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Rice University research finds certain cognitive factors appear in the minds of entrepreneurs

Does your brain have the right components to be an entrepreneur? Getty Images

The entrepreneur strides into a room of potential backers. Swathed in understated grey, she walks with assurance and chats in the cool, easy-going cadences of the leaders she plans to woo. But will an approach like this really affect the fate of her startup? And if not, what will?

A literature review by Rice Business professor Robert E. Hoskisson and colleagues Jeffry Covin of Indiana University, Henk W. Volberda of Erasmus University and Richard A. Johnson of Arnold & Porter offers clues to a vast range of questions about the entrepreneurs' trade. It also outlines where research still falls short. What, for example, most influences a startup founder's success? Is entrepreneurial triumph driven by innate ability or acquired skill? What's the role of factors such as regulatory structures or an entrepreneur's own work environment?

Traditional research, Hoskisson and his associates note, makes it clear that certain cognitive factors really do differentiate people who start new ventures from their more staid counterparts. And recent scholarship has traced how individual entrepreneurs decide to launch their startups and how they spot entrepreneurial opportunities. Still unclear, though, is whether entrepreneurs think differently overall, possess innate qualities that lend themselves to entrepreneurship or somehow become catalyzed by the entrepreneurial role itself.

More research could help answer those questions. Research is also needed to pinpoint exactly how the best entrepreneurs express their plans in order to sound legitimate enough to earn funding and support, Hoskisson's group says. What the scholarship does show is that that the grey-clad entrepreneur with the easygoing patter knows what she's doing: symbolic language, gestures and visual symbols all help create professional identity, emphasize control and regulate the emotions of a viewer. Setting, props, style of dress and expressiveness all count, and the more experienced the entrepreneur the more props she uses.

At the same time, no unified model fully explains how successful entrepreneurs gain their funding. Models range from the hyper-rational analysis offered by game theory to a stimulus-response model in which people react as if they're marionettes. Other mysteries include how the entrepreneurship impulse arises, how it shapes innovation and competitive advantage and how it is translated in individual actions and interactions. More research in these areas, says Hoskisson, would help not only entrepreneurs in the eternal quest for funding, but also the understanding of how to nurture human potential.

Examining institutional differences among countries and how that affects entrepreneurship is also ripe for study. So far, entrepreneurship research has focused on individual attributes. But there's a need, Hoskisson and his colleagues say, for scholars to connect the dots between startup success and political environments, rule of law, regulation and entrepreneurship.

The same goes for work on diverse contexts in emerging economies. In transition economies, China being one example, networks create political and social capital that allows special access and legitimacy. On the other hand, in those same countries ponderous bureaucracies and basic resource limitations can hamper entrepreneurial projects. Detailed understanding of such cultures will only get more urgent as ventures in emerging economies increase and companies that are "born global" proliferate.

Also on the research to-do list about entrepreneurs: the chances of securing funding in given emerging economies and the power — or frailty — of their intellectual property laws. Regulation, especially, plays a pivotal role in these countries, Hoskisson writes. The lighter the regulation, the more entrepreneurship flourishes, according to one study of 54 countries. On the other hand, countries blessed with a strong rule of law offer entrepreneurs more opportunities for strategic entry.

Understanding the entrepreneurial mind, and its interaction with the material world, isn't simple. Consider the late Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot's plan to send gifts to all POWs in Vietnam during the height of the Vietnam War. Unsurprisingly, the Vietnamese government announced that a gift delivery was impossible while Americans were bombing the country. Undeterred, Perot offered to rebuild anything the Americans had bombed. Rebuffed again, Perot chartered a plane to Moscow, instructing aides to deposit the Christmas presents, one by one, at Moscow post offices, addressed to Hanoi.

Amusing as it can be to hear about such entrepreneurial gumption, it may be even more useful to study entrepreneurship systematically. Not everyone can have an entrepreneur's brain, Hoskisson's review of research suggests, but good scholarship might be able to teach people how to walk the walk.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Robert E. Hoskisson is the George R. Brown Emeritus Professor of Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

Firms looking to expand globally need to ensure that their organizational resources are adaptable to new markets. Getty Images

When foreigners invest in emerging markets, the prospect for those markets' local businesses looks bright. The payoffs for a country's companies can range from injections of foreign capital to better managerial talent, technological sophistication and international know-how. But does foreign investment ever push local firms to venture into international projects of their own?

Rice Business professor Haiyang Li looked closely at the ripple effects of foreign investments, and concluded it all depends on the local businesses' adaptability. That — and their appetite for risk.

Together with Xiwei Yi of Peking University and Geng Cui of Lingan University, Hong Kong, Li launched a large-scale study of Chinese manufacturers to better understand how multinational investment in domestic companies influences the global market.

The subject was ripe for analysis. Over the past decade, more and more companies in China and other emerging markets have been testing the waters of direct investment in other countries in sectors as varied as food and beverages, apparel, electronics and transportation equipment.

Li's team hypothesized that these emerging market companies were leveraging benefits that foreign investment had ferried into their home markets. This investment, the researchers theorized, had brought in useful resources and skills, which helped ease the local companies into international business markets.

To confirm this, the team needed to test whether the converse was true: Might information gained from foreign investors actually dull a local firm's interest in branching out overseas? Maybe the risks of that type of venture — which are higher for firms in emerging markets — would seem too stark.

To find out, the researchers first vetted the literature on inward and outward investment activities. How, they wanted to know, did domestic firms interact with foreign players in the technology or product importing process? In equipment manufacturing? In franchising and licensing, mergers and acquisitions and activities such as setting up subsidiaries?

Working with a global research company, Li and his colleagues next surveyed 1,500 Chinese businesses in the food, clothing, electronics and vehicle industries. (Firms in finance, banking, natural resources and business services were ruled out because of their government ties, and also because such organizations usually use fewer resources, which made them harder to evaluate.)

Each company that took part in the survey rated how much they engaged with foreign investors in activities such as importing products and services or forming joint ventures. They also indicated if dealing with foreign direct investment had brought them foreign capital, advanced manufacturing know-how, managerial experience or competitive insight into overseas business.

The researchers also measured the "fungibility" of these firms' resources — in other words, how easily could their organizational, cultural and technological resources be adapted to various geographical settings?

Finally, managers rated how risk-prone they thought their firms were.

After Li and his coauthors processed the answers, they found several links between foreign investment in domestic firms and local companies' internationalization efforts.

First, there was a positive relationship between the local gains from foreign investment and a firm's interest in internationalization projects. While this effect was indirect, it was amplified when foreign investment gave a firm new capabilities that made it more adaptable. In other words, the Chinese companies whose contact with foreign multinationals made them more adaptable in general were better positioned to prosper in ventures abroad.

This stands to reason, the researchers note. That's because by its very nature foreign investment sparks awareness of new opportunities: every business trip, plant visit or negotiation with foreign partners is a hands-on lesson in international trade.

But the researchers also uncovered a significant downside to foreign investment for local Chinese firms. When a project was considered high-risk, such as a merger or establishment of a wholly owned subsidiary, the local firms were less prone to venture abroad. This adverse effect was worse for firms that labeled themselves risk-averse, probably because exposure to foreign investors only made the risks of internationalizing clearer.

These findings add important detail to the way foreign investment can affect their local partners' own international plans — for good and ill. Already, businesses in emerging markets are used to optimizing resources, wrangling diverse idioms and artisans and adapting logistically to get their products to market. That nimbleness, Li and his colleagues propose, should also be seen as a globalization tool. For businesses in emerging markets, the researchers conclude, day-to-day technical ability is actually less important than cultural and organizational flexibility — and applying lessons learned from foreign investors to their own projects abroad.

In other words, for firms in emerging markets, globalization is not just a path to new markets. It's a way to study interactions with foreign firms while on their home turf – and learn how to apply those lessons abroad.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Haiyang Li is Area Coordinator and Professor of Strategic Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.