For many entrepreneurs, it’s not a matter of a single identity but rather a set of overlapping identities that are used in different situations. On one hand, defining oneself a particular way can open doors. If you state you’re an entrepreneur, you might be more likely to gain access to classes at the local incubator. But identity can also close down options–if you state you’re a social entrepreneur, you may not be able to access resources at the local tech-centric incubator, even if you would in fact benefit from those resources.

Joy, who founded a consulting firm focused on social innovation, describes it by saying that some days she wakes up as a small business owner, some days she’s a woman entrepreneur, other days she’s a social entrepreneur, and some days she’s just a working mom. While all these roles capture some aspects of her experience, how she chooses to describe herself depends largely on who she’s talking with and what resources she’s seeking. Another entrepreneur, Meg, has a similar experience where she tailors the description of herself and her venture in accordance to her audience. In some cases, she finds it best to describe herself as a small business owner and in other cases as the founder of a web-based marketplace for ideas and tools. In both of these examples, communicating different identities and gaining acceptance into different communities is a critical tool for developing social capital and access to resources. 

Entry Points

Entry Points


Coming from the world of nonprofits and public health, entrepreneurship was off Meg's radar for a long time; she only recently came to entrepreneurship as a means to accomplish multiple goals.


Kevin's team first came together around a shared longing to create social good; the particular idea came later.


Jimmy never wanted to work for anyone else, and was influenced by his family to take an entrepreneurial path.


At his university, Alex said it was impossible to ignore the "Entrepreneurship Train."

Mike and Seth

Mike and Seth wanted to start a venture but couldn't come up with a good idea, so they bought a business instead.


Diane believes entrepreneurship is the opportunity to build the company you want to work for.


Kerry started his business because he wanted to feel empowered to help people. At his other job, he had too little control.


Sabrina wanted to create a more positive work environment for herself.


Pete had a serendipitous journey in starting his first venture.

How do people get started in the first place? There are two primary ways that people first start down the entrepreneurial path. Many begin with the desire to be an entrepreneur and then go searching for an idea that will help them realize that ambition. People who want to be their own boss or have more control over their lives, who want to work with a specific team, or who want to build the company they always wanted to work for fall into this group. As an entry point, this group identifies strongly as entrepreneurs.

Others begin with an idea and slowly find their way to an entrepreneur identity. This group includes people who are trying to solve a particular problem, who stumble across an idea, who want to answer a question like “why can’t I do ‘X,’” who make a discovery while tinkering with technology or realize they’re making more money on their side projects. For this group, building identity is less straightforward and they tend to identify more with their industry or core subject area.

These aren’t hard and fast divisions, and, once on the path, these two groups converge very quickly. For instance, Laura, a single Mom and business owner who had no intentions to be an entrepreneur, stumbled across an idea that she literally couldn’t quit—an online marketplace for Twitter tools. First, she tried to sell the idea and her consulting firm to another company. When that didn’t work, she spent months trying to ignore the idea. Finally, she had to give in. She took the plunge—announced the venture, hunted for resources, and applied to a local accelerator program.

Social Entrepreneur Identity Crisis

Social Entrepreneur Identity Crisis


Meg talks about her choice of going for-profit in the funding environment, and how it affects the perception of her business to potential investors.


Kevin discusses the conflict of for and not-for-profit status.


Tom gives his definition of social entrepreneurship.


Tom believes Social Entrepreneurship has an identity crisis.

Perhaps no one is experiencing identity confusion and conflict more acutely than people in the social entrepreneurship space. What was once a clear distinction between for-profit (ventures creating economic value) and not-for-profit (ventures creating social value) is fast disappearing.  In the past, identifying oneself as a not-for-profit established genuineness within the philanthropic community by signaling commitment to the creation of social value over turning a profit. It also made it difficult to be taken seriously by the broader entrepreneur and business community. One non-profit founder said that when he told people at business conferences that he ran a nonprofit they treated him like he had some sort of handicap.

Today, social entrepreneurs can choose for-profit status as well, but the choice can leave them adrift on both sides—where identifying as a for-profit social venture often undermines their social credibility and the availability and access to philanthropic support resources, it also creates equal disadvantage with funders and support resources who cannot qualify the social venture along well-established for-profit evaluation categories and criteria.

This identity crisis can also be a major source of tension for individuals and within teams. When Kevin, Robbie, and their two founding partners initially launched their travel abroad program as a nonprofit, establishing the importance of the social-mission was paramount and they wanted access to the world of nonprofit funding and grants that they were familiar with. However, from the beginning the Atlanta team wanted to run a self-sustaining business and quickly found the nonprofit status limiting.  The decision to transition towards a for-profit business model was tough for the close knit team—some felt they were abandoning their credibility, others saw the potential of bringing their mission to more people. Tom, another social entrepreneur in Atlanta, ran into great difficulty signing on partners to help his charitable meals venture get off the ground. Non-profit groups did not want to associate themselves with a for-profit organization. To realize his idea, Tom eventually felt he had to donate the nascent venture to a non-profit so they could get the funding and necessary resources.