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Re-thinking entrepreneurship through the lens of culture: Implications for sustainable entrepreneurship education in Bhutan

* This Think Piece is an adaptation of a paper presented by the author at the Seventh International Conference on Gross National Happiness in Thimphu, Bhutan.


Promoting entrepreneurship is a key vehicle to foster diversified economic growth. This is particularly important for Bhutan given its small and nascent private sector. Yet certain characteristics of national cultures, including that of Bhutan’s culture, have been identified as barriers to effectively promoting entrepreneurship. This Think Piece argues, in contrast, that thinking differently about the role of Bhutan’s culture in promoting entrepreneurship can provide a more meaningful perspective on Bhutanese business and entrepreneurship education. It suggests that alternative understandings of entrepreneurship among Bhutanese entrepreneurs themselves redefine the nature of entrepreneurship based on local cultural values. This redefinition, in turn, lends itself to more sustainable form of entrepreneurship. The article concludes with a discussion of the implications of this cultural rethinking for entrepreneurship education in the country.

Culture and entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship is broadly defined as new business creation that provides self-employment, is focused on growth and usually creates jobs.[1] The level of entrepreneurial activity, however, differs across countries. Previous research points to a number of factors that explain these differences. One factor is culture.[2] According to this research, cultural values that emphasize risk-taking, individualism and competition are associated with entrepreneurial behavior. In contrast, cultural values that emphasize collectivity and conformity are less likely to promote entrepreneurship. Cultural values can therefore influence, positively or negatively, individuals’ attitudes towards entrepreneurship, society’s demand for entrepreneurs and the attraction of entrepreneurship as a vehicle for self-employment.

Culture is defined as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one human group from another and includes systems and values.”[3] Geert Hofstede has developed a set of six dimensions that characterize culture. The dimensions include:

i) Power distance: the degree to which people in a society accept hierarchy and unequal distributions of power as normal.

ii) Individualism versus collectivism: the degree to which people in a society prefer a framework of loosely knit individuals who take care of themselves versus a tightly knit collective that is interconnected.

iii) Masculinity versus femininity: the degree to which people in a society are motivated by achievement, competition, assertiveness and quantity versus cooperation, caring and quality.

iv) Uncertainty avoidance: the degree to which people in a society are comfortable with uncertain or ambiguous situations.

v) Long-term versus short-term orientation: how members of a society prioritize maintaining links to their past while preparing for the challenges of the future.

vi) Indulgence versus restraint: the degree to which members of a society prioritize the gratification of human desires versus the suppression of these desires.

According to Hofstede, each national culture is characterized by where it falls on an index of 100 points for each of these six dimensions.[4] Past research has hypothesized that low power distance, high individualism, high masculinity and low uncertainty avoidance contribute to a more entrepreneurial culture.[5] While these relationships do not always hold across all levels of economic development or over time[6] they generally are consistent with a national culture that promotes entrepreneurial motivation and activity. What, then, are the implications of these dimensions for an entrepreneurial culture in Bhutan?

Bhutanese entrepreneurship through the lens of culture

The private sector in Bhutan has historically been small. The government of Bhutan has, in response, made significant efforts to promote private sector development and entrepreneurship. Indeed, the Bhutanese private sector has been identified as a key player to help drive the country’s national development strategy known as Gross National Happiness (GNH). GNH strives for a more holistic and integrated approach to development that moves beyond a sole focus on economic growth. It places economic growth as one of multiple pillars of development that include nine social, cultural, ecological and governance related domains. All of these domains are meant to work together in an integrated and mutually reinforcing way to promote the conditions for happiness in the country. In this sense, entrepreneurship is not just about economic growth; it interacts with other GNH domains to contribute to a broader, more holistic, realization of people’s development.

Given the need for entrepreneurship to contribute to GNH, Bhutan’s Economic Development Policy of 2016 explicitly outlines the importance of developing the culture and institutions required to foster entrepreneurship in the country. Similarly, the Cottage, Small and Medium Industry Policy of 2012 prioritizes the development of an entrepreneurial culture as one of its six strategic areas of focus. A look at where Bhutan falls on Hofstede’s dimensions of culture, however, suggests there may be challenges for developing an entrepreneurial spirit to expand the private sector. Again, low power distance (rejection of hierarchy), high individualism, high masculinity (competitiveness and assertiveness) and low uncertainty avoidance (comfort with ambiguity) are generally hypothesized within past research as contributing to a more entrepreneurial culture. Bhutan’s national culture, in contrast, is characterized by extremely high power distance, medium individualism, low masculinity and low uncertainty avoidance (figure 1). In other words, Bhutan’s culture is characterized by high levels of hierarchy, medium levels individualism, low levels of competitiveness and a general comfort with ambiguity. While the latter bodes well for an entrepreneurial culture in Bhutan, the other three are significant barriers.


Note:       Bhutanese data not available for Long-term orientation and Indulgence


Additional research confirms this conclusion. While this research uses a number of additional dimensions beyond Hofstede’s, its points to a similar finding, particularly as it relates to entrepreneurship and Bhutanese youth: “The development of effective national entrepreneurship programs in Bhutan will face significant challenges from adverse cultural factors.” [7]

So where does this leave Bhutan? Do adverse cultural factors make the promotion of entrepreneurship as envisioned in the Economic Development Policy a pipe dream? Bhutanese cultural characteristics indeed appear to act as a barrier to the pursuit of economic growth through entrepreneurship. Yet this is only the case if entrepreneurship is understood in terms of a western cultural framework of non-hierarchical competitiveness for individual gain. A more positive picture emerges for Bhutan if the concept of entrepreneurship itself is re-framed in Bhutanese cultural terms. Evidence of this comes from a study by the author that included, in part, an exploration of the role of Bhutanese entrepreneurs in promoting GNH.[8] This included an analysis of Bhutanese entrepreneurs’ own understanding of the concept of entrepreneurship. Their insights are revealing. Bhutanese entrepreneurs re-defined the concept of entrepreneurship beyond economics. Their understanding of the term was rooted in the notion of interdependence. For them, a tight and inherent interdependence exists across economic, cultural and environmental systems. Entrepreneurship may create economic growth, but it must also be a vehicle to preserve culture and conserve the environment. It is about a holistic interlinkage across all of them. In essence, whether they knew it or not, these entrepreneurs were re-defining entrepreneurship in GNH terms. Profit is not absent in this equation but it is inextricably linked to cultural and ecological concerns. According to one Bhutanese business owner in the tourism industry: “Profit is not everything. Our philosophy and belief is if we are profitable as a society, as a community, as a tour company, we need to take care of [cultural and ecological] things. If not we’ll kill the golden goose.” According to another: “we feel so much for preservation of culture and identity.” Similarly, another entrepreneur spoke of his worry of placing too much emphasis on the economic aspect of the tourism industry. “My worry,” he said, “is that we don’t have a viable system to handle 250,000 tourists… [increasing] tourist numbers is not just buying two new aircrafts and having 600 licensed operators and hotels. There are so many other things to it like how we look after our garbage and cultural things.”

The notion of interdependence is at the heart of these statements. The relationship between economic, cultural and ecological concerns is not viewed as a zero sum struggle between profit and ecological sustainability, or profit and cultural preservation; they are an integrated whole, where each should be balanced in order to be mutually beneficial to the others. Addressed interdependently, they exist in a virtuous circle. In contrast, killing cultural or ecological integrity also kills the golden economic goose. A western understanding of entrepreneurship as individualistic competition for economic gain is re-defined as a Bhutanese understanding of collective interdependence across economic, ecological and cultural concerns.

This was perhaps most strikingly demonstrated in a series of events within the tourism industry where many Bhutanese entrepreneurs pushed back at an attempt by the government to place more emphasis on the economic aspect of the industry. Tourism policy in Bhutan has historically made it expensive for international tourists to visit the country in order to protect the country’s environment and culture from large numbers of tourists. At the heart of this policy is the recognition of the importance of balance across economic, ecological and cultural concerns even if this limits economic returns. Low numbers of high paying tourists attempted to create this balance. The counterpoint for many Bhutanese is the case of Nepal, where mass tourism has brought in large numbers of tourists and huge revenue at the expense of the country’s environment and cultural heritage.[9] Bhutan’s tourism policy was initially termed high value; low volume to reflect the balance sought by the government and to do so through low numbers of tourists. Nonetheless, the growing economic potential of the tourism industry, combined with a changing Bhutanese economy with new challenges rooted in rural/urban migration and youth unemployment, led to tourism being viewed in a new light. The policy of high value; low volume was replaced with high value; low impact. The difference in wording was subtle but significant. It illustrated a shift away from minimizing the volume of tourist arrivals to a new emphasis on increasing them to promote greater economic growth, while continuing to mitigate negative impacts on culture and the environment low. According to government officials, this was not an abandonment of the balance of GNH domains. It was a re-balancing of the domains given the evolution in the economy that needed to be addressed.[10]

Part of the revised tourism policy proposed dramatically increasing the number of international tourists by making it much less expensive to visit the country. From the perspective of a westerner, this would seem to be a boon to the Bhutanese private sector. Yet, many Bhutanese tourism entrepreneurs pushed back, arguing that the proposed increase in tourist numbers would overwhelm the needed balance between economic, cultural and ecological concerns, with negative implications for the latter two. In response, the government abandoned its proposal to decrease the cost of visiting the country as a way to increase tourist numbers and actually increased the cost.

To the western mind, this might all sound counter-intuitive coming from the private sector. From the Bhutanese perspective, it is not. While notions of corporate social responsibility, sustainable business and social entrepreneurship exist within the private sector in the west, they historically are not central to how entrepreneurship is conceptualized. In contrast, for these Bhutanese entrepreneurs, the notion of economic-cultural-ecological interdependence was the very bedrock upon which entrepreneurship is understood. Non-economic aspects are not add-ons; they are foundational.

Bhutanese cultural values underlie this re-framed understanding of entrepreneurship. Bhutanese entrepreneurs spoke about their values as the engine that drives how they pursue their interdependent understanding of business. Values such as balance, harmony among all living things, and interconnectedness across the past and present were central. The entrepreneurs referred to these as Bhutanese values, GNH values, Buddhist values or Buddhist-Hindu values. As the foundation of a Bhutanese understanding of entrepreneurship, these cultural values are not a barrier to entrepreneurship as some research suggests. Rather, they are a facilitator of a distinctly Bhutanese kind of entrepreneurship where profit is more finely balanced with ecological conservation and cultural preservation. A cultural lens is therefore critical for understanding an appropriate conceptualization of entrepreneurship in Bhutan.

To make the point from a different angle, a similar study was undertaken with young entrepreneurs in Indonesia.[11] Similar to the Bhutanese case, Indonesian entrepreneurs also re-defined the nature of entrepreneurship based on their own cultural values, which are characterized by an even greater collectivist character than Bhutan’s culture.[12] The result: an distinctly Indonesian conceptualization of entrepreneurship that is not only different from western understandings of the term, but different from Bhutan’s as well. While Bhutanese emphasized economic-cultural-ecological interdependence as the foundation of entrepreneurship, Indonesian entrepreneurs understood entrepreneurship as collective social good. Entrepreneurship for these Indonesians is about two parallel aspects: generating wealth and using this wealth to improve the social conditions, bonds and harmony of one’s own community. The two are mutually important and foundational. In practice, this means, for example, that these Indonesian entrepreneurs were often creating jobs for family or community members even if it inhibited their ability to make greater profit. Like the Bhutanese case, using a cultural lens yields a more appropriate understanding of how entrepreneurship is understood and practiced in Indonesia. Dismissing entrepreneurial potential based on western values is replaced by understanding the specific role entrepreneurship can play within its cultural context.

Using a cultural lens, and its application to Bhutan in particular, is significant for the larger concept of sustainability. While Bhutanese cultural values may inhibit entrepreneurship when defined solely as an economic phenomenon, those same values contribute positively to fostering a more holistic and sustainable form of entrepreneurship relevant to the Bhutanese context specifically. They promote an understanding and practice of a balanced conceptualization of entrepreneurship more closely connected to maintaining cultural and ecological integrity. Sustainability is therefore the very core of entrepreneurship. Bhutanese cultural values in this sense are not barriers to fostering an entrepreneurial culture; they are in fact part of the answer. They push the practice of entrepreneurship in a more integrated and holistic direction where profit is pursued hand-in-hand with environmental conservation and cultural preservation. Bhutanese cultural values become the springboard upon which to build a more sustainable and holistic private sector.

Implications for entrepreneurship education

What practical applications emerge from this discussion? How can a more sustainable notion of entrepreneurship be fostered that is rooted to cultural values in Bhutan? Appropriate entrepreneurship education is the starting point. Entrepreneurship curriculum and teaching methods need to reflect their cultural and social environments.[13] Nonetheless, many entrepreneurship education programs across the world are primarily located in Business Schools and take a one-size-fits all approach rooted in western experience.[14] The perspective of Bhutanese entrepreneurs demonstrates that this is a mistake. Grounding entrepreneurship education in local cultural values means not simply replicating western curriculum. Doing so will miss the richness of culturally appropriate conceptualizations of entrepreneurship that may, as the case of Bhutan suggests, potentially foster a more sustainable approach to business closely connected to local culture. Bhutanese entrepreneurship education should therefore ensure the country’s cultural values are the foundation of curriculum, particularly at the curriculum design stage. It should ensure that a culturally appropriate understanding of entrepreneurship as economic-cultural-ecological interdependence is the core of how entrepreneurship is taught. This is no mere focus on corporate social responsibility or social entrepreneurship as sub-themes within a larger, economic-centric entrepreneurship curriculum. In essence, this means Bhutan should ensure to “GNH” entrepreneurship curriculum both within formal public education programs and short-term private sector training. Bhutan has a history of attempting to infuse GNH into curriculum.[15] Ensuring this extends to both public and private entrepreneurship education and training will help foster a distinctly ‘Bhutanese’ entrepreneurial spirit, a spirit that is culturally relevant in its connection to the interdependence at the core of meaningful sustainability.


Works Cited

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