Turning to Entrepreneurial Mindset

Jul 20 , 2019
By Seble Hailu

This is the mindset I wish we have for our ethnic identities, to explore and work towards social and economic transformation that alters our impasse of sensational ethnic rhetoric to action-oriented engagement, writes Seble Hailu, who was the past president of the Association of Women in Business and is currently doing her doctoral studies in sociology. She can be reached at seble.hailu@gmail.com.

Three weeks ago, a twenty-three-year-old orphan who was adopted by a couple from France about twenty years ago, came back to his homeland, Ethiopia, to trace his relatives.  All the papers he had and the orphanage he was taken from with his brother could not discover his lineage. I could imagine how heartbroken he was.  His story reminded me of the many orphans I worked with in the search for their identity and desire to belong to certain groups: family, friends, home, religious institutions, organisations, parties, associations, nation, and so forth, which are very natural and healthy human desires.

This semester, I took “Ethics in Global Society” as one of the courses for my doctoral study. We raised different controversial issues such as stem cell research, genetic engineering, human cloning, euthanasia, assisted suicide, the death penalty and so forth. It challenged me to think about difficult ethical topics. But I wanted to scratch where it itches me, so instead of dealing with the issues that are far away from my local context, I wanted to tackle something closer to home and decided to explore on what is wrong or right about ethnicity.

Ethnicity is defined in different ways. The main idea concerns individuals’ self-awareness about existing in a larger group and how they identify themselves to fit with the world. It is “the fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition.” Ethnicity is about individuals’ search for their peculiar margins with who they are and how they align themselves within their world. These identities emerge in social contexts “where groups are culturally adjacent and enter into frequent contact with each other and that the more alike people become, the more interested they are in upholding their distinctiveness.” Ethnic identities keep on evolving, giving a distinct identity to groups.

Ethnic and racial issues are communal identity perceptions and expressions of groups. Some individuals take ethnicity positively, and others take it negatively. Those who take it negatively do not say that ethnicity is wrong by itself but because such groupings are used as systems of domination. Here the argument is that though ethnicity is not a problem on its own, but some use it to promote "authoritarian rule, ethnic-based politicking, and poor governance" and therefore should be watered down, and a different form of identification be sought.

When ethnicity mixes with other variables that divide some from others, it has a polluting effect on the socio-cultural life of the people, for it wears away at the unity in diversity. Some see how prejudice and discrimination are rooted in social group identification processes such that people engage in discriminatory behaviours to maintain their group’s wellbeing, which in turn boosts their own wellbeing.

Studying the post-colonial states of African governments, one of the residuals of colonialism was leaving people with unmanaged diverse groupings. Ethnicity was used as a tool for both colonialists and post-colonial era rulers to divide and rule and thus stay in power.

On another note, research indicates that some African-Americans showed resiliency to withstand their hostile learning environment, resisted discrimination and were able from being affected negatively, because they felt centred in their sense of racial and ethnic identity, as a major defining element of their lives. They managed to survive and thrive with fewer psychological stresses and behavioural difficulties because of their solid sense of racial and ethnic identity. Here, ethnicity is presented as a positive attribute that helps people survive and succeed.

Talking about the ethical dilemma, do we abandon “ethnicity” because people use it for their political agenda? I agree that ethnocentrism – the belief that one ethnic group feels superior to others is a dangerous idea in a multicultural context, because it creates discrimination, the polarisation of “us” and “them”, and a non-accommodationist approach that creates antagonism among different ethnic groups. Ethnic differences are not the leading factors to hostility, rather competition for wealth and power among political elites from different ethnic groups and a belief that one group is created to rule over the other group transgresses the principle of equality in diversity as well as non-discrimination. That is when people resort to fighting the unjust social order.

Recently, I was given a chance to write a short-term technical and vocational school curriculum on psychosocial education to conduct an inclusive class for refugees and locals. My target was to instigate cross-cultural sensitivity in the instructors’ mind for them to pass it on to the learners. After the teachers implemented the training in their TVET setting, a great success was reported by the teachers. This taught me that an openness to diversity, increasing intercultural and intra-cultural sensitivity and awareness and understanding how cultures operate within specific ethnic groups helps to be conscientious and less judgmental. Also, I learned the role of education to instill respect and appreciation of a multicultural society.

Since we know that there is nothing wrong with ethnicity per se, I suggest that we develop our concept of ethnicity with an entrepreneurial mindset. Entrepreneurs see problems and change them to opportunities by providing solutions. They focus on how that problem can be a prospect for growth, development and profit. At this stage of our country’, we need to use our ethnicity to enrich our diverse cultural identity, use the freedom to grow up, and mobilise resources to solve unemployment, poverty and corruption. A vital essence of entrepreneurship is action, so we need to act on developing our country and engage less in endless rhetoric of how “bad” ethnicity is.

In the 1980s, a phrase, “poverty porn” or “development porn” was coined when the rich visited the poor but nothing was done to alleviate their poverty, and yet the media benefited by generating sympathy to sell newspapers. Some development-oriented organisations portray famine and poverty in order to attract sympathy and increase donations by objectifying people in poverty.

I want to borrow the phrase “poverty porn” and illustrate my point as “ethnicity porn”. We sensationalise ethnic identity by using it for politics. Those who benefited from this ethnic sensationalism were the self-interested actors who misled the crowd by giving a sense of false superiority to subjugate others or to incite victims to liberate themselves from the vice that threatens their ethnic identity. My issue here is not to justify nor condemn political activists or “energy creators and liberators”. My appeal is to go back to the very root word and meaning of ethnicity - a social identity that generates belongingness, and cultural distinctiveness and heritage that roots people to their social group. Like the orphans who craved to search for their identities, wanting to belong to ethnic roots is just human nature.

I wish the litmus test of ethnicity to be the extent to which we take several economic actions that transform our ethnic groups and hence the larger society to the better.  It should be about contributing something that adds values to our ethnic group on the triple bottom line concepts - social, financial and environmental.

The entrepreneurial mindset is about innovativeness that engages in new ideas, in technological or product-market innovation and creative processes. It is about being proactive to find and exploit new opportunities and take a calculated risk to achieve specific goals. This is the mindset I wish we have for our ethnic identities, to explore and work toward a social and economic transformation that alters our impasse of sensational ethnic rhetoric to action-oriented engagement.

PUBLISHED ON Jul 20,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 1003]

Seble Hailu was the past president of the Association of Women in Business and is currently doing her doctoral studies in sociology at the Oxford (Omega) Graduate School in Dayton, Tennessee.

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