Costello College of Business leads the way in entrepreneurship research

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*This article was originally published in the January 2024 edition of Impact magazine.

The college that now bears Donald G. Costello’s name is a fitting testament to his entrepreneurial legacy. This extends not only to coursework and outreach programs, which have long stressed entrepreneurship, but also to the faculty’s research expertise. Indeed, a number of Costello College of Business professors were key contributors to George Mason University's being named the #2 university for entrepreneurship research in North America by independent ratings agency EduRank.

Here are just a few examples of researchers who have made meaningful contributions to the field in recent years:

Mahesh Joshi
Mahesh Joshi

Associate Professor, Management

Mahesh Joshi’s more than 30 peer-reviewed publications mostly focus on fostering qualities and skills essential to entrepreneurial success, both within and outside large organizations. 
For Joshi, good entrepreneurs are primarily defined by how they think and what they do. Start-up founders and small business owners share a problem-solving skill set with change agents working in big corporations.

“For long-term success of corporations or start-ups, every person has to think like a change agent,” Joshi says. “And that change agent’s approach comes through understanding certain variables like risk-taking, innovativeness, and how to handle the political situation whether you have autonomy or not. And if we do that, we are building the whole toolkit of corporate entrepreneurship or regular entrepreneurship.”

For example, Joshi’s co-authored 2015 paper in Decision Sciences elaborates on the delicate balance between proactiveness and innovativeness within technology-based services firms. With too much proactive change agency, strategy execution (which contributes to innovativeness) suffers. Joshi found that a formalized organizational structure can moderate the tensions between these two factors, while helping firms reap more innovative benefits from risk-taking.

Most recently, Joshi has been looking at how entrepreneurship education can be most effective in driving students’ behavior once they graduate, especially for groups that have been historically excluded from entrepreneurship. His co-authored 2022 paper in Journal of Enterprising Communities suggested a new potential method to narrow the well-established gap in “entrepreneurial intention” between male and female students. He found that for entrepreneurship students from four universities in India, entrepreneurial intention was linked to a sense of career-readiness. Where that sense was present, the gender gap in intention disappeared.

Career readiness (“a proxy for confidence,” as Joshi terms it) is emotional and subjective, and is not something that can be learned from a book. Therefore, Joshi advises policymakers and pedagogues, “Just classroom education is not enough…If educators want to create an entrepreneurial mindset free of gender bias, they have to create an environment where there are co-curricular activities like pitch competitions and site visits.”

Toyah Miller
Toyah Miller

Professor, Management
Serving as research director for the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Toyah Miller is a leading thinker in the burgeoning field of social entrepreneurship research. Where the standard entrepreneur strives simply to maximize profit, social entrepreneurs attempt to solve a difficult social problem while keeping their business viable. Miller’s published research delves into the unique motivations and challenges involved in social entrepreneurship.

In a 2013 paper for Academy of Management Review, Miller theorized that compassion and caring served as a joint catalyst for social entrepreneurship activity, and thus not all entrepreneurs fit the mold of rationally self-interested businesspeople. Although her view validates entrepreneurs seeking to make the world a better place, it also suggests that the primacy of “heart over head” could lead social entrepreneurs to take on undue business risks. 

In an ongoing research study, Miller looks at how the idealism of entrepreneurs affects their crowdfunding pitches to potential investors. Surveying more than 200 Kickstarter creators, she finds that idealistic creators posted fewer informative updates on their campaign pages, and as a result were less likely to get funded. In Miller’s view, this provides yet more evidence of heart-based entrepreneurs making sub-optimal choices, in this case by overestimating potential backers’ willingness to help and underestimating their need to be convinced.

Cognitive biases such as idealism are not limited to entrepreneurs. Another one of Miller’s in-progress studies examines the types of feedback given to start-up founders within accelerators and incubators. Generally, entrepreneurs were more likely to take negative feedback on board when it came with concrete recommendations. When feedback was more abstract, urging change with no specific alternative mentioned, it was less influential on decision-making. Therefore, the framing of feedback could, in some cases, make the difference between success and failure for entrepreneurs whose venture is in need of a pivot.

Heather Vough
Heather Vough

Associate Professor, Management
One of Heather Vough’s chief research specialties is professional identity. Her 2023 paper for Academy of Management Discoveries considers the effects of entrepreneurship’s cultural centrality—as reflected in hit shows such as Shark Tank and movies like Wolf of Wall Street—upon actual practitioners’ sense of themselves.

Through multiple rounds of exhaustive interviews with 29 entrepreneurs from North America and Australia, the authors discovered that while founders readily self-identify as entrepreneurs, they are reluctant to present themselves as such in social situations. Instead, they will use substitute self-descriptors such as job titles or company names—basically, anything except “entrepreneur.”

Analyzing interview responses alongside existing research on professional identity, the authors posit that founders decline to call themselves “entrepreneurs” because: a) they fear they would be misunderstood; and/or b) they believe the label would make them seem unrelatable to nonentrepreneurs. In other words, the cultural and economic emphasis on entrepreneurship has backfired to an extent. By flooding the zone with misleading or ambiguous impressions (e.g., entrepreneurs are all rich Silicon Valley “bros”), entrepreneurship’s exponents have inadvertently turned the term into a social liability.