Heather Vough is an associate professor of management at the George Mason University School of Business and a Ph.D. in Business Program Director. Her research interests include identity construction and sensemaking in organizations, professions, and careers. Heather has also held academic positions at the University of Cincinnati and McGill University. She holds her Ph.D. in Business Administration from the University of Illinois. Her work has been published in multiple journals, including the Academy of Management Journal, Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of Organizational Behavior, and Journal of Management. Her work has also been featured in media outlets such as the Harvard Business Review, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Huffington Post.
Special thanks to Jeanette Patrick and James Patrick Ambuske of R2 Studios, housed within the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.
Why People Don’t Call Themselves Entrepreneurs
Entrepreneurs drive innovation, take calculated risks, and shape industries with their ideas. They create new paths, challenge norms, and bring creativity and strategy together. Whether building startups or driving change within established businesses, entrepreneurs are well-known for their resilience, adaptability, and dedication to turning possibilities into impactful results.
You would think then, that “entrepreneur” would be a label that people would readily embrace. But in fact, there is a fascinating reluctance among entrepreneurs to label themselves as such when they are asked the inevitable question, “What do you do?”. My in-depth interviews with 29 entrepreneurs from North America and Australia revealed that when out in public, they tended to identify themselves as a “CEO” or “running a business” or some other job title – virtually anything except “entrepreneur”. Yet they had no problem describing themselves as entrepreneurs in a formal interview setting.
What accounts for this curious contradiction? Our interviewees felt that popular culture had propagated misleading notions about who entrepreneurs are and what they do. The widespread images projected by hit shows like Shark Tank and movies like The Social Network conflicted with how the actual entrepreneurs saw themselves, and how they wanted to be seen by others. They dropped the label “entrepreneur” from their self-presentation so that they could interact with others on what they felt was a more authentic and relatable basis.
Unfortunately, avoiding the term “entrepreneur” could potentially lead to more uncertainty instead of clarity. Entrepreneurs might miss important opportunities for business growth if they do not correctly identify themselves. The growing field of entrepreneurship education could play a crucial role in resolving this tension. Training entrepreneurs to share their authentic business journeys with others can help rescue the archetype from near-deadly overexposure.