What motivates innovative entrepreneurs: Money or altruism?

Hala Hanna

In today’s new world completely engulfed by COVID-19, all sorts of innovations are emerging to help the world overcome this difficult time: 3D printers are cranking out medical supplies; rapid advancements in testing have been made — now providing results in five minutes; teachers have transformed curricula to be taught entirely online. It’s humanity vs. the virus, and innovators around the world are acting as fast as they can.

Yet I was recently chatting with a leading Silicon Valley investor about what incentivizes entrepreneurship. To him — and his Silicon Valley peers — the answer was obvious: People are motivated to become heroes. Their ambition stems from an unquenchable thirst for being recognized as the victor and reaping the riches that come with it.

This view is troubling. It excludes many of the innovators responding to COVID-19 — people who are passionate about solving complex problems like poverty, public health issues or education. Working closely with over 100 global social entrepreneurs at MIT Solve, I’ve noticed a very different profile than the Silicon Valley hero. The entrepreneurs I know want to solve real problems — not become influencers or Netflix stars.

Take Luis Garza, Founder of Kinedu, an app that provides parents with tools to promote their child’s development. Working on a child care chain in Latin America, Garza could sense the anxiety that first-time caretakers felt when it came to raising a baby. He wanted to find a solution that would help everyone know what to do, and “feel like a good parent.” Since its founding, Kinedu has impacted 4 million lives, and now, in response to COVID-19, Kinedu is offering free subscriptions to any parent in need of support while they self-isolate at home.

A recent experiment measuring drivers of innovation we ran with Columbia Business School and Carnegie Mellon, points to the same conclusion: Not all entrepreneurs are motivated by fame and fortune. If we assume they are, we’re excluding those who aren’t — limiting opportunities for these “helper” entrepreneurs.

We emailed 11,000 innovators across 76 countries and asked them to apply to Solve’s Global Challenges. Global entrepreneurs can submit their business solutions to be selected for funding, mentorship and support. Each individual randomly received one of three messages: one emphasizing social impact, one emphasizing prize funding, and one neutral control message. We measured their email engagement to determine which messages resonated the most.

The findings convey that women are more driven by social impact, while men are more driven by funding. Country culture also matters; people in more altruistic cultures were more driven by social impact, while those in less altruistic cultures were more driven by funding.

To be truly inclusive — of gender, culture and background — we must be intentional in how we inspire and support entrepreneurs. We must speak to both instincts: the hero and the helper. But speaking a language that invites diverse participation is only the first step. Here are three guidelines for investors and supporters who want to intentionally motivate diverse innovators.

Lower entrepreneurship’s barrier to entry

Strip industry jargon from your application. Coach innovators to prepare for a pitch. Tailor your language to appeal to mission-driven innovators — not just money-driven innovators. These are all ways to make your program feel accessible to an innovator without an MBA or tech background — someone like Arturo Hernández, a comedian turned startup founder who created Supercívicos, an app whose 1.5 million users geolocalize urban challenges and crowdsource support for public officials to address them.

Expand the definition of a “promising” entrepreneur

When did we decide that hoodie-wearing founders building the next unicorn with “hockey stick growth” is the gold standard for promising ventures? What’s wrong with zebras? (They’re real; they have two-color stripes: for-profit and for-purpose; and they collaborate to survive). Nicole Bassett who co-founded The Renewal Workshop — which provides zero-waste, circular solutions for apparel and textile brands — is now part of the $51 billion secondhand clothes industry. She turned a new business model for recycling and upcycling clothing into a rapidly growing, for-profit startup, saving over 100,000 pounds of textiles from landfills while driving revenue.

Support beyond funding

While financing is a crucial part of launching a new venture, we must recognize that other resources such as technical expertise or mentorship are just as important to social entrepreneurs. Founders that are mentored by a top-performing entrepreneur are three times more likely to lead top-performing companies themselves. Consider Ram Katamaraja, creator of Refactored.ai, a data and analytics skills training platform. He needed marketing and branding support to scale and notes that a mentor “made what could have been a turbulent and intimidating process gratifying and extremely productive.” Refactored.ai has upskilled more than 6,000 users.

If we don’t expand our understanding of a promising entrepreneur, lower the barrier to entry to our programs and provide tailored support, then we will ignore many of the game-changing ideas that will get us through this pandemic — and ultimately, leave big problems unsolved and large communities unserved.

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