Navigating our Entrepreneurial Society

”I think it would be immoral to teach entrepreneurship as a simple recipe for success only, disregarding all its complexities.”

Name: Karin Berglund
Title: Professor in business with a specialization in entrepreneurship

Could you please tell us who you are and what you do?
I’m professor Karin Berglund and a researcher and teacher at Stockholm Business School and SSES.

What’s your background and what’s your connection with SSES?
Ten years ago I was recruited as center director of Stockholm School of Entrepreneurship at Stockholm School of Business. When I was promoted to Professor my colleague Jessica Lindbergh took over as Centre Director. Before my employment at SBS, and joining SSES, I defended my thesis at Mälardalen University, and was awarded a scholarship for my thesis. For three years this gave me the opportunity to travel to different universities, researching the area of entrepreneurship from different perspectives.

Can you tell us about the thesis?
The thesis was called ”The hunt for Entrepreneurs – On openings and closures in the entrepreneurship discourse”. I was doing my fieldwork following a European Union project with the ambition to create a more equal society. Entrepreneurship in that project was more aligned with what social entrepreneurship is today. But at the time social entrepreneurship was a budding concept, so I conceptualized it in another way. In this project, entrepreneurship was not only about creating profit and economic growth but also about creating social cohesion. In that sense, the thesis showed how entrepreneurship was used in a broader way than only referring to business making.

So how come you had that focus on entrepreneurship?
I was struggling to understand the concept empirically. At the time I realized that entrepreneurship theory could not help me to understand what was going on. Instead, I used social science theories as discourse theory, narrative theory, governmentality. This is also how I have approached entrepreneurship; as an empirical phenomenon that takes on different shapes in different contexts. I think we as researchers ought to study what entrepreneurship becomes in a particular context and the consequences of such becomings; not only how we could have more of it. Many people argue that we live in an entrepreneurial society. But, what does that mean? How can we think about that kind of society? And what does that kind of society do to us as members of it and to our ability to solve different problems? These are questions my research revolves around.

How has your view of entrepreneurship evolved?
I’m interested in how entrepreneurship is shaped in our society, and how that shapes us. To provide a bigger picture I can think of William Baumol’s studies of entrepreneurial shifts in history, going back to the Roman and Greek societies to trace the concept of entrepreneurship over time. Baumol argues that depending on what kind of rules were set for entrepreneurship, it takes on different forms and will have different effects. It may be constructive in one society and destructive in another. If we think about entrepreneurship as something fixed, then we lose our ability to be entrepreneurial. It boils down to the question ”What kind of entrepreneurship would be constructive for our society?” and thus; “How do we want to be entrepreneurial?” This is also what I want to convey to my students. That they can be entrepreneurial in different ways.

What are the benefits and challenges of interdisciplinarity in the classroom?
It’s a benefit in the sense that it creates dynamic discussions. Students start to question their basic assumptions, and often that evolves into an intellectual dialogue, spurred by students’ experiences and curiosity. When it comes to challenges, the main one is to assess their work. Because different schools have different ways of assessing.

Do you see any challenges in student collaboration?
Of course, there are challenges. But I see them as learning opportunities. I find such tensions, when you come from different backgrounds, more fruitful. Comparing with my other classes, I find that at SSES there’s a kind of collaborative learning. The students are creative and they find ways to collaborate in the courses. What I have found over the years is that the students that apply for our courses are truly interested in these topics. They often have social and political interests, eager to understand the impact of entrepreneurship in other parts of the world or the impact of entrepreneurship on social inclusion, and I think they want to leverage their practices from the course and take it with them to their different professions.

What does it mean to be entrepreneurial? Is it important?
It depends on how you define it. Do you define it as starting up a company, often thought of as something unique, done once in a lifetime, swimming (as Joseph Schumpeter described it) against the stream? Or is it something that is expected of us, as a part of a society where you’re supposed to be entrepreneurial? But then, are you entrepreneurial in the same sense? Are we swimming against the stream or with it? It depends on the context. A colleague of mine, Bengt Johannesson, has the idea that this is part of human activity. To be more proactive, more creative, to do things that we are not expected to do. If I had to define it and not let the empirical context define it, this is where I’d go.

You let the empirical context define it?
I’d like to go further back historically, to the enlightenment and the idea of the autonomous individual, and trace how we came to think of ourselves as autonomous. I’m also thinking of Descartes and his idea of the autonomous mind ”I think, therefore, I am”. That gave birth to something that I today would call the entrepreneurial self. This view of humans is something we take for granted in our society. I think it would be impossible to be non-entrepreneurial in this society and still make it. We are expected to solve things ourselves and to rely less on the societal structures that have been built over time. This is the kind of complexity that I want to both unfold in my research but also to be able to teach to my students. I think it would be immoral to teach entrepreneurship as a simple recipe for success only, disregarding all its complexities. So, yes, my research is empirically driven, but with an understanding of the complexities, to see entrepreneurship as something which has changed over time.

So in one context, it’s entrepreneurs starting companies, and in another, it’s a set of tools?
Entrepreneurship today has become the language of a particular person. A strong person that’s always right and can make everything into a dream. It’s a very strong narrative, and I think these ideas we want to hold on to. Although many find it difficult to relate to this ideal, we tend to strive for it. It is as if it’s better to have that as a kind of hope, although there’s a very small chance that you make it. But what if that dream is delusional? Of course, you need to talk to your students about this and to shift perspectives. Sometimes it’s about feeling vulnerable. Sometimes it’s about having to speak the truth although the entrepreneurship discourse invites us to slide between truth or false when we create stories around an idea. This is also something we need to address with students.

The power of illusion? That the vision becomes the truth over time?
You bring up a very important aspect of entrepreneurship, which is storytelling. That is often what entrepreneurs do. They become good at telling stories to the extent that sometimes they paint themselves into a corner. I’m thinking about Theranos. This was a start-up company in Silicon Valley. The founder got a lot of attention and support, having an idea of making blood tests more accessible for citizens so that we could have our blood test machine at home. That was a fantastic idea because we could check our health ourselves, instead of spending a lot of money on health care. They received a lot of funding, but their machine didn’t work. But they nevertheless grew into a multibillion-dollar company, trying to bring this innovation to the market. By pretending that the blood tests came from their machines, they could continue, but in reality they used the traditional laboratories to compile the tests. So, we can think about story-telling as follows: If you start telling a narrative to yourself, you start to live that narrative. Soon, others also tell these stories and it may be difficult to ‘correct’ them; thus to tell the truth. This indicates that the autonomous entrepreneurial being is not as autonomous as we first thought he or she would be.

Is ”entrepreneurship” a male word?
Yes. If we go to the Enlightenment and the idea of the autonomous, it was a man. Women were seen as irrational and emotional. We have only just started today to see each other as equals. And we still have different ways of talking and thus thinking about what women and men are like. We need to challenge that, and see that men and women share a lot of traits. If we go back in history, we only have stories about men starting companies, and we tend to forget that they lived in a historical context where women, for different reasons, were not allowed to be business owners. Such prejudices are built into structures and are propagated in our way to talk and think about entrepreneurship.

Is that why we today talk about different kinds of entrepreneurship?
I believe that’s connecting to our wish for more entrepreneurship; more freedom. I think it can be seen as the creative destruction of entrepreneurship. The concept has been criticized heavily and has been extended into different versions. This has more to do with how society has changed. That we live in a society where ideas about individual freedom and the market dominate. With that comes a set of ideas for how to solve the big challenges. The idea is that companies will lead the way, and not the state. If we think about the environmental problems for instance, going back to the 1960s and 1970s, companies were seen as the enemies of creating a green environment. Today we see companies as a solution for creating a green transformation. So, entrepreneurship has become the logic that we attach to problem-solving no matter what context that is addressed.

What do you think differentiates you the most from your peers, Whether educators or researchers?
I don’t know. I think we are sharing the same ideas about entrepreneurship and the need to teach entrepreneurship in alternative ways. I wouldn’t say that there is so much that differentiates me from my colleagues at SBS. I think we’re all curious, we want to do research, we like to meet students and to have a dialogue with them. I think that we all share the idea of learning from students. Well, one difference could be that I was the first to be recruited to SBS as an entrepreneurship scholar.
If I think about my colleagues, a research community has emerged around a more sociological understanding of entrepreneurship. And I think I fit very well there. We have built a research network with close colleagues and have connections with researchers in Europe, but also overseas. We recently had a workshop with a Canadian research team and I think they share our view of entrepreneurship and the need to teach it in alternative ways.

What part of your professional journey do you think was atypical uncommon or rare?
To follow a project ethnographically and to view entrepreneurship as an empirical phenomenon, was atypical at the time. And to elaborate with theories like understanding the power dimensions of entrepreneurship and the gender dimensions of entrepreneurship. I think I’m more mainstream today, in particular in the field that has emerged in organization studies with an interest in entrepreneurship. Being atypical is how you push knowledge.

In what ways are you an outlier?
I would not position myself as an outlier. As a researcher, that would perhaps be a bit depressing, because no one would read your work. And no one would engage with you.
I’m experimenting with different theories and new contexts to follow what entrepreneurship turns into. At the moment, I’m working with philosopher Jonna Bornemark’s concepts, which are helpful to unfold entrepreneurship as resistance.

How does entrepreneurship at the Stockholm University differ from other institutions, like KMH or KTH?
I would say we have a more sociological understanding of the concept. I think that it is also the uniqueness of the SSES context. The variation between the different universities involved, and how we can shed light on this concept from different perspectives. We are sensing entrepreneurship differently in the different schools, which makes SSES such a unique and rich context. When I was center director for SSES, I stressed the need for us to appreciate the variation of how we develop knowledge about this and how we teach students about entrepreneurship.

If you could conduct an experiment in entrepreneurship, what kind would that be?
I’m thinking about Saras Sarasvathy’s idea about effectuation and causation. She uses the metaphor of cooking. Either you’re following a recipe, or you use what you have at hand. I think that we’re part of that kind of experiment at the moment. I think that was what we witnessed last spring when we were hit by the pandemic because suddenly, we didn’t have a recipe. Instead, we are facing a lot of crises that we can learn from.
Perhaps I would do a more psychological experiment, done in a small way in an environment to see how people start to learn when facing a crisis, where they cannot know the outcome. How do they develop practices in such a situation? What I could see when studying hospital staff during the pandemic was how they suddenly forgot that there was a recipe, because there were a lot of patients coming in, and they had to take care of them. That made them work more as a team, relying on the resources at hand.

What are your hopes for the future?
Talking about the future of our unit, I would say it’s to continue to work in the way we have, to create knowledge within this area, to continue to meet students and to have the dialogue going. To explore if entrepreneurship can be taught in other ways.
In society, I hope we will be able to see the societal shifts where we no longer understand all expressions of entrepreneurship as beneficial, but that we need to be more critical and understand that it may not always provide us with a solution. Instead, regain our ability to talk about structures to create links to our understandings of entrepreneurship as an individual phenomenon. I also hope we can develop our ability to understand ourselves in relation to the unknown, and at the same time continue to act and to make decisions. Although it may feel uncomfortable, that is what I want to give my students. And that is what I also hope that other scholars and other teachers will give to their students.