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Survey Investigating Youth Entrepreneurship Reveals Role of Character and Intentional Life Experiences on Leadership

Links Found to Business Entrepreneurship and Self-Efficacy

A new study of youth leadership through entrepreneurship conducted by the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University has found that “intentional” life experiences and development of certain character traits set the foundation for both social and business entrepreneurship among young people. Social entrepreneurship may be defined as starting or extending the reach of a non-profit organization through activities that benefit others.

The survey, conducted for CARE by SurveyTelligence, Inc., identified three key variables that are statistically tied to entrepreneurial interest and behavior:

  • Responsibility (e.g., a job, household chores, taking care of siblings)
  • Information (from family elders, books and the Internet)
  • Character (traits such as motivation, initiative, sociability, adaptability and optimism)

In addition, the study revealed that starting a non-business group or organization in youth is significantly predictive of business entrepreneurship later in life.

“This work paints an interesting picture of a path to business entrepreneurship,” said Associate Professor of Psychology Michael Smith, Psy.D., one of the study’s lead investigators and academic research coordinator at CARE. “Typically we look at social entrepreneurship as an outcome of successful business entrepreneurship, not the other way around. However, this pattern differs in young people who may gain skills and experience through service to others, which they leverage into business activities as adults.”

Youth interested in social entrepreneurship possessed many of the same background traits and experiences as those pursuing economic ends, but community-service minded individuals were more likely to express commitment to faith and values, report interaction with positive peers, and have greater motivation to develop healthy social connections with others.

Additional factors, such as increased exposure to grandparents, foreign travel and summer camp also influence entrepreneurial activity regardless of whether that fulfills business or community-based goals.

Summer Camp and the Social Entrepreneur

Participants who attended a summer camp were significantly more likely to state an interest in social entrepreneurship. Those young people cited the influence of counselors in three particular ways: mentoring (especially in helping them to develop social and leadership skills), assistance in obtaining social and material resources to start new projects, and guidance in understanding such projects and identifying other mentors.

CARE Advisory Board member Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association, explains, “Camps are rich in mentors, providing children and teens with nurturing adults who help them to learn more about themselves and cultivate individual interests and talents. When those relationships motivate service, it’s truly a ‘win-win’ situation.”

This data supports earlier research from the national SADD organization (Students Against Destructive Decisions), a CARE partner, which revealed that teens with a mentor reported a high sense of self significantly more frequently than teens who did not identify a mentor in their life. Additionally, teens with mentors reported that they are significantly more likely than teens without mentors to challenge themselves by taking positive risks, such as volunteering to perform community service.

That study also noted young people who participated in camp were significantly more likely to report being highly mentored, taking positive risks and possessing a healthier sense of self .

CARE founder and director Stephen Gray Wallace, an associate research professor at Susquehanna University and another lead investigator for this study, said, “We have long known of the positive effects of youth mentoring on academic achievement, pro-social behavior and risk reduction related to such behaviors as underage drinking, other drug use and violence. This compelling new data highlights further the value of community involvement, mentorship and the summer camp experience in creating positive social change in schools and communities across the country.”

Leann Mischel, Ph.D., an entrepreneurship-track professor at Susquehanna University’s Sigmund Weis School of Business, herself a camp director and also one of the study’s lead investigators, points to the efficacy of teaching initiative-taking in young people. She noted that camp experiences in a person’s youth, whether overnight or day, are positively correlated to entrepreneurial activity later in life.

Interest in Business Entrepreneurship

Young people expressing intentions of social entrepreneurship were also more likely than their peers to state an interest in someday starting their own business. Not surprisingly, these participants ranked highly on taking initiative and were especially likely to have worked in a family business. Youth in this group were also more likely to take risks which, when guided toward positive outcomes, enhanced their entrepreneurial motivation. The value of summer camp and the mentorship found there was also evident in this group—counselors helped young people develop skills needed to devise and achieve goals. These findings are consistent with other research indicating that entrepreneurial characteristics can be taught and, as in other critical areas of development, parents may play the most influential role in encouraging and modeling entrepreneurial behavior (Iannarelli, Mischel, & Aniello. July 2009).

Self-Directed Youth

The study also uncovered some interesting information about the degree to which young entrepreneurs internalize direction and decision-making, or their internal locus of control. Participants who engaged in smaller-scale entrepreneurship as children tended to come from families where the parents did not enforce strict discipline, even though this group of individuals intended to live according to a positive value system.

These young people also tended to be outgoing, motivated, optimistic, flexible and assertive. Such non-cognitive skills have been identified as important benchmarks for prospective employers and are at the heart of educational efforts in schools, camps and religious organizations.

This group was more likely to have started non-business organizations. They reported being more active in those groups as well as reporting more political and athletic involvement. Being more outgoing, participants in this group anticipated making new friends and starting new organizations in the next several months. They were also significantly more likely to have travelled overseas, highlighting the importance of diverse life experiences in developing one’s character and achievement.

What Parents Can Do

Parents interested in encouraging positive character development in, and civic-engagement by, their adolescent children can:

  1. Assign them to certain family responsibilities;
  2. Expose them to information about career paths and how to achieve them;
  3. Talk with them about family values and faith and encourage them to act on those values on a day-to-day basis; 
  4. Point to examples of successful social entrepreneurs;
  5. Engage them in community service and service learning programs;
  6. Introduce them to individuals and/or organizations for mentoring purposes;
  7. Encourage close relationships with their grandparents;
  8. Explore with them any history of family business(es);
  9. Help them to assume responsibility for personal behavior and to set their own expectations for achievement;
  10. Communicate confidence in their ability to succeed.


Data collection for this study occurred during the first three weeks of October 2013. Email invitations were sent to more than 6,000 unique addresses of individuals who had applied for admission to Susquehanna University in 2012 and 2013. A description of the project and a survey link were included in the email. Recipients were also told that they would be entered into a raffle for one of three $50 VISA gift cards if they completed the online questionnaire.

Of those receiving the email invitation, 292 (4.8 percent) completed the survey, which required about 20 minutes of their time. Ten participants were excluded given that they were under the age of 18, resulting in a final sample of 282 individuals with an average age of 18.62 years (SD = .71 years). Two-thirds of the sample was female with 80 percent being Caucasian. All participants had graduated from high school, but 95 percent had completed no more than two or three years of college. About 96 percent of the sample was currently enrolled in higher education, with half working a part-time job. All study procedures and data collection instruments were verified by Susquehanna University’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) as having complied with ethical research standards under U.S. law.

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