International Sociological Association's Research Committee on Economy & Society

The Constitution of Entrepreneurial Identities in Brazil: three case studies of the sociological dimensions of entrepreneurship building efforts

Originally published: Winter 2018 RC02 Newsletter

These are times of crisis. In 2013, Brazil witnessed the worst civil unrest since the redemocratization process in the 1980s. Unemployment rates have been soaring, economic growth has stalled, businesses have been closing, and financial investments have declined. To top it all, the political crisis culminated in the 2016 impeachment of the Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff.

Discontentment is generalized among the middle and working classes. But in the confines of business communities and organizations that support businesses, a different tone appears to be conveyed: times of crisis are also times of opportunities, especially for entrepreneurial individuals. Accordingly, innovative and creative minds persevere, and are not demotivated by the circumstances. These individuals are constantly looking for business opportunities while others are struggling to overcome the challenges they encounter.

At first sight, and especially for those who abide by the Schumpeterian notions of creative destruction processes, and the role that entrepreneurs play on economic growth, this picture of the entrepreneur as a somewhat special economic agent who is the motor of economic change seems unsurprising. However, in Brazil, even the terms ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘entrepreneurs’ have only been included in the language dictionaries in the last decade of the twentieth century. This is not to say that people did not produce innovative products or design new production processes hitherto. The argument posed here is that what is recent in Brazil, and in many global South countries, is that the entrepreneur has become a pervasive socioeconomic identity. This did not happened overnight. The constitution of entrepreneurial identities in Brazil entails a long social process of group boundary-making, the diffusion of market-oriented behavioral practices, and the active promotion of new social and institutional dynamics. It is these processes that I have been investigating.

I am puzzled by questions such as how did ideas and values related to entrepreneurship come to be so widespread in Brazil? Where did the most renowned policies and programs to foster entrepreneurial behaviors come from? And, how different efforts to promote entrepreneurial identities and behaviors organize the way different people see themselves as economic agents? To answer these questions, I drew inspiration from policy diffusion scholarship (Stone, 2012), performativity theory (Callon, 1998), and scholarship on entrepreneurial networks (Dubini and Aldrich, 1991) to design three exploratory qualitative case studies to identify the processes and mechanisms involved in the constitution and establishment of entrepreneurial identities in Brazil.

The studies focus on three entities that gathered considerable reputation and praise for their efforts to constitute a more ‘entrepreneurial society’ (Gilbert, Audretsch, and McDougall, 2004; Audrestch, 2007; Thurik, Stam, and Audretch, 2013) and to promote entrepreneurial behaviors or competencies (McClelland 2010 [1965]) in the global South.

The first study examines the diffusion of Empretec, a behavioral program launched by the United Nations to promote entrepreneurial behavior in emerging and developing economies. The second case consists of the analysis of the practices carried out by Endeavor, an organization headquartered in New York, with the mandate to promote high-impact entrepreneurship in the global South, that is, potentially scalable businesses. Finally, the third case study investigates the emergence of online networks of support for women entrepreneurs in Brazil, and the bodies of knowledge and resources that they make accessible to women.

Assembling and comparing the findings from the above case studies, it is possible to suggest that the most celebrated efforts to promote entrepreneurship and create entrepreneurial identities in Brazil have its origins in Northern organizations. So far, nothing surprising. However, the establishment of these efforts in the global South resorts to both Northern agendas of entrepreneurship-building as well as to the enrollment and mobilization of local organizations and individuals in the South. The promotion of entrepreneurial identities and behaviors depends on the synergies between global and local organizations and individuals. These actors may share similar goals of promoting market-oriented institutions, while their intentions may widely vary (for example, some intend to create a special group of select ambitious entrepreneurs, while others seek to provide women with alternative career opportunities). As such, a variety of services and support networks to promote entrepreneurial identities emerge, cater to different individuals and perform different groups who all claim to be entrepreneurs, but whose understanding of entrepreneurship differ.

More importantly, the findings also suggest that even though the promotion of entrepreneurial behaviors and culture may ultimately lead to economic growth, the existing efforts to promote entrepreneurship in the South do little to address the rising economic inequality in the region. My studies provide empirical evidence that existing efforts to constitute entrepreneurial individuals and promote entrepreneurial behaviors actually end up reproducing unequal structures of resource distribution and allocation that favors privileged individuals. That is, while some programs and networks mainly provide behavioral workshops and networking opportunities among its members, other organizations such as Endeavor select few individuals and provide them with valuable mentoring from highly successful business individuals, access to Ivy League educational programs, and the opportunity to benefit from “angel” private financing. The former usually cater to broader audiences, while the latter provides intensive support to individuals who satisfy their selection process requirements and generally come from more affluent sectors of Brazilian society.

All in all, there is nothing natural about entrepreneurial economic actors. These are identities and groups that have been performed in the past thirty years. If we acknowledge and understand the social dynamics involved in the constitution of entrepreneurial societies and identities, we will be better equipped to evaluate policies and programs that present entrepreneurship as the Holy Grail for economic development.


Audretsch, D. B. (2007). The Entrepreneurial Society. New York: Oxford University Press.

Callon, M. (Ed.) (1998). The Laws of the Markets. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Dubini, P., & Aldrich, H. (1991). Personal and extended networks are central to the entrepreneurial process. Journal of Business Venturing, 6, 305-313.

Gilbert, B., Audretsch, D. B., & McDougall, P. (2004). The emergence of Entrepreneurship Policy. Small Business Economics, 22, 313-323.

McClelland, D. (2010 [1961]). The Achieving Society. Princeton: Martino Publishing.

Thurik, R., Stam, E., & Audretsch, D. B. (2013). The rise of the entrepreneurial economy and the future of dynamic capitalism. Technovation, 33, 302-310.

Stone, D. (2012). Agents of Knowledge. In D. Levi-Faur (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Governance (pp. 339-352). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Aline Coutinho (aline [dot] coutinho [at] uottawa [dot] ca) is a PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa, and an economic sociologist focusing on entrepreneurship, economic identities, and economic globalization.

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