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The Person in Social Entrepreneurship:
A Systematic Review of Research on the Social Entrepreneurial Personality
Aston University, Aston Business School, firstname.lastname@example.org &
University of Sheffield, Management School, email@example.com
Stephan, U. & Drencheva, A. (2017, in press). The person in social entrepreneurship: A
systematic review of research on the social entrepreneurial personality, In G.
Ahmetoglu, T. Chamorro-Premuzic, B. Klinger, & T. Karcisky (Eds.), The Wiley
Handbook of Entrepreneurship. Chichester: John Wiley.
We present a systematic review of 50 empirical studies on the social entrepreneurial
personality. We aim to answer ‘who social entrepreneurs are’ to help understand why certain
individuals but not others create social ventures and persist in their choice. The review
findings reveal a focus on four distinct aspects of personality: motivations, traits, identities,
and skills; and are based on three approaches: describing the personality of social
entrepreneurs, comparing them to another group, and relating personality aspects to outcomes
such as strategic choices or performance. The findings offer a multi-dimensional and refined
account of who social entrepreneurs are. Social entrepreneurs are simultaneously driven by a
range of motivations and values which include but are not limited to prosocial concerns.
Certain extrinsic and intrinsic motivations are shared by commercial and social entrepreneurs.
Social and commercial entrepreneurs also seem to exhibit similar ‘entrepreneurial’
personality traits and benefit equally from transformational leadership skills. Emerging
research points to further distinct ‘social traits’ and identities. Important avenues for future
research include paying attention to heterogeneity among types of social entrepreneurs,
encouraging more theory-based research, research relating personality to personal and
venture-level outcomes, research that considers more dynamic and contextualized
perspectives, as well as research on a potential dark side of the social entrepreneurial
Keywords: Social entrepreneurship, personality, identity, motives, values, traits, leadership,
skills, abilities, human capital
Acknowledgement: The first author acknowledges financial support provided by the
European Union through its Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological
development, and demonstration under the grant agreement 217622 (SELUSI project), which
supported initial work on this chapter.
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Social entrepreneurs are individuals who start, lead, and manage organizations that seek to
create social value by addressing societal challenges such as environmental degradation, ill-
health or social exclusion (Mair & Martí, 2006). Policy makers increasingly hail social
entrepreneurship as a tool to address societal challenges in novel ways and to alleviate strains
on government welfare budgets1. Academics’ interest in social entrepreneurship has grown
dramatically over the past two decades as evident in a rising number of publications,
including empirical studies (Gras, Moss, & Lumpkin, 2014; Short, Moss, & Lumpkin, 2009).
Consequently, reviews of the social entrepreneurship literature no longer focus on mapping
the entire field and definitional concerns (Dacin, Dacin, & Matear, 2010), but concentrate on
specific areas of inquiry such as the tensions inherent in hybrid organizing (Battilana & Lee,
2014). No review has yet systematized what we know and do not know about the personality
of social entrepreneurs, including their values, motives, traits, identities, and skills. As
research into social entrepreneurship matures, it is important to take stock of what we know
about the individuals involved in it.
Research on the ‘social entrepreneurial personality’ to date is dispersed and seen by
some as a niche area. This may be a reaction to early practitioner accounts of ‘heroic’ social
entrepreneurs who ingeniously overcome a multitude of obstacles (Bornstein, 2004;
Leadbeater, 1997). Or it may be a reflection of the wider debate about the relevance of
personality for entrepreneurship (Gartner, 1989; Rauch & Frese, 2007). After decades of
debate, several meta-analyses now provide robust evidence that ‘personality matters’ for
business creation and the success of commercial entrepreneurs (for an overview see Frese &
Gielnik 2014). As any behavior, entrepreneurial action can be understood as a result of
1 Examples are the European Commission’s “Social Business Initiative” (European Commission, 2014), or
financial support to the sector, for example, through the creation of Big Society Capital by the UK government
and the White House’ Social Innovation Fund in U.S.A..
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individual and situational factors – of both structure and agency (Davidsson, 2015). Thus, a
‘personality’ lens draws attention to stable character differences between individuals and can
help to understand one of the key individual factors at play in social entrepreneurial activity.
We suggest that a personality lens can provide an important perspective on why
certain individuals but not others create social ventures and persist in their choice. While we
do not propose that such inter-individual differences alone explain entrepreneurial behavior,
nor that they are the most important determinants of entrepreneurial behavior, applying
Attraction-Selection-Attrition (ASA) theory (Baron, Franklin, & Hmieleski, 2016; Schneider,
1987) to social entrepreneurship can help us understand the role of inter-individual
differences. ASA theory outlines that individuals are attracted to specific occupational
choices (such as starting a social enterprise) because they perceive their personality
characteristics, motivations, and skills to align with the requirements of that occupational
choice. They then self-select into this career if they find they have indeed the required
motivations, traits, and skills. Others may reinforce this selection because they similarly
perceive such a fit (e.g., social investors or social enterprise support organizations providing
finance and support to an individual whom they see as having the potential to be a social
entrepreneur). Yet being a social entrepreneur may involve different requirements than the
individual originally thought, and hence they may withdraw form their choice (the attrition
In this systematic review, we take stock of research on the personality of social
entrepreneurs to encourage an evidence-based discussion of what might constitute a ‘social
entrepreneurial personality’ and to stimulate future research. By outlining what we know and
what we do not know about the person in social entrepreneurship, we seek to map particularly
fruitful areas for future research. The review findings offer a refined account of ‘who’ social
entrepreneurs are – moving beyond simply equating social entrepreneurship with prosocial
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motivation. They shed light on the multitude of motivations at play in social
entrepreneurship, on differences and similarities with commercial entrepreneurs, and suggest
important heterogeneity within the population of social entrepreneurs that is typically
overlooked in research to date.
Before presenting the findings of our review, we define social entrepreneurship and
personality. We then characterize the review method and present the findings of the review.
We conclude by outlining avenues for future research.
2. Theoretical Background
2.1. Social Entrepreneurship
For the purpose of this review, we defined social entrepreneurs as individuals who lead and
manage organizations that seek to create social value by addressing societal challenges such
as environmental degradation, ill-health or social exclusion. We thus opt for a broad
definition of a social entrepreneur emphasizing the goal to create social value (Mair & Martí,
2006). This is in line with occupational definitions of entrepreneurship, which include as
entrepreneurs those who lead and manage an organization, or are self-employed (cf.
Gorgievski & Stephan 2016). Our definition recognizes that social entrepreneurship can be
realized either through commercial or non-profit ventures (Mair & Martí, 2006). We feel
such a broad definition is useful as empirical research on social entrepreneurship is still in a
relatively nascent stage. We hope future reviews may be able to define social entrepreneurs
more narrowly emphasizing social value creation through market-based activities (Stephan,
Patterson, Kelly, & Mair, 2016) and ‘new entry’, e.g., the creation of a new organization or
market (Davidsson, 2016).
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The term ‘personality’ is often used inconsistently in the literature and has been associated
with motives, values, traits, and skills, and even socio-demographic indicators. Based on
extant theory in personality and social psychology, we differentiate four aspects of
‘personality’. Characteristic of all aspects of personality is that they describe the tendency or
disposition of an individual to behave in a relatively consistent manner across a range of
different situations and over time (Mischel, 2004).
First, individuals exhibit differences in their motivation, i.e., what they find important
and energizes their behavior. Broad differences in motivations are captured by human values,
which refer to abstract and enduring life goals (Schwartz, 2012). They influence especially
deliberate and thoughtful actions; whereas traits (see below) are more closely related to
typical every-day and spontaneous behavior (Roccas, Sagiv, Schwartz, & Knafo, 2002).
Specific motivations are described by constructs such as motives for entrepreneurship.
Second, in the trait perspective, personality describes differences between individuals
in patterns of feeling, thinking, and behavior. General and specific traits may be
differentiated. An example for the former are the Big Five personality traits (Goldberg,
1990). Specific traits typically associated with entrepreneurial behavior are proactivity, self-
efficacy, and creativity/innovativeness (Frese & Gielnik, 2014).
Third, the identity perspective highlights that individuals differ in their sense of self
and how they see themselves. Identity is related to the roles that individuals fulfil or take on
(e.g., as a leader at work, a social change activist, or a mother at home) and the social groups
they feel they belong to (Hogg & Terry, 2000; Stets & Burke, 2000; Tajfel & Turner, 1986).
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Fourth, individuals show stable differences in their skills, which are related to typical
patterns of performing. Specific skills such as leadership and managerial skills have been
highlighted as particularly relevant for social entrepreneurs (Thompson, Alvy, & Lees, 2000).
Our review retrieved studies speaking to each one of these four perspectives on
personality. We present them clustered by these perspectives.
3. Review approach and overview of the reviewed studies
We conducted literature searches using Web of Science covering sources published between
1970 and February 2016. We searched for the following keywords in titles, abstracts and
keywords of papers: one set of keywords specified social entrepreneur (“social entrepreneur”,
“sustainab* entrepreneur”, “social venture”, “social enterprise”, non-profit, or not-for-profit)
and was combined with a second set of keywords specifying personality (personality or trait
or motiv*). This yielded 606 search results, which we coded for inclusion in the review based
on reading the title and abstract of each paper. We complemented these results with (1)
Google Scholar searches for which we scanned and coded the first 100 results, (2) searching
the references of papers included in the review, and (3) scanning the table of contents of
leading entrepreneurship journals (Journal of Business Venturing, Entrepreneurship Theory
and Practice). We also set up search alerts in Web of Science, which allowed us to include
new studies published between February and September 2016.
Our coding identified a set of 50 papers that studied aspects of the social entrepreneurial
personality. We included only empirical studies as our aim is to provide an overview of the
existing evidence-base on the social entrepreneurial personality. With regard to the specific
aspect of personality under investigation, our dataset included 37 papers presenting findings
on motivation, 14 on traits, 4 on identity, and 6 on skills, especially leadership skills. Nine
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papers included findings relevant to more than one aspect of personality. We classified
studies based on the actual measures of personality that they employed and their conceptual
fit with the four personality aspects presented above. At times this diverged from how the
authors had framed a study.
With regard to the research approach, most studies utilized a cross-sectional (38 papers)
or a retrospective design (8 papers), with three longitudinal studies and two (quasi-)
experimental studies2. Most findings were based on quantitative approaches (64 percent),
while the 16 qualitative studies included case study designs, grounded theory, thematic, and
narrative approaches. There were also two studies with mixed-method designs. We see three
approaches: (1) research focusing on describing or mapping personality aspects of a sample
of social entrepreneurs (21 studies), (2) comparing the personality of a sample of social
entrepreneurs with another group (e.g. commercial entrepreneurs or the general population)
(18 studies), (3) relating personality aspects to social entrepreneurship intentions or activity
in a non-social entrepreneur sample (e.g., general population, students, commercial
entrepreneurs) (12 studies). Our review suggests that the investigation of social
entrepreneurs’ personality is gaining momentum as evidenced by the fact that the majority of
the studies are published after 2010. Recent studies pay increasing attention to motivations
and skills and consider multiple personality aspects in combination.
4. Review findings
The review findings are summarized in Table 1.
--[insert Table 1 about here]—
2 Total number is higher than 50 as one paper reported findings from a cross-sectional and a quasi-experimental
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Motivation is the aspect of social entrepreneur personality that received most research
attention (37 sources). Fourteen sources explored general motivational tendencies through
values, motives, and vocational interests. These studies were predominantly conducted as
theory-based quantitative survey research. The majority of publications (23 sources)
examined specific motives for engaging in social entrepreneurship. Research on specific
motives contained roughly equal shares of qualitative, explorative, and quantitative research.
4.1.1. General values, motives, interests
At their most general level, stable motivational tendencies are based on individuals’ values.
Four publications used the Schwartz’ theory of human values, which has been widely
validated across 80 cultures and different research paradigms (Schwartz, 2012). One
publication used the precursor to Schwartz’ theory, the Rokeach value theory (Rokeach,
1973). The findings of these studies suggest that social entrepreneurs attribute great
importance to other-oriented, prosocial values (self-transcendence values) and openness to
change values (self-direction and stimulation, Bargsted et al. 2013; Egri & Herman 2000;
Diaz & Rodriguez 2003; Stephan et al. 2010). Social entrepreneurs tended to endorse
prosocial values more strongly than commercial entrepreneurs and employees, whilst at the
same time de-emphasizing self-interested values (self-enhancement). However, openness to
change values appear to be similarly important to social and commercial entrepreneurs, and
were more important to both types of entrepreneurs compared to employees (e.g., in
population-representative samples, Stephan,Huysentruyt & Van Looy, 2010). A similar
pattern was observed for a study that investigated general entrepreneurial and social
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entrepreneurial intentions in a Spanish population sample. Although unexpectedly prosocial
values were also positively related to general entrepreneurial intentions, while conservation
values (the opposite of openness to change values) were positively related to social
entrepreneurial intentions (Sastre-Castillo, Peris-Ortiz, & Danvila-Del Valle, 2015).
Three studies investigated different types of values. One study found social
entrepreneurs to be more likely to hold liberal political values compared to non-social
entrepreneurs in a general population panel (Van Ryzin, Grossman, DiPadova-Stocks, &
Bergrud, 2009). Two studies investigated pro-environmental values. One study found pro-
environmental values associated ‘with radical environmentalist philosophies’ to be more
strongly endorsed by leaders of environmental non-profit compared to environmental for-
profit organizations (Egri & Herman 2000, p.593). The other study provided intriguing
evidence from a conjoint experiment on the conditions (low self-efficacy, hostile market
environments) under which entrepreneurs may exploit environmentally harmful business
opportunities and thus act on opportunities that are diametrically opposed to their pro-
environmental values (Shepherd, Patzelt, & Baron, 2013).
Two further studies related values to outcomes apart from business opportunity
exploitation. Stevens, Moray, Bruneel and Clarysse (2015b) found that social entrepreneurs’
prosocial values correlate with a stronger emphasis on social goals for the organizations they
lead. Stephan et al. (2010) related social entrepreneurs’ prosocial and openness to change
values to the type and quality of ideas they generate in an innovation challenge.
Three studies investigated general motivational drives as conceptualized in
McClelland’s and Murray’s work on motives3 (McClelland, 1987). Two studies found that
social compared to commercial entrepreneurs are characterized by lower need for
3 We note that the motives, especially need for achievement, have also been treated as specific traits in the
literature. We felt it most appropriate to present them as motivational concepts as they represent general goals
(e.g. high performance) that give direction to behavior – consistent with the definition of motivation.
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achievement (De Hoogh et al., 2005; Diaz & Rodriguez, 2003), while one study found no
difference between the two groups (Smith, Bell, & Watts, 2014). Social compared to
commercial entrepreneurs were also characterized by a higher need for autonomy (Smith et
al., 2014). In the most robust study in this set (De Hoogh et al., 2005), social entrepreneurs
(non-profit leaders) further exhibited similar power motivation compared to commercial
entrepreneurs, but stronger affiliation (the need to relate to others in a positive way) and
responsibility (a prosocial, moral motive) motives.
One study examined interests as set out in Holland’s theory of vocational interest, a
key theory in career psychology (Almeida, Ahmetoglu, & Chamorro-Premuzic, 2014). In a
convenience sample of the general population, social entrepreneurial activity correlated with
social vocational interest (e.g., characterized by an interest to help others, provide care and
nurture). While no particular dimension of interests corresponded to general entrepreneurial
activity, artistic interests correlated with invention-oriented entrepreneurial activity.
Taken together the studies on general motivation support the intuitive assumption that
social entrepreneurs are characterized by strong prosocial values or responsibility motives
and share with commercial entrepreneurs the desire to seek out new situations and
independence (e.g. as captured by openness to change values or need for autonomy).
Evidence on whether social entrepreneurs also share the entrepreneurial drive for
achievement and power (e.g. self-enhancement values, power and achievement motives) was
more mixed, but generally suggested that social entrepreneurs score lower in this domain
compared to commercial entrepreneurs. This in turn may hamper the growth and scaling of
the ventures that they lead. Interestingly studies that measured both prosocial and self-
interested values found that these correlate at zero at the individual level (Stephan et al.,
2010; Stevens, Moray, & Bruneel, 2015a). This suggests that there is no immediate trade-off
between the values that underpin prosocial and growth-oriented behavior, although the same
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may not hold at the organizational level for the venture (Brown, McDonald, & Smith, 2013;
Diochon & Anderson, 2011; Stevens et al., 2015a)4.
Studies investigating general motivation built more so than studies in other streams on
established theory and more often employed robust research designs including validated
measures and statistical analyses that control for confounds and correlation among measures,
as well as larger samples. Studies that move beyond documenting mean differences and relate
motivations to venture performance and personal outcomes for the social entrepreneur remain
scarce, similar to studies that contextualize the effect of values. Yet such research can help to
build a fuller understanding of why, how, and when motivations may matter in social
4.1.2. Specific motives
Studies on specific motives typically focus on mapping these motives in a sample of social
entrepreneurs, and less frequently compare them with commercial entrepreneurs or other
samples. They employ both qualitative and quantitative approaches, which means that insight
on social entrepreneurial motives stems from thematic analyses of open-ended interview
answers by researchers, as well as from social entrepreneur self-reports in response to
specific motivation questions.
Either type of study reveals that there is substantial heterogeneity in social
entrepreneurs’ motives, that is, a range of different and co-existing motives drive social
entrepreneurs’ actions (Allen & Malin, 2008; Braga, Proença, & Ferreira, 2014; Cohen &
Peachey, 2015; Lukes & Stephan, 2012; Ross, Mitchell, & May, 2012; Seiz & Schwab,
4 The way values or organizational goals are measured appears to play an important role too. Existing measures
of organizational goals for instance often force trade-offs, e.g. by assigning 100 points across different social or
economic values (Lepoutre, Justo, Terjesen, & Bosma, 2013; Stevens et al., 2015a).
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1992b; Tigu, Iorgulescu, Ravar, & Lile, 2015; Yitshaki & Kropp, 2016). All but five studies5
corroborated the importance of prosocial motives (helping others, creating a better life for
future generations, a passion to give and change lives, etc.) for social entrepreneurs to start
their ventures. Typically, prosocial motives were combined with intrinsic motives such as
interest and passion for the work, profession or craft that a social entrepreneur engages in.
Dissatisfaction with prior work and the opportunity to be independent also played a role.
Extrinsic motives, especially financial motives and reputation, were considered
almost equally as often as prosocial motives. Many studies suggested the extrinsic motives
were less important to social entrepreneurs than prosocial motives, yet they still played a role
in motivating their actions both to start a business and to continue leading it (e.g., Lukes &
Stephan 2012; Seiz & Schwab 1992b; Greco et al. 2014; Koe et al. 2014). One study
exploring the day-to-day work motivations found that intrinsic and extrinsic motivations co-
existed (Chen, 2014).
Some studies suggested that within a sample of social entrepreneurs, the consideration
of the relative balance of extrinsic/financial and prosocial motives can help to distinguish
different types of social entrepreneurs (Campin, Barraket, & Luke, 2013; Migliore, Schifani,
Romeo, Hashem, & Cembalo, 2015; Ruskin, Seymour, & Webster, 2016). Indeed, several in-
depth studies mentioned at least one social entrepreneur who was primarily extrinsically
motivated by financial gain (Ross et al. 2012; Tigu et al. 2015; Wong & Tang 2006). Two of
these studies suggested that being a social entrepreneur and seeing the positive impact of their
work led to changes in motivation towards greater emphasis of prosocial aspects and the
social mission (Parris & McInnis-Bowers, 2014; Tigu et al., 2015).
5These are (Chen, 2012, 2014; Chen & Bozeman, 2013; Wong & Tang, 2006; Yiu et al., 2014).
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A number of studies pointed to the importance of context and personal experience for
the motivation to start a social venture. This ranged from personal experience with a social
need, e.g., experience of a traumatic event, lack of care for own elderly parent, visit to
impoverished areas in childhood (Cohen & Peachey, 2015; Shumate, Atouba, Cooper, &
Pilny, 2014; Wong & Tang, 2006; Yitshaki & Kropp, 2016), to relevant work experience in a
specific industry sector, and supportive contexts in terms of role models, family traditions of
volunteering, and fiscal incentives (Braga et al., 2014; Greco et al., 2014; Shumate et al.,
2014; Wong & Tang, 2006). A study of commercial entrepreneurs in China suggested that
reputational concerns and personal experience of disadvantage enhanced the likelihood that
these entrepreneurs engaged in social entrepreneurial activities (Yiu, Wan, Ng, Chen, & Jun
Su, 2014). One study explored what may be a possible mechanism through which context and
personal experiences influence prosocial and self-interested, extrinsic motivations to set up a
social enterprise. Specifically Ruskin et al.'s (2016) qualitative research suggested that the
repeated experience of self- or other-oriented emotions (e.g., passion and frustration or
empathy and sympathy) acts as precursor to developing self- and other-regarding
entrepreneurial motives. This aligns with conceptual arguments made by Miller et al. (2012).
Studies that compared motives of social and commercial entrepreneurs found the
expected differences but also similarities. Social compared to commercial entrepreneurs were
more likely to report to be driven by prosocial motives, while the opposite was true for
extrinsic (especially financial) motives (Campin et al., 2013; Lukes & Stephan, 2012;
Migliore et al., 2015). Yet there were also similarities in the emphasis put on intrinsic
motivations such as work enjoyment, desire to be creative and to perform well (Lukes &
Three studies compared motives of social entrepreneurs and employees in the same
industry sector. One study suggested that social entrepreneurs hold to a higher degree
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‘entrepreneurial’ motives (independence and income) than employees. They also exhibited
stronger motivations to help their clients with psychological problems, but held lower general
prosocial motivations to help the poor than their employed counterparts (Seiz & Schwab,
1992b). Two papers, seemingly based on the same study, investigated the day-to-day work
motivations of social entrepreneurs (non-profit leaders) compared to managers in the public
sector (Chen, 2012; Chen & Bozeman, 2013). Drawing on self-determination theory (Ryan &
Deci, 2000), they found that social entrepreneurs experienced relatively higher levels of
intrinsic and lower levels of extrinsic motivation and amotivation. Social entrepreneurs also
reported lower public service motivation and experienced generally higher levels of work
satisfaction than employed managers in government organizations (Chen, 2012).
With regard to the consequences of motives, studies investigated the success in
creating a venture, venture survival, choice of legal structure for the venture, and the personal
work satisfaction of the entrepreneur. A longitudinal study based on the U.S. Panel Study of
Entrepreneurial Dynamics found that entrepreneurs who reported prosocial motives at the
beginning of the start-up process were less likely to have succeeded in creating an
organization four years later compared to those reporting financial motives (Renko, 2013).
The odds for the social entrepreneurs’ succeeding in creating their organization were further
lowered when they also engaged in innovation. In a Spanish study, social compared to
commercial entrepreneurs did not differ in the likelihood with which their ventures survived
three and six years after they were started (Simón-Moya, Revuelto-Taboada, & Ribeiro-
Soriano, 2012). Necessity- as opposed to opportunity-motivated commercial entrepreneurs
had lower survival rates, but there were no differences between necessity- and opportunity-
motivated social entrepreneurs. The relative strength of prosocial and extrinsic motives was
linked to the choice of legal form (for-profit vs. non-profit) for fair trade social entrepreneurs
(Child, Witesman, & Braudt, 2015). However, personal work histories and experience of
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previous work in the non-profit vs. for-profit sector appeared to be further influences on the
choice of legal form. With regard to the satisfaction that social entrepreneurs derive from
their work, intrinsic work motivations showed generally positive and extrinsic motivations
negative relationships (Chen, 2014).
Overall, existing research has mapped both quantitatively and qualitatively the
motives driving social entrepreneurs. Whilst prosocial motives are a key impetus for social
entrepreneurs to start and lead their ventures, it is also clear that motivational explanations
centering solely on these motives will fall short of providing a realistic account of why
individuals pursue social entrepreneurial activity. Existing research shows that multiple
motives are at work. Owing to the explorative nature of much of the research on motives, a
conceptual framework to make sense of the multiple motives is still lacking. However
research on general motivations reviewed in section 4.1.1. suggests that content theories of
motivation such as Schwartz’ theory of human values may offer useful guidance in terms of
the type of motives to investigate and to conceptualize potential tensions between different
motives. In addition, process theories of motivation such as self-determination theory (Ryan
& Deci, 2000) may be useful guides for understanding how and why motivations may change
over time or sustained by ongoing work at the social venture.
Some of the more surprising insights of existing research on social entrepreneurial
motivation are arguably (1) findings of change of motivation over time, implying the need to
differentiate start-up from continuance or ongoing work motivation, (2) the finding that
prosocial start-up motivations may be associated with a lower likelihood of creating an
operational venture; as well as (3) findings highlighting the importance of context – external,
place-based and social context, as well as personal biographical context. This calls for future
research to adopt more process-based and contextualized research approaches and to explore
situational triggers (cf. Shumate et al. 2014) that lead individuals to act on longstanding
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motivations and values. This echoes developments on research on entrepreneurial motivation
more generally (Carsrud & Brännback, 2011; Stephan, Hart, Mickiewicz, & Drews, 2015).
Of the 14 studies that explored personality traits all did so in a cross-sectional research
design. Except for one study, all research was quantitative, survey-based. Two studies
explored general traits (the Big Five). Most studies (80 percent) focused on specific
‘entrepreneurial’ traits. However, the traits that were included under this label varied
considerably across studies. In addition, five studies included what could be seen as traits
specific to social entrepreneurship (see Table 1 for an overview).
Over half of the studies explored mean differences in the level of traits between social
entrepreneurs and other samples from commercial entrepreneurs to volunteers or social
activists to the general population. The pattern of results indicates that the comparison group
matters. Trait differences between social and commercial entrepreneurs appear to be much
less pronounced compared to differences between social entrepreneurs and other groups.
More specifically, of the two studies investigating the general Big Five personality traits, one
suggested that social entrepreneurs show higher levels of extraversion compared to a general
population sample (U.S. Civic Panel, Van Ryzin et al. 2009), while the other study found that
social and commercial entrepreneurs did not differ significantly on these traits (openness,
conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, Lukes & Stephan 2012).
With regard to differences in specific ‘entrepreneurial’ traits the findings are more
complex. Three studies compared social entrepreneurs to the general public, those in wage
employment in the same sectors, or other groups of volunteers and philanthropists (Bargsted
et al., 2013; Praszkier, Nowak, & Zablocka-Bursa, 2009; Seiz & Schwab, 1992a). These
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studies suggest that social entrepreneurs are characterized by higher levels of entrepreneurial
traits such as entrepreneurial self-efficacy, risk-taking, persistence, and optimism. Findings
for internal locus of control were mixed and varied depending on the specific comparison
Studies comparing commercial and social entrepreneurs tend to find few differences
and suggest that both types of entrepreneurs share ‘entrepreneurial traits’. The two types of
entrepreneurs seem to exhibit similar levels of general and entrepreneurial self-efficacy, risk
taking, internal locus of control, fear of failure, personal initiative, and willingness to take
responsibility (Bacq, Hartog, & Hoogendoorn, 2016; Bargsted et al., 2013; Diaz &
Rodriguez, 2003; Lukes & Stephan, 2012; Smith et al., 2014). However, one study each also
reported that social entrepreneurs showed lower entrepreneurial self-efficacy (Bacq et al.,
2016) and internal locus of control (Diaz & Rodriguez, 2003) compared to commercial
entrepreneurs. Yet another study reported that social entrepreneurs exhibited higher levels of
creativity and risk-taking compared to commercial entrepreneurs (Smith et al., 2014).
Another set of studies investigated the propensity to engage in social entrepreneurial
activity; either through reports of intentions to become a social entrepreneur in the future
(Hockerts, 2015; Koe et al., 2014) or reports of social entrepreneurship related activities
(Almeida et al., 2014). These studies provide further evidence that entrepreneurial traits,
including entrepreneurial self-efficacy (Hockerts, 2015; Koe et al., 2014), are important for
the engagement in social entrepreneurial activity.
A few studies pointed to traits that were suggested to help social entrepreneurs to deal
with the specific requirements of their work. These may be considered specific ‘social
entrepreneurial traits’. Amongst these were empathy and moral obligation (Bargsted et al.,
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2013; Hockerts, 2015)6. Other traits were the belief that people and the world can be changed,
and traits that may support the building of social capital (trust, propensity to cooperate).
Social entrepreneurs scored higher in all of these compared to a general population sample
(Praszkier et al., 2009). Finally, a scale development study suggested that specific
‘entrepreneurial’ traits (proactivity, risk-taking, innovativeness) relate positively to traits
associated with social entrepreneurship, specifically empathy and social responsibility
(Rahman & Pihie, 2014).
Two studies explored what appear to be ‘implicit theories’. In one study, leaders of
commercial and non-profit environmental organizations were asked about their beliefs about
the personality characteristics needed to successfully lead their organization. Both types of
leaders pointed to largely similar traits and indeed motives (need for achievement, need for
affiliation, self-confidence, need for power, perseverance, spiritual orientation and patience)
with the exception of emotional maturity (Egri & Herman, 2000). Another study reported that
students’ implicit theories of social entrepreneurship (i.e., what they regard to be typical
behaviors for social entrepreneurs) correlated with their own personality traits (Nga &
In summary, we observed many studies that use small samples and that do not
appropriately control for confounds when exploring differences between social entrepreneurs
and other groups. Hence the conclusions in this section are very tentative. The pattern of
findings to date suggests that by and large commercial and social entrepreneurs are similar in
the way they typically think, feel, and behave – i.e. the overall picture is one of similarities in
both general and specific entrepreneurial traits. Recent studies have started to explore specific
social entrepreneurial traits related to empathy and moral obligation. These appear fruitful
6 In the Bargsted et al. (2013) study social entreprneuers scored lower on the specific trait of empathic distress
than a range of comparision groups including commercial entrepreneurs – all of which were small samples. By
comparison Hockerts (2015) found in large samples evidence for the expected relationship of emphathy with
social entrepreneurial intentions.
REVIEW SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR PERSONALITY 19
avenues if they can be anchored in robust theory. What is striking is the absence of studies in
our review that link traits to social entrepreneurial outcomes – do traits influence strategic
decisions, access to capital, and perhaps even performance? Future research could also
employ a person- compared to the current variable-centric approach (Cervone, 2004; Zyphur,
2009) and ask whether it is perhaps the specific combination or profile of social and
entrepreneurial traits, more so than each trait individually, that allows individuals to succeed
as social entrepreneurs.
The third perspective on the social entrepreneurial personality focused on examining how
individuals see themselves, either in relation to their roles or in relation to others. As an
emerging stream of research, this perspective was used in only four studies. Two of these
studies were qualitative in nature (Fauchart & Gruber, 2011; Jones, Latham, & Betta, 2008)
and two were quantitative with cross-sectional designs (Bargsted et al., 2013; Sieger, Gruber,
Fauchart, & Zellweger, 2016).
Studies explored the content of social entrepreneurial identity by identifying and
differentiating individuals’ career or social identities. Social entrepreneurs seem to be
characterized by career identities of service and entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurs
reportedly have stronger autonomy identity compared to philanthropists and stronger service
identity compared to commercial entrepreneurs, yet there seemed to be no significant career
identity differences between social entrepreneurs and volunteers (Bargsted et al., 2013).
Another approach differentiated and developed a scale to measure the social identities of firm
founders based on their social motivations and relationships (Fauchart & Gruber, 2011;
Sieger et al., 2016). These studies differentiated between Darwinian founders, who resemble
our view of the self-interested and competitive commercial entrepreneur, and two types of
REVIEW SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR PERSONALITY 20
socially-oriented entrepreneurs. The socially-oriented founders express a communitarian
social identity as they support and are supported by their communities or a missionary social
identity as they aim to advance a particular cause and view society as their reference group.
While differentiating between self-interested and socially-oriented founders, the study also
showed that some founders exhibit hybrid social identities by combining aspects of the pure
types (Fauchart & Gruber, 2011).
Studies also examined how identity is shaped and crafted. One study examined how a
social activist entrepreneur constructed his identity through dividing (e.g. rejecting
mainstream or institutional principles, practices and philosophies), undividing (e.g. endorsing
local, participative, grass-roots and community initiatives), and suppressing discourse
practices (non-discourses to sideline or underplay issues and practices) (Jones et al., 2008).
Focusing on social identities, Fauchart and Gruber (2011) suggested two routes of how
hybrid identities are shaped. First, founders’ backgrounds may combine business and
community experiences, which shapes their social motivations and relationships. Second,
external pressures, such as demands from investors, can influence founders to combine social
Finally, the identity perspective also explored the relationship between identity and
strategic decisions. Founders’ social identities were argued to shape strategic decisions in
relation to market segments, customer needs addressed, and capabilities and resources
deployed. Socially-oriented founders (i.e. those with communitarian or missionary social
identities) were suggested to address novel customer needs and focus on the activities with
the highest potential for social change with artisanal production methods and best practices to
share with others or inspire change in the industry, instead of self-interested founders who
focus on increasing profitability through cost efficiency (Fauchart & Gruber, 2011).
REVIEW SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR PERSONALITY 21
In summary, an identity perspective is emerging in research on the social
entrepreneurial personality, similarly to a trend in the broader entrepreneurship literature.
While there is only a small number of studies currently, through diverse approaches these
studies have investigated the content of identities, the process of developing identities, and
initial links to firm outcomes, such as strategic decisions.
4.4. Leadership and managerial skills
All six studies that explored skills investigated either the concept of transformational
leadership, the closely related concept of charismatic leadership or vision (one of the facets of
transformational/charismatic leadership). The studies investigated differences in leader
behavior for social compared to commercial entrepreneurs and also explored relationships
with outcomes, such as performance and organizational cultures (see Table 1 for an
overview). All studies were cross-sectional quantitative, survey-based. One study also
incorporated a qualitative analysis of social and commercial entrepreneurs’ implicit theories
about the managerial skills necessary to succeed in their work (Egri & Herman, 2000). The
study reported that commercial compared to social entrepreneurs in the same sector viewed
interpersonal and technical skills as more relevant for success in their jobs. There were no
differences in political, time management or conceptual skills.
Interestingly, employees’ perception of charismatic leadership displayed by social and
commercial entrepreneurs leading voluntary and for-profit small and medium-sized
organizations respectively, did not differ (De Hoogh et al. 2005). However, there was an
interaction with leader motives: social entrepreneurs who combined high power motivation
with responsibility motivation were perceived to be more charismatic by their employees,
while the same did not hold for commercial entrepreneurs. One study of non-profit leaders
and their middle-management subordinates suggested that their perceptions of visionary
REVIEW SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR PERSONALITY 22
transformational leadership may largely converge (Taylor, Cornelius, Casey, & Colvin, 2014)
– although this finding is at odds with extant evidence in leadership research that shows only
modest overlap between self- and other-ratings of leaders (Fleenor, Smither, Atwater,
Braddy, & Sturm, 2010).
Three studies investigated differences between social and commercial entrepreneurs’
self-reports of their leadership styles. Egri and Herman (2000) found that North American
social and commercial entrepreneurs (non-profit and for-profit environmental leaders
respectively) reported similar levels of transformational leadership, although commercial
entrepreneurs reported to make more use of transactional leadership (especially using
contingent rewards and instrumental behavior). Similarly, Sarros et al. (2011) found no
differences in the use of leadership vision comparing samples of Australian for-profit and
non-profit leaders. Ruvio et al. (2010) examined the content of entrepreneurial visions and
found very few differences across 26 specific vision characteristics. The visions of the non-
profit entrepreneurs tended to be somewhat more purposeful, long-term and action oriented.
Four studies related social entrepreneurs’ transformational leadership behaviors to
outcomes, including perceptions of organizational culture, effectiveness, and performance, as
well as social value creation. They found mostly positive relationships. Sarros et al. (2011)
reported a positive relationship between visionary leadership and more innovation-supportive
organizational cultures. While neither the level of visionary leadership nor the extent of
innovation-supportive culture differed between for-profit and non-profit firms, the
relationship between the two appeared to be mediated by different mechanisms. The findings
suggested that visionary leadership may lead to innovation-supportive cultures via
stimulating socially responsible cultures in social enterprises (non-profits) but via stimulating
competitive cultures in for-profit businesses. Ruvio et al (2010) found vision associated with
venture performance and growth among their sample of social enterprises (non-profits) but
REVIEW SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR PERSONALITY 23
not in their sample of for-profit businesses. Studying only non-profit organizations, Taylor et
al. (2014) reported a similarly positive link between visionary leadership behavior and
several dimensions of perceived organizational effectiveness. However, a study by Felício et
al. (2013) suggested a more nuanced picture. Social entrepreneurs’ transformational
leadership was more important for organizational performance and value creation in
unfavorable contexts. This aligns with broader leadership research suggesting that
transformational leaders may be particularly effective in times of uncertainty and crisis
(Davis & Gardner 2012).
Taken together, the reviewed studies suggest that even if transformational leadership
is not necessarily more pronounced among social entrepreneurs, it appears to be linked to
desirable organizational outcomes in social ventures. However, a few caveats are in order. All
studies are based on self-report and conducted cross-sectionally. Thus the reverse
relationships may also hold true, that leaders learn to be more transformational over time
or/and that past performance strengthens transformational behaviors. More sophisticated
designs using multi-source data and conducting longitudinal or experimental research would
allow to disentangle causality. Such designs are already common in leadership research and
social entrepreneurship researchers may draw inspiration from that field. Furthermore, it is
striking that existing research solely focuses on transformational aspects of leadership, which
may be another reflection of the ‘hero’ bias in social entrepreneurship, and a more general
bias to attribute heroic, charismatic, and visionary characteristics to leaders (Meindl, Ehrlich,
& Dukerich, 1985). By contrast, emerging research suggests that leadership for social change
might require collaborative, power-sharing, i.e. ‘connective leadership’ skills (Stephan et al.,
2016). Social network approaches to leadership and connective leadership skills may thus be
fruitful areas for future research in social entrepreneurship. Nevertheless, social
REVIEW SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR PERSONALITY 24
entrepreneurship researchers keen to explore transformational leadership should be aware of
recent critiques of the concept (Knippenberg & Sitkin, 2013).
5. Discussion and Opportunities for Future Research
Our review of empirical research on the personality of social entrepreneurs shows an
increasing interest in this topic judging by the rapidly increasing number of publications. Our
systematic search identified 12 empirical papers up to and including 2010, and 38 over the
past 5.5 years. The reviewed studies shed light on ‘who social entrepreneurs are’. They
suggest that social entrepreneurs are simultaneously driven by a range of motivations and
values. They typically, but not always, are primarily motivated by prosocial concerns. Yet the
enjoyment of their work, creativity, and even financial aspects among other motivations also
play a role. Social entrepreneurs appear to share many personality traits with commercial
entrepreneurs (self-efficacy, risk taking, internal locus of control, proactivity) as well as
benefit from similar transformational leadership skills. Yet they are also characterized by
distinct ‘social traits’, such as empathy and moral obligation, and develop distinct identities.
It is encouraging that a substantial body of empirical work on the social
entrepreneurial personality is developing, because social entrepreneurship research is often
seen to lack empirical and quantitative work based on larger samples (Gras et al., 2014; Short
et al., 2009). At the same time, however, there is much scope for future research. We
summarize our recommendation in Table 2 and start by outlining three recommendations
directly relating to the methodological quality of existing research on the social
--[insert Table 2 about here ]--
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First, we encourage future research to pay more careful attention to the
operationalization of social entrepreneurship. Future research will benefit from paying more
attention to the hybrid nature of social entrepreneurship. For instance, if non-profit
organizations are the sampling frame, then their engagement with ‘entrepreneurial’ activities
should be ascertained. This can be in the form of requiring trading in the market through
selling products/services (Stephan et al., 2016) and ‘new entry’ through the being the founder
of an organization or creating new markets (Davidsson, 2016). Similarly, measures to capture
the quality and extent of the social engagement and social change ambitions of social
entrepreneurs may help to build more nuanced theories of social entrepreneurship.
Second, the quality of empirical studies in the review was extremely heterogeneous
ranging from large sample quantitative studies or quasi-experimental studies to small sample
quantitative studies conducting multiple simple group comparisons without controlling for
confounding factors or single-case studies of an individual entrepreneur. Important insights
can be gained from both qualitative and quantitative approaches, and indeed the qualitative
studies provide in-depth insights into motivations and identities. To generate generalizable
findings, more large-scale quantitative studies embedded in robust theory, using validated
scales, and conducting appropriate statistical tests (e.g., in the simplest case multivariate
analyses of covariance to ascertain mean differences between groups instead of multiple t-
tests) are needed. Especially comparative studies need to control – at a minimum - for socio-
demographic confounds. This is because, relative to commercial entrepreneurship, for
example, a higher share of women and the highly educated engage in social entrepreneurship
(Estrin et al. 2016). Similar systematic differences exist relative to employees.
Third, one trend in the reviewed studies is the increasing attention to connect social
entrepreneur personality to outcomes, with encouraging results. For instance, motivations
showed links to start-up success, strategic choices and innovation, as well as personal
REVIEW SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR PERSONALITY 26
satisfaction. More theory-driven research that connects personality to venture-level outcomes
(financial and social performance) but also to personal outcomes for the entrepreneur can
help to build a deeper understanding of how and when personality matters. Useful theoretical
lenses range from person-environmental fit to strategic decision-making research, upper
echelons, and strategic leadership lenses to social influence, leadership research, and process
theories of work motivation, among others.
5.1 Building on strengths and insights of the current research
The reviewed studies pointed to substantial heterogeneity among social entrepreneurs in
terms of their personality. For instance, findings indicated diversity in motivations and
identities consistent with different types of social entrepreneurs who are likely to take
different strategic decisions about organizational goals, legal forms, accessing resources,
growth strategies, markets, clients and beneficiaries (e.g., Fauchart & Gruber 2011). This is
consistent with past research in entrepreneurship more generally that connects personality
characteristics to different types of strategic decisions (Gorgievski, Ascalon, & Stephan,
2011; Simsek, Heavey, & Veiga, 2010), as well as with emerging research drawing attention
to the different types and organizational forms of social enterprises (Mair, Battilana, &
Cardenas, 2012; Mair, Mayer, & Lutz, 2015). So called person-centric or profile approaches
to personality (Cervone, 2004; Zyphur, 2009) would be particularly useful to define ‘social
entrepreneur types’ through constellations of high/low scores on particular values, motives,
How does becoming a social entrepreneur change identity, skills, motivations,
possibly even traits? How does personality change over the life course of the venture?
Existing research on the social entrepreneurial personality is largely static and assumes that
motivations and traits, and to a lesser extent identities and skill, are entirely stable. Yet a few
REVIEW SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR PERSONALITY 27
findings in the review suggest a more dynamic view as specific motivations and identities can
change through the social entrepreneurial activity itself (Braga et al., 2014; Fauchart &
Gruber, 2011). Such a view is consistent with the notion of ‘occupational socialization’, i.e.,
the very nature of the work we do, over time, shapes our motivations, even traits, and
identities. Indeed, specific as opposed to general motives and traits are known to be malleable
(Rauch & Frese, 2007). Emerging research suggest that even general traits may change, albeit
slowly, depending on the work situation individuals find themselves in (Li, Fay, Frese,
Harms, & Gao, 2014; Wu, 2016). These findings invite longitudinal and process research to
explore how and when aspects of social entrepreneurs’ personality change through being a
social entrepreneur. They also invite more research on the day-to-day activities that social
entrepreneurs’ engage in from a work design perspective (Parker, 2014) to understand the
very nature of social entrepreneurs’ work.
Future research would also benefit from developing more contextualized perspectives
on the social entrepreneurial personality. Most studies were squarely focused on aspects of
social entrepreneurs’ personality without consideration of context. A few studies on specific
motives, however, highlighted important drivers in the personal or wider social and spatial
context of the entrepreneur: from traumatic experiences, exposure to a family tradition of
volunteering, to lack of social service provision for close others in a region. They further
pointed to the interplay of personality with skills and human capital (education, experience in
an industry sector, experience of working in a non-profit). Future research could explore such
associations more systematically to discern how the environment interacts with personality to
shape social entrepreneurial actions. What trigger points may exist that ‘activate’ existing
personality traits and motivation such that individuals start working on a social venture?
Process research approaches would allow to develop a more contextualized view that also
pays attention to how events unfold dynamically. In addition, a more contextualized
REVIEW SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR PERSONALITY 28
perspective and life history research may allow to shed more light on the very antecedents of
social entrepreneurs’ personality, how they develop specific motivations, identities, and
Finally, the existing research focuses on the many positive aspects of social entrepreneur
personality – but might there also be a ‘dark side’ to it? For instance, the study by Renko
(2013) suggests that prosocially motivated entrepreneurs face greater difficulties in the start-
up process. Such a finding aligns with recent research suggesting that very high levels of
traits that typically have beneficial consequences for the individual and organization can have
detrimental effects for both (Kaiser, LeBreton, & Hogan, 2015). Research could explore not
only positive but also potential negative outcomes of the strong prosocial stance and high
levels of empathy that seem to characterize social entrepreneurs. For instance, over time these
may incur costs to the social entrepreneurs’ well-being or family life if his/her efforts to
create positive social change are thwarted, or simply due to the sheer scale of the social need
that their work addresses and which is unlikely to be resolved by one or even multiple social
entrepreneurs (Stephan et al., 2016).
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Table 1. Overview of Review Findings
Construct Characteristic Profile
of Social Entrepreneurs
compared to other
Openness to change
Similar openness to
Higher openness to
Interests Social vocational
Independence Lower need for
Higher need for
Similar power motive
Similar implicit need
affiliation, and powert
Higher income motive
Stronger motivation to
help clients with
prosocial motivation to
help the poor
Lower public service
Big Five Traits No significant
differences in openness
Similar general self-
Higher risk taking
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Optimism Similar risk taking
Similar internal locus
Similar fear of failure
Similar willingness to
Similar implicit self-
Internal locus of
Stronger belief that the
world can be changed
Higher propensity to
Identity Career identity of
Career identity of
differences in career
Implicit view that
technical skills are less
Implicit view that
conceptual skills are
Similar self-reports of
Lower self-reports of
* Compared to managers in the public sector.
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Compared to philanthropists.
Compared to volunteers.
Compared to employees.
Compared to the general population.
t ‘implicit’ refers to perceptions of what traits/motives people believe to be associated with
being a successful social entrepreneur.
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Table 2. Recommendations
Summary of Recommendations for Future Research
Pay attention to the operationalization of social entrepreneurship – How are
the ‘social’ and ‘entrepreneurial’ characteristics defined and measured?
Generate more generalizable findings – How and when are there opportunities
to conduct large-scale quantitative studies embedded in robust theory, using
validated scales and appropriate statistical tests?
Conduct more theory-driven research to build a deeper understanding – How
is personality connected to venture-level and personal outcomes? How and
when does personality matter?
Consider the substantial heterogeneity among social entrepreneurs possibly
using personality profile approaches – What types of social entrepreneurs are
under investigation? How and why are they different from each other?
Develop dynamic and process approaches – How may being a social
entrepreneur change some aspects of personality? Over what time scales?
Investigate more contextualized perspectives – How does the environment
interact with personality to shape social entrepreneurial actions? What trigger
points may exist?
Towards a holistic perspective – Is there a dark side to the social