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Entrepreneurship and Religion

A study of 1,700 Americans finds that entrepreneurs pray twice as much as the general public: more than half pray at least once daily, and one third pray multiple times per day. Entrepreneurs are also more likely to say they feel a personal connection to God “who is interested in their problems and affairs.”

The study finds that entrepreneurs also tend to attend religious services in churches that encourage business and profit-making, which some of the larger organised religions do not.  Entrepreneurs are celebrated as risk takers and extroverts. Religious people are typically painted as conservative and risk-adverse. How do these findings reconcile these two phenomena?

Prayer and religiosity

Published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the research identified that one third of the entrepreneurs surveyed are Evangelical Protestant, a quarter belong to other Protestant traditions, and a similar proportion are Catholic. Two-thirds of all the study participants say that they have no doubts than God exists, and only 5% identify as atheists (they do not believe in any higher power). The majority of entrepreneurs attend monthly religious services while around 30% go to mass at least weekly.

The study raises interesting questions about how religiosity affects entrepreneurs’ behaviour. Dr Mitchell Neubert who heads the ongoing project, explains:

“Entrepreneurs take on tasks that are yet unproven… We know they are praying more, but we don’t know yet what they’re praying about. It might be for the wisdom to navigate uncertainty. It could be ‘Please give me more success,’ or ‘Give me more energy.'”

The project will continue to explore whether certain congregations actively recruit entrepreneurs (and why) or whether the relationship goes the other way – perhaps certain belief systems attract entrepreneurs. The researchers write:

Faith communities and the networks contained within these settings provide a basis for mobilising individuals for outcomes such as voting and volunteering…The competitive religious market in the United States pushes congregations to specialise in order to attract and retain sufficient participants to survive… Catering to entrepreneurial individuals may represent a competitive advantage for some congregations.

The researchers note that management theory treats entrepreneurship as a set of behaviours rather than as a character trait, but the researchers see that religiosity may be thought of as the latter. Also useful to consider is how entrepreneurs themselves make sense of their business practices with respect to their faith. The researchers write:

Given that entrepreneurs are more likely than other workers to be extroverts characterised both by sociability and urgency… their beliefs about God may reflect sensitivity to similar features of the divine.  Some may contend that entrepreneurs’ image of God is a projection of their own personality.

Currently, the empirical evidence can’t explain whether this is true, but this study raises fascinating questions about how and why entrepreneurs make a personal connection with religion at a rate higher than the general public.

Spirituality amongst start-up CEOs

I’m interested in this study as I’ve observed a strong narrative of spirituality amongst the entrepreneurs I’ve worked with and amongst several social media and start up founders and CEOs more broadly. While they do not discuss formal prayer, going to church or religion per se, clients often make reference to a more loose, new age religious idealism. They make references to “praying that things go well,” “saying a prayer of thanks,” or they talk about the “energy of the universe” guiding them. This is also the language of self-help books, which are typically founded on a mish-mash of Eastern religions re-framed for a Western audience.

Social media start-up blogs also cover similar themes. Several CEOs attribute their success and work/life balance to meditation and yoga; this includes Steve Jobs and other high-profile business leaders, as well as newer startup founders such as Joel Gascoigne CEO of Buffer; Andrew Cherng of Panda Express; and Ryan Holmes, CEO of Hootsuite. While these practices are not discussed as religious belief, they are spoken about in religious terminology, such as “being present” and “mindfulness” (admittedly these ideas represent a Westernised vision of Buddhist practice).

A follow up study unpacking whether entrepreneurs have a more fluid understanding of religion (drawing on new age concepts, for example) would be useful.

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