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How We Can Impact Entrepreneurs Through Research: Our Vision at Kauffman

Why has entrepreneurship declined so drastically in America? What works best to empower entrepreneurs and reverse that decline? Answering these questions requires a fresh approach to research—and the right talent on the team.

What’s the best way to empower entrepreneurs? 

Since I joined the Kauffman Foundation eighteen months ago, I’ve been asking that question every chance I get, throughout the country and beyond. Here is what I learned. If you ask a hundred experts today, you get a hundred different answers. I consider that a problem. It leaves entrepreneurs and people who help entrepreneurs without clear guidance on what to do. 

We have to do a better job at getting real answers. That’s more than a theoretical exercise. It has profound implications for our economy, our quality of life, and our well-being as a species. We now know that net job growth is driven by entrepreneurial firms, that entrepreneurship has fallen by half over the past generation, that the decline of business dynamism can be linked to declining GDP and that social inequality can be linked to low rates of entrepreneurship. When you examine our biggest challenges as a society, you find entrepreneurship at the core.

Two decades ago, we didn’t know such things. So that’s why Kauffman set out to pioneer entrepreneurial scholarship as a legitimate field of study. We funded academic research. We built data sets. We supported the most promising scholars. We funded networks of academic exchange. We sponsored leading conferences and seminars. In 1990, there were only 135 papers published that mention entrepreneurship. Last year, there were 2,603. I think we can proclaim “success” in building entrepreneurship as a field of study.

Now, with startups as the new economic development, we are ready for the next step. The world wants real answers. That’s what Kauffman Foundation’s research is going to tackle. We are going to focus like a laser beam on answering two important questions:  Why has entrepreneurship declined so drastically in America? What works best to empower entrepreneurs and reverse that decline? 

Answering those questions will require a fresh approach to research. More practical application. More interdisciplinary thinking. More questions relevant to real entrepreneurs and those who help entrepreneurs. More testable models. More rigorous hypotheses. More effective communication with practitioners. Better access to common pools of data across silos. More impact on real entrepreneurs’ lives.

Meet Dr. Desai

Dr. Samee Desai

Given our invigorated new approach to research, I’m thrilled to announce a new leader on our team, Sameeksha (Samee) Desai, Ph.D. Dr. Desai will begin as the Foundation’s new director of knowledge creation and research full-time in January 2018. She has done bold, cutting-edge research in political economy, in particular how entrepreneurship can renew and revitalize societies that have suffered from conflict, instability and entrenched poverty. She cares passionately about the practical impact of scholarship on real-world applications, and on harnessing research to empower entrepreneurs, policymakers and many other stakeholders.

Dr. Desai comes to the Foundation as a professor from Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, where she joined the faculty in 2010. She received her doctorate in Public Policy and master’s degree in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University and her undergraduate degree in Sociology from Northwestern University.

Her list of accomplishments is longer than I can fit on this page. Dr. Desai is the associate director of the Institute for Development Strategies at Indiana University and U.S. co-chair of the Transatlantic Policy Consortium. She is affiliated with the Swedish Entrepreneurship Forum and was a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute of Economics in Jena, Germany.

Dr. Desai has received numerous awards and grants for her work on the political economy of entrepreneurship, and her research has been supported by a diverse range of government, international and private organizations. Her research, advising and consulting have focused on how policies can shape economic empowerment through entrepreneurship.

Our vision is to make Kauffman a destination for the best and brightest in the world, and Dr. Desai is a perfect fit with the Kauffman team. I know she looks forward to working with researchers everywhere to create knowledge on how we can most effectively empower the makers, doers and dreamers, helping them take charge of their own destinies and achieve uncommon things.

Our vision

Dr. Desai will take charge of the development and implementation of our research strategy. Our vision at Kauffman is to increase entrepreneurial success by guiding the research field to generate practical, actionable insights, models and tools.

We’ve developed three goals to hold ourselves accountable to that mission:

1. Provide practical answers. Within the next three years, we aim to provide initial answers to two major questions, based on empirical research:

  • What are the most significant causes of low rates of entrepreneurial starts and successes?
  • What are the most effective levers to increase entrepreneurial starts and successes?

2. Develop testable models. Develop science-based models that are holistic, testable, and verifiable to connect entrepreneurship inputs and outcomes.

  • Convene, engage and empower the leading researchers in the world across adjacent disciplines to inform our models.
  • Identify, define, prioritize and disseminate the most significant knowledge gaps, questions and hypotheses related to the success of entrepreneurs.
  • Design and execute research to understand and explain
    • the most critical psychological (individual), social (team) and community (ecosystem) aspects of entrepreneurial phenomena
    • how micro (programs) and macro (policy) interventions affect them.

3. Translate science into impact. Transform ideas into actionable results by providing thought leadership for the global field of entrepreneurial knowledge through designing, developing, disseminating and implementing:

  • Practical playbooks and white papers for entrepreneurs, leaders and supporters that continuously synthesize the most effective ideas, case stories and practices in the world.
  • “Gold standard” datasets, metrics and dashboards that enable practitioners to understand gaps in their ecosystems and take actions to increase rates of entrepreneurship. 
  • Policies and jurisprudence at all levels of government that lower systemic barriers for entrepreneurs to start and grow their businesses.

To support these goals, our work will be driven by guiding principles, including the following:

  • Entrepreneur-centric design thinking. We will apply entrepreneur-centric design principles to our research, the same way we ask entrepreneurs to apply customer-centric design to their products. Our work must focus on the needs of real-world entrepreneurs (and on-the-threshold and failed entrepreneurs) and our measurable impact on them at the human scale.
  • Real, constructive action. We will drive toward actionable outputs, tools and recommendations for entrepreneurs and those who help entrepreneurs. This means that we are constructive participants. While we should always be brave enough to “bust myths” and voice criticism, it takes more courage to build up than to tear down. Our work should build upwards, while continuing to be non-partisan, fair and honest.
  • Embracing diverse perspectives. We don’t have all the answers. We engage the top multidisciplinary minds in the world as our team. Entrepreneurship should be informed by the most insightful research in psychology, sociology, anthropology, biology, design, organizational behavior, law, and complex systems, in addition to traditional fields such as economics and management. 
  • Tackling the hardest questions. We can’t understand entrepreneurship without understanding what makes human beings tick. Therefore, we plan to target extraordinarily hard “soft” questions. That means we will address hard-to-quantify concepts such as culture, norms, social capital, team formation, organizational design, intrinsic passion/motivation and nature/nurture. 
  • Drive to impact. Our success is not measured by how many papers are published. We must ensure that ideas are disseminated and adopted by practitioners, the same way that entrepreneurs commercializing their ideas have to focus on real customers. Ultimately, what truly matters is how many real lives are improved by the knowledge we generate.

Please join us in embracing these challenges, discovering the best ways to empower entrepreneurs, and helping more makers, doers, and dreamers turn their dreams into reality.


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