The Construction of Entrepreneurial Identity during Pre-Venture Formation

Cherisse Hoyte, Hannah Noke

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Identities, people’s subjectively construed understandings of who they are and desire to become, are key to understanding and explaining almost everything that happens in and around organizations (Brown, 2015). Identity defines and gives meaning to an entity (e.g., Corley et al., 2006) and under conditions of uncertainty or ambiguity (McMullen & Shepherd, 2006), takes on heightened importance, functioning as a device for sensemaking (Weber & Glynn, 2006; Weick, 1995). Despite a growing interest in matters of identity in organizational studies, researchers know relatively little about how identities are formed among those who carry out some highly critical organizational functions (Pratt et al., 2006). New venture creation is a specific type of organization where the nascent entrepreneur carries out critical organizational functions such as, idea generation, opportunity recognition and new venture creation (Katz & Gartner, 1988). Identity is thus, important in entrepreneurship; especially in early stages when new venture ideas are fragile and nascent entrepreneurs are vulnerable to liabilities of newness (Aldrich & Fiol, 1994). Despite literature (e.g. Lounsbury & Glynn, 2001; Martens et al., 2007; Navis & Glynn, 2010, 2011; Fauchart et al., 2011) that suggests identity changes accompany new venture creation, the process by which identity evolves remains under explained (Ibarra, 1999).
Applicability to the conference theme – ‘Research, policy and practice:Collaboration in a disparate world’
Identity pervades and is embedded in the process of new venture creation at three levels of analysis—the founder (individual level), the proposed new venture (organizational level), and the focal, institutional (market level) sector (Navis & Glynn, 2011; Gartner, 1985). “Who an entrepreneur is” is therefore, both an individual and a social construction. This is because individual identities are constituted out of a process of interaction (Weick, 1995). The development of entrepreneurial identity is visible through the narrative construction of the entrepreneurial journey, and what the entrepreneur does and who they collaborate with is an important part of ‘becoming’ and acting as an entrepreneur in society (Rae, 2007). Consequently, the paper is linked to the conference theme through the exploration of the interactional processes occurring during new venture creation, which may shape entrepreneurial identity.
In this paper, we seek to build on calls (e.g. Cardon et al., 2009) for a greater specification of identity in entrepreneurship by conceptualizing and mapping entrepreneurial identity (individual and organizational) as it unfolds during the nascent entrepreneurial process. The aim of the paper is to connect the entrepreneurship, sensemaking and identity literatures by exploring the following research question: how nascent entrepreneurs construct their entrepreneurial identity during pre-venture formation. Starting a new venture requires the entrepreneur to “develop a vision or mental model of how the environment works and then be able to communicate with others and gain their support” (Hill & Levenhagen, 1995:1057; Gioia & Chittipeddi, 1991). Part of developing this vision or mental model involves establishing an identity (Hill & Levenhagen, 1995). Nascent entrepreneurs begin to construct an entrepreneurial identity individually, collectively (e.g., as a team) and as an organization by asking questions about “who they are, why they are qualified, what they want to do, and why they think they will succeed” (Lounsbury & Glynn, 2001:550) and then attempt to make this identity plausible to others. While there is burgeoning literature on the role of identities in entrepreneurship (e.g. Navis & Glynn, 2011; Lounsbury & Glynn, 2001; Martens, Jennings, & Jennings, 2007), less research has been directed at understanding how an entrepreneur makes sense of both individual and organizational identity and develops that identity alongside the development of new venture ideas. Consequently, we have only a partial understanding of the process of venture emergence and one that neglects in particular, the identity-process associated to the transition between being a nascent entrepreneur and founding a new venture. In this paper, we propose a framework of the identity-process associated to the transition between being a nascent entrepreneur and founding a new venture. 
To explore identity dynamics of ‘becoming’ an entrepreneur, a constructivist epistemology and case study methodology was adopted (Cunliffe, 2011; Yin, 2017). We draw on case study evidence from three student entrepreneurs working with venture ideas in a business incubator. This is an apposite context to study entrepreneurial identity formation as the incubation environment provides time and space for students to allocate a portion of their “identity work” (Jenkins, 2008) to experimenting with the social identities associated with an entrepreneur. We draw on this context to understand the period of transition, beginning with the venture idea, and then following the actions and events as the student entrepreneurs make sense of their identity alongside the development of venture ideas and the specific identity formation processes they undergo.
In developing our arguments, we make two contributions. First, we identify the specific identity-process through which entrepreneurs create an entrepreneurial identity to legitimate their entrepreneurial enactments. The framework we develop provides further insight into the role of identity in the entrepreneurial process, having both theoretical and practical relevance. Second, we frame entrepreneurship as a site of identity creation and interpretation, to which scarce attention has been paid to in the identity literature as a visible instance of identity work.  
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 8 Nov 2018
EventInstitute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship 41st Annual Conference: Research, policy and practice: Collaboration in a disparate world - Crowne Plaza, Birmingham, United Kingdom
Duration: 7 Nov 20188 Nov 2018
Conference number: 41


ConferenceInstitute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship 41st Annual Conference
Abbreviated titleISBE
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


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