What is the role of passion in entrepreneurship?

Entrepreneurs and researchers reflected on the meaning and importance of entrepreneurial passion in this CIMR Debate in Public Policy on Wednesday 9 February 2022.

The concept of entrepreneurial passion has become deeply embedded in the folklore and practice of entrepreneurship, yet remains poorly researched and understood. Does passion give entrepreneurs the edge, or does it blind them to continue pushing ideas that should be abandoned? How does passion relate to grit, growth mindset and enthusiasm?

Chaired by Alex Till, Chief Executive of MENTA, this CIMR Debate in Public Policy invited two speakers with extensive experience in the field to debate the topic of passion in entrepreneurship. James Brook and Wai Foong Ng began by introducing their experience of entrepreneurial passion, before offering their perspective on questions from the audience.

Researching entrepreneurial passion

James Brook is a leadership consultant, organizational psychologist and executive coach. With twenty years’ experience as an entrepreneur, James is now a researcher in passion in entrepreneurship.

James began by outlining the complexity of defining and capturing entrepreneurial passion. Researchers have different understandings of passion in entrepreneurship and an individual’s passion can have many dimensions, for example social mission, purpose, customers, staff, or the process of building a team and a successful organisation.

What we do know is that passion is distinct from positive emotions such as enthusiasm and excitement; passion is more enduring and is associated with self-identity and feelings of who you are at your best.

James’s research addresses a gap in the literature on entrepreneurship by tracking the entrepreneurial journey for an 18-month period, collecting qualitative data on what leads entrepreneurs to choose this career path, what they are passionate about, how they experience entrepreneurial passion and what role passion has in shaping their journey.

How passion links to purpose

Wai Foong Ng is the founder and CEO of impact startup Matchable. Foong began her career as a lawyer and accountant, spending thirteen years at PWC, where she achieved the role of Director in 2016.

Foong commented on the role of external pressures in career decisions, such as parental expectations or feeling pressured to “climb the corporate ladder”. In 2018, she took a sabbatical to find a more purposeful career. At the same time, an opportunity arose to get involved in a new social enterprise, Matchable, which matches individuals in organisations with volunteering opportunities that suit their interests and skillset. Relating to the idea of supporting people to find their purpose and passion, Foong applied for the role of Founder and CEO and is now three years into the position.

Among the challenges Foong has faced as a startup CEO in a global pandemic are loneliness and the constant rollercoaster of the excitement of growth contrasted with worry about the future. However, with a growing team and the opportunity to get back to a greater sense of normalcy, she is optimistic for the future.

How can you overcome loneliness as an entrepreneur?

Picking up on the idea of loneliness, Alex asked Foong whether passion supported her through this challenge. For Foong, seeking companionship is key, either via informal team meetings or working in busy surroundings like a coffee shop. She stressed that as a startup founder “it’s all on you”, so there can be real pressure to deliver results.

Is it possible to measure passion in entrepreneurship?

Asked what kind of scorecards could be used to measure entrepreneurial passion, James noted that most measures of passion are self-reported. This leads to a new line of enquiry into perceived passion and the extent to which this supports entrepreneurs in their work.

What do you do when people don’t share your passion?

A question from the audience asked what an entrepreneur should do if their team did not share their passion. James found that in his experience passion had a “contagion effect” and could bring others on board. Foong encouraged entrepreneurs to consider how else people might buy into their idea, for example through commission on sales, a great working environment or flexibility.

Is entrepreneurial passion always positive?

The panel debated whether there is a scenario in which entrepreneurial passion can be negative, for example by making an entrepreneur blind to the reality of their situation. James argued that there was “definitely a dark side to entrepreneurial passion” when it impacts on rational, logical decision-making. Foong added that it is important to get the balance right between having a long-term vision and being agile enough to pivot and make decisions based on data.

Is passion synonymous with drive? Where does growth mindset fit in?

Grit researcher Angela Duckworth defines grit as the combination of passion and perseverance. Passion therefore supports individuals in having the determination to focus on something in the long term to achieve the desired outcome.

For James, a growth mindset supports entrepreneurs to cope with setbacks and bounce back from failure by seeing it as a learning experience.

Foong argued that passion and grit go hand in hand to progress any kind of business; passion alone “isn’t always enough to make you get up in the morning and do things.”

While passion cannot drive the success of a business on its own, it is an important ingredient for achieving a positive outcome, not least in the way it supports the health and wellbeing of entrepreneurs.

We would like to thank Alex, James and Foong for their insights and attendees for their thought-provoking questions.

The recording of the workshop is available to watch on YouTube: