WVU study finds faith in self, a higher power drive religious entrepreneurs toward divine business plans

New research from West Virginia University shows religiosity can help turn believers into entrepreneurs.

“This research is about religiosity’s role in the creation of entrepreneurial ventures,” said Nancy McIntyre, associate professor of management at the John Chambers College of Business and Economics. “While many of us, at some point in our lives, talk about wanting to start our own business, most of us don’t talk about starting a business that will solve a large social issue.”

But her findings, forthcoming in the Journal of Business Research in February, demonstrate that when religiosity is more than attending a place of worship — “when it’s a commitment to religious principles and activities” — it strengthens the desire to create a business with a conscience.

While many religions instill values, like charity, that also animate socially conscious businesses, McIntyre’s work unpacks specific ways religious beliefs and practices can drive social entrepreneurship.

She found religious beliefs and practices can promote adherents’ sense of themselves as part of a networked collective rather than as isolated individuals, and that faith-based organizations can help members believe in their own “self-efficacy — their ability to complete a task,” McIntyre said.

Her research reveals that both confidence in one’s ability to succeed and feelings of interconnectedness can drive social entrepreneurship for members of faith communities.

That’s not true for traditional, profit-focused entrepreneurship, though.

“Many religions teach humility, self-control and modesty, which may be contrary to traditional entrepreneurship promoting wealth accumulation, financial freedom and materialism,” she said. “However, most religions also teach that we can and should help others, and the constant encouragement to do so builds our self-efficacy, helping us believe we can make a difference.”

To assess the ways religious practice may contribute to the launch of socially conscious ventures, McIntyre surveyed 563 third- and fourth-year students enrolled in marketing, finance, accounting and human resource management programs at a large public university in Ghana. She asked them about topics like their confidence handling difficult situations, the importance of close friendships, their entrepreneurial intentions and religion’s role in their lives.

The data showed religiosity, self-confidence and a sense of interconnection all had “a positive and significant influence on social venturing intentions.”

McIntyre explained that social entrepreneurship is concerned with creating both private and social value. A social venture uses market-based methods to address seemingly intractable social issues, combining the creation of financial value with a mission to help disadvantaged people.

About 3% of the world’s population is engaged in social entrepreneurship, with Australia in the lead, followed by sub-Saharan Africa and the United States. McIntyre conducted the survey in Ghana because of that country’s “well-established religious institutions, which play crucial roles in shaping citizens’ belief systems and values.”

She pointed to one practical link between religious organizations and social startups: the fact that those who attend worship services and faith-based gatherings have access to a large network. Those who are active in the church will “often have connections to people of like mind,” she said — for example, co-congregants who might provide startup financing.

Her data might look different if she had surveyed participants from a society less devout than Ghana, where 71.3% of the population was Christian at the last census. In comparison, roughly 64% of Americans are Christian, with about 6% of Americans practicing other faiths.

However, religion is on the rise in the U.S., likely driven by COVID-19. Three in 10 U.S. adults reported that the coronavirus boosted their faith, which could mean that more social ventures are on the horizon.

McIntyre speculated that the increase in religiosity stems from the need for comfort, connection and reflection many experienced during the pandemic.

“Christians know the story of the good Samaritan. Judaism imposes an obligation to help someone in distress. The Quran says that whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved all mankind. And Buddhism defines compassion as wise, heartfelt motivation to relieve pain, sorrow and suffering. Most religions teach the kinds of values that could lead someone to try to build a life around making the world better.”

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