Research Brief: Sustainable Entrepreneurial Ecosystems
Sustainable Entrepreneurial Ecosystems – An Empirical study on how entrepreneurs gather resources for sustainable activities from the ecosystem
by Tobias Schäfer I Rolf Schrömgens Professorship in Entrepreneurship and Technology Transfer
Due to the current economic, social, and ecological problems such as climate change, environmental pollution, and water scarcity worldwide, sustainability has become increasingly important (Hopwood, Mellor, & O’Brien, 2005). In recent years, sustainability has also gained momentum in entrepreneurship (Cohen, 2006). Sustainability or being sustainable as a company has gained importance, especially for entrepreneurs, since current research suggests that an entrepreneurial environment is one of the key success factors in the development of sustainable enterprises (Cohen, 2006). Nevertheless, the relevant literature is missing a micro-level perspective on the sustainable entrepreneur in the ecosystem (e.g. Bischoff & Volkmann, 2018; Spigel & Harrison, 2018). Therefore, this study empirically explores how entrepreneurs gather resources from the entrepreneurial ecosystem for sustainable activities by interviewing 12 start-ups operating in a sustainable environment. Based on the interviews and the corresponding literature, this thesis reveals the following four overarching dimensions on how entrepreneurs gathers resources: (1) increasing start-up reach, (2) establishing and exploiting networks, (3) using official help services, (4) researching and background experience. These four dimensions represent the central pillars of sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystems on a micro-level perspective.
Introduction & research question
Due to the current economic, social, and ecological problems such as climate change, pollution, and water scarcity worldwide, sustainability has become increasingly important (Hopwood, Mellor, & O’Brien, 2005). Sustainable activities are therefore being used to achieve the development goals set by the United Nations and support social changes (Pacheco et al., 2010; United Nations, 2015). The United Nations (2015) reveals that the pressure on social and ecological changes is rising. This is also why business sectors have become more involved in these areas. Hence, topics such as management of environmental issues or corporate social responsibility (CSR) have gained importance in this context (Cohen, 2006).
In recent years, sustainability has also gained momentum in entrepreneurship as being sustainable has become among profit a crucial asset for entrepreneurs (Cohen, 2006). In this context, Volkmann et al. (2019) state that new ventures “place sustainability next to profitability at the core of their business models” (p. 1). This leads to the fact that sustainability is a rising research field related to entrepreneurship and is currently developing in the so-called fourth wave (Volkmann et al., 2019). This research field is called sustainable entrepreneurship (SE) and deals with solidifying social and environmental changes as well as economic well-being and growth (Belz & Binder, 2017; Volkmann et al., 2019).
Current research indicates that an entrepreneurial environment is one of the key factors in the development of sustainable enterprises (Cohen, 2006). Cohen (2006) further emphasizes that the interactions of an entrepreneur with this so-called entrepreneurial ecosystem (EE) are currently still unclear. The research area of sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystems (SEE) connects to the research on SE and EE. In this context, existing literature points out that there is less attention paid to the concept of SEEs (Cohen, 2006; Fichter, 2016; Malecki, 2011; Volkmann et al., 2019). Thus, further empirical research should focus more on a micro-level perspective to understand the role of entrepreneurs and their interactions with stakeholders in the SEE (Alvedalen & Boschma, 2017; Bischoff & Volkmann, 2018). Future research should particularly concentrate on the “process through which the ecosystem delivers benefits to the (sustainable) entrepreneur and the start-up” (Spigel & Harrison, 2018, p. 165).
The following study thus aims to extend the current research in the field of SEEs and primarily conduct research on a micro-level perspective. This thesis puts entrepreneur sat the center and aims to shed light on an entrepreneur’s interaction with the ecosystem in gathering resources. Hence, the research question for this study is as follows:
How do entrepreneurs gather resources for sustainable activities from the ecosystem?
The study follows an empirical approach and is exclusively based on 12 interviews with start-ups that have a sustainable background. The interviews focus on the venture creation process and especially on how resources are gathered from the ecosystem. For data analysis the grounded theory approach by Glaser (1967) is applied which results in a data structure of first-order categories, second-order themes, and aggregate dimensions.
Based on the interviews and the corresponding available literature, this thesis reveals the following four overarching dimensions on how an entrepreneur gathers resources from the ecosystem:
- The first dimension of increasing start-up reach is an important factor in gathering resources from the ecosystem for sustainable entrepreneurs as the start-ups increase their visibility within the ecosystem. Stakeholders from the ecosystem, therefore, take note of the respective entrepreneur, decreasing the barriers to resources.
- The second dimension of establishing and exploiting networks is connected to previous dimensions of increasing start-up reach. On the one hand, using networks often leads to an increased start-up reach—for example, accessing several events through the network. On the other hand, increasing the start-up reach often relates to an extension of the existing network.
- The third dimension of using official help services has a close link to the previously discussed networking topic but differs in terms of the central point. In the dimension of networking, an entrepreneur often gathers resources randomly without consciously claiming them. In the dimension of official help services, an entrepreneur mostly knows what he needs and therefore turns to the appropriate service provider for support.
- The last dimension of researching and background experience does not directly refer to the ecosystem; it lays the foundation for the already discussed dimensions.
This study sheds light on the activities of entrepreneurs within an SEE as well as the components of SEEs and therefore contributes to existing literature in this field. First, this chapter refers its findings to the study by Spigel and Harrison (2018) by adding insights into the process view of SEEs. Second, this study complements the framework on SEEs from Bischoff and Volkmann (2018). The last contribution is on the view of Neck et al. (2004) on EEs.
This study was set out to discover SEEs especially focusing on the sustainable entrepreneur. Existing scholars explore SEEs in an abstract way by providing definitions, characteristics, and frameworks. Academic studies on process theory of SEE, particularly by Spigel and Harrison (2019) and O’Shea et al. (2019), mainly focus on a macro-level perspective. Nevertheless, relevant literature is missing a micro-level perspective on the sustainable entrepreneur gathering resources (Alvedalen & Boschma, 2017; Bischoff & Volkmann, 2018; Spigel & Harrison, 2018).
This study therefore empirically explored how entrepreneurs gather resources from the ecosystem for sustainable activities on a micro-level. Twelve semi-structured interviews with sustainable start-ups were conducted. Based on the interviews and the corresponding available literature, this thesis reveals the following four overarching dimensions on how an entrepreneur gathers resources from the ecosystem: (1) increasing start-up reach, (2) establishing and exploiting networks, (3) using official help services, (4) researching and background experience.
Considering all points, this study sheds light on the micro-level perspective of SEEs, especially on how entrepreneurs gather resources from the ecosystem for sustainable activities. As it provides useful insights into entrepreneurial activities within the ecosystem, this study is not only of particular interest to the research community but also to hundreds of entrepreneurs.