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A women in business attire looks up into the distance with a small smile. Behind her, high-rise business buildings can be seen.
To build more small- and medium-sized businesses, and create more jobs in turn, Canada needs to create more entrepreneurs. (Shutterstock)

Canada’s entrepreneur shortage is impacting the economy — here’s one way to fix it

Business Development Canada made headlines in October 2023 when it revealed that almost half as many Canadians are starting businesses today compared to 20 years ago.

This is alarming, as the vast majority of jobs in Canada — 98 per cent — are created by small business entrepreneurs. The health of our economy is built on the backbone of these enterprises.

To build more small- and medium-sized businesses, and create more jobs in turn, Canada needs to create more entrepreneurs.

My recent study with my colleagues Shasha Liu and Brock Smith at the University of Victoria offers a way forward. Our study reveals that instilling an entrepreneur-possible self — the belief that you can become an entrepreneur — is a critical stepping stone for becoming an entrepreneur. And, it’s one we can encourage to form.

Daydreaming reality into being

Each of us carries a constellation of possible selves within us. These possible selves play a crucial role in shaping the actual identities we assume.

If we don’t develop an entrepreneur-possible self, we are unlikely to develop the mindset that fosters entrepreneurship. Historically, most Canadians never consider becoming an entrepreneur and, of those who do, most never actually take the leap.

Our study highlights some easy ways to foster the development of this entrepreneur-possible self. What’s needed is identity play — the provisional “trying-on” of a future entrepreneur-possible self. Specifically, two types of identity play: daydream-play and substantive-play.

A woman, sitting in front of a computer screen, rests her chin against her hands while starting off into the distance
Most Canadians never consider becoming an entrepreneur and, of those who do, most never actually take the leap. (Shutterstock)

Daydream-play involves envisioning an entrepreneur self through unrestricted thought exercises and imaginings. It’s about letting your mind freely wander through creative musings, wondering, considering and thinking.

Substantive-play involves physically acting to learn more about the possibility of being an entrepreneur. This is an active form of play focused on actions such as trying things out, looking into things and observing or learning new things related to entrepreneurship.

Alternating between these two types of play can ultimately lead to an aspirational stage that is critical to forming an entrepreneur identity.

Creating entrepreneur-possible selves

For many of us, the pandemic fuelled personal reflections on the meaning, purpose and impact of our careers and vocations, resulting in what Harvard business professor Ranjay Gulati has called the “Great Re-think.”

This period of reflection serves as a prime opportunity for individuals to work on developing an entrepreneur-possible self.

One way individuals can do this is by engaging in daydream-play to imagine the entrepreneur they could become. This can involve, for example, reading biographies of entrepreneurs, listening to podcasts with or about successful entrepreneurs or watching movies about entrepreneurial journeys.

A black book cover with a red check mark on it titled 'Shoe Dog' by Phil Knight
Reading entrepreneur memoirs, like Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, which recounts how he founded Nike, is a great way individuals can engage in daydream-play. (Simon & Schuster)

As a form of substantive-play, individuals can tap existing entrepreneur networks and meet with or shadow entrepreneurs, play tabletop or virtual games that simulate building companies, work or volunteer at a startup, or conduct industry or opportunity-specific research that leverages a personal curiosity, interest or passion.

Since entrepreneurial journeys are seldom solitary endeavours, aspiring entrepreneurs can also reach out to organizations that support entrepreneurship (like the Canadian Chamber of Commerce or Futurepreneur for guidance and mentorship. These organizations can provide valuable insights, networking opportunities and resources.

Entrepreneurship support organizations

Organizations that are part of the entrepreneur ecosystem, like Innovating Canada, Startup Canada and the Canadian Council for Small Business and Entrepreneurship, also should ensure working-age individuals have opportunities to explore and build their entrepreneur-possible selves.

These organizations should start by educating Canadians about the identity play process. To encourage more focused daydream-play, these organizations can create resources for exploring entrepreneurship as a career, provide access to success stories and create an accessible database of entrepreneurs willing to have conversations with those interested in learning more.

They can support substantive-play by developing an active mentoring program that goes beyond passive advice-giving to provide individuals a chance to shadow successful entrepreneurs. Establishing positive and meaningful mentor-mentee connections will help to cultivate an aspirational entrepreneur possible self.

Lastly, these organizations can create opportunities for hands-on experience by hosting or promoting hackathons, short-sprint entrepreneurship competitions, pitch events, maker spaces and side-hustle experiences. They can also begin providing coaches to create individualized action plans.

Today’s youth are tomorrow’s entrepreneurs

To ensure a robust entrepreneurial ecosystem, parents, guardians and teachers play a pivotal role in providing children with opportunities to practice being an entrepreneur that establish entrepreneur-possible selves.

Across the country, there are many entrepreneurship classes, summer camps and entrepreneurship youth experiences that foster daydream and substantive-play in children, including the UVIC Gustavson School of Business’ Kidovate program.

By nurturing micro-entrepreneurship experiences for youth from an early age, we are sowing the seeds for a generation that will grow up thinking “I could be an entrepreneur” which is key to becoming one.

The takeaway is clear: building more opportunities for Canadians to create entrepreneur-possible selves will result in more Canadians who think and act based on believing they are entrepreneurs. It is an investment in the nation’s future that will contribute to Canada’s economic prosperity and its competitiveness on the global stage.

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