Entrepreneurial resourcefulness offers hope in crisis
When large-scale catastrophic events occur, entrepreneurs are key to rebuilding a country’s future.
Published: October 16, 2023 / Author: Ty Burke
In 2010, a catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti. By some estimates, more than 300,000 people died and thousands of buildings were destroyed. But these tragic numbers don’t tell the whole story. Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, was unprepared to deal with the crisis because of its weak infrastructure, faltering government and ineffective civic institutions.
Research from Dean Shepherd, the Ray and Milann Siegfried Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, has shown that the resourcefulness of Haitian entrepreneurs helped the country navigate this crisis — and sought to ensure it is better prepared for the next time disaster strikes.
“People and communities have the capacity to bounce back themselves and to build back better,” said Shepherd. “There are considerable challenges in actually doing that, but people are a lot more resilient than they get credit for.”
Shepherd is a widely cited entrepreneurship scholar who has authored more than 20 books and 180 publications in top academic journals. His research highlights entrepreneurship’s transformative power and its potential pitfalls. Shepherd’s most recent book, “Entrepreneurial Theorizing: An Approach to Research,” focuses on how new entrepreneurial theories are made. In 2022, he published “Entrepreneurial Responses to Chronic Adversity: The Bright, the Dark, and the in Between,” which explores the many ways that humans respond to adversity, from perseverance to rationalizing illegal action.
The entrepreneurs who launched new ventures in the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake drew on their local knowledge and networks. But their entrepreneurial efforts went beyond leveraging existing connections. They sought to build entirely new ones that would make the country more resilient in the face of future crises.
When a disaster like this occurs in a country with institutions as weak as Haiti’s, international aid nongovernmental organizations are one of the main sources of relief. Organizations such as UNICEF, the Red Cross and Oxfam provided humanitarian assistance in Haiti. But Shepherd’s research found that local entrepreneurs also played an important role.
“NGOs sometimes assume they know what will help and what is necessary, but given the right resources, people can find ways to look after what is needed most,” said Shepherd.
“Even when a lot of their physical resources have been lost, local people still have a lot of intangible resources,” he added. “They can use local knowledge and relationships to create these ventures and have a good understanding of how best to alleviate suffering.”
And, importantly, they are already on the ground. Local people can access locations where infrastructure is damaged or where the security situation is too uncertain for NGOs to send their staff.
The academic literature on entrepreneurship typically assumes that it takes resources, time and money to launch new ventures. But in this case, entrepreneurs had none of these. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, people improvised solutions that were focused on survival. But as the initial chaos subsided, entrepreneurs began to organize more systematically.
They built semi-permanent structures on farmland, sought out resources like food and diverted them to where they were needed, and organized services like food preparation and hair cutting. Other ventures were more forward-looking. Entrepreneurs organized work programs that connected local people with foreign agencies, work-for-tuition exchanges at schools, and initiatives that helped people find work so they could move back into permanent housing.
“The Haitian people showed enormous resourcefulness, and that is part of entrepreneurship too. Ventures that might normally take months or years to build were created very quickly,” said Shepherd.
Shepherd’s initial research identified six ventures that emerged in the aftermath of the earthquake. Published in the Journal of the Academy of Management in 2016 with co-author Trenton Williams, “Building Resilience or Providing Sustenance: Different Paths of Emergent Ventures in the Aftermath of the Haiti Earthquake” drew from interviews with 41 people associated with these ventures including founders, co-founders, team members, employees and suppliers. More recently, they revisited the theoretical implications of their findings in their paper, “Bounding and Binding: Trajectories of Community-Organization Emergence Following a Major Disruption,” published in Organization Science in 2021.
All of the entrepreneurs included in the research were on the scene during the upheaval that followed the earthquake. They witnessed buildings collapse, severe injuries, illness, death and anxiety due to the potential for violence. This scene of horror prompted them to seek to help others.
“The country had basically lost everything. It didn’t have many strong institutions to start with, and the ones it had were completely devastated. People were really on their own, and that’s how entrepreneurship became even more important,” said Shepherd.
Shepherd found that entrepreneurs filled gaps where government and large organizations weren’t operating. Much of the country’s infrastructure had been damaged, which made it difficult for aid organizations to reach some parts of the country. And many Haitians were desperate after losing their homes and belongings, which contributed to a shaky security situation that some international organizations deemed too dangerous to send staff. But even in places where international organizations can’t or won’t operate, there are local people who can. People who understand the needs on the ground, and can help alleviate the most pressing ones.
This grassroots entrepreneurial response to disaster isn’t unique to Haiti. It is common to many disaster zones, and that’s exactly why it’s so important. It helps build resilience for the future, Shepherd said. “People will be most invested in solutions they create themselves. So, the next time something happens, they’ll be in a better position to cope and will operate at a higher level.”
There is a lesson in Shepherd’s research for the international NGOs that deliver aid to disaster zones: Local entrepreneurs can be vital to recovery efforts because they have spent years building knowledge that can help address both short- and long-term challenges.
Shepherd recognizes that effectively leveraging on-the-ground resourcefulness in the wake of a disaster is not straightforward. But after studying how local entrepreneurs in Haiti quickly and effectively responded to urgent community needs, he believes their insider knowledge and access can be an important asset during a humanitarian crisis.
“There are assumptions that people are helpless, don’t have resources, don’t know what they need, and don’t know how to do it,” Shepherd said.“But that isn’t completely accurate. Perhaps governments and NGOs could provide more support to allow locals to identify what needs to be done.”