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Neurodiversity via an inclusive entrepreneurship lens

By Katerina Nicolopoulou - Posted on 22 November 2023

A recent research project looking at neurodiversity and entrepreneurship addressed the opportunities and challenges for individual and corporate entrepreneurs and enterprises. Here, Katerina Nicolopoulou outlines the issues.

A research project on Neurodiversity and Inclusive Entrepreneurship has recently been completed by an inter-disciplinary research team from the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship led by me and my colleagues, Paul Lasalle, Helen Taylor, Yolanda Achlada and Ahmed Fahmy.

The research/knowledge exchange (KE) project has relevance to both individual as well as corporate enterprises and entrepreneurs, and was funded via the Strathclyde Business School KE fund.

The project focused on research conducted with several participating experts representing enterprises, corporates, associations and academia, and was also supported by the Neurodiversity and Entrepreneurship Association. The project activities culminated in a two-day global online event which took place on September 26 and 27. ‘Neurodiversity Days at Strathclyde’ saw participants from the UK, USA, Canada and Australia, and notable speakers and facilitators in specialised areas including dyslexia, autism, corporate programmes, leadership, diversity, social enterprise with a focus on Neurodiversity.

The background research that was conducted highlighted a number of interesting themes, which were later picked up in greater detail in the co-designed participatory workshops of the two-day event, which aimed at creating joint outcomes, including strategic road-mapping regarding future and promising directions for Neurodiversity and Inclusive Entrepreneurship in its different formats. The initial anchoring themes included:

· The link between neurodiversity, innovation and entrepreneurship

· Potential tensions in identifying neurodiversity as part of a diversity, talent or disability discourse and policy agenda

· Challenges of neurodivergent entrepreneurs in the various stages of the entrepreneurship process (recognising and addressing opportunities, garnering resources, building entrepreneurial teams)

· The business case on neurodiversity

· Managerial and leadership responses to neurodiversity in organisations and ways in which innovation and entrepreneurship can be fostered through those

· Future-oriented directions for practice, academia, enterprise, policy

When focusing on individual entrepreneurs and enterprises, a clear case was made for supportive environments where role models would be available in order to inspire neurodivergent entrepreneurs to thrive within their communities, thus also succeeding in ending the neurodiversity stigma. Part of such a supportive environment would also be the interactive and collaborative relationships between ‘neurotypical’ and ‘neurodivergent’ entrepreneurs, where learning can take place from each other. Technologies would have a role to play in enabling learning for new tools and systems, which the entrepreneurs would benefit from, especially adopting a universal adaptive design focusing on inclusivity. Finally, the way to support entrepreneurs from a diversity-focused angle would include welcoming and facilitating the provision of reasonable adjustments - as well as understanding and incorporating ‘spiky’ profiles as well as the intersections between socio-economic backgrounds, gender, language, race and ethnicity.

When focusing on corporate environments and enterprise activities that can be driven by innovation, the workshop identified four paradigms that position current realities and provide a compass for a way forward:

(a) The ‘Humanistic’ paradigm, where individuals (‘Neuromajority’ or ‘Neurominority’) exhibit strong agency in making change happen towards ‘humanising’ organisational workplaces, where acceptance of uniqueness can drive organisations to move beyond the idea of standardised reasonable adjustments, and look deeper to individual needs, contributions, ways of thinking and behaving

(b) The ‘Organisational’ paradigm, whereby the excellent practice of organisations can pave a way forward and set standards in different industries; those would need to be catalysed by the appropriate set of resources (human, financial etc)

(c) The ‘Contextual’ paradigm, in which national, regional, global or other cultures drive understanding and awareness about Neurodiversity in organisations

(d) The ‘policy-related’ paradigm, whereby policy could be a lever of transformation, if progressed beyond a basic ‘compliance’ orientation.

These paradigms do not come without tensions that need to be uncovered in order to facilitate their emergence - such as a requirement for middle managers in organisations to sustain an ‘exploration/exploitation’ mindset in organisational practices so as to foster entrepreneurial action via innovation and creativity that encompasses interest from or about neurodiversity.

These insights have generated an agenda that merits further investigation via research involving academia, policy, practice and enterprise:

First, the need to rethink innovation in organisational settings which can lead to entrepreneurial outcomes. This necessitates going beyond standardised perceptions of ways in which neurodivergent individuals think and behave. Similarly, there is a necessity to identify and facilitate forms of organisational, managerial and leadership support which can catalyse entrepreneurial outcomes from, or for, neurodivergent individuals and teams.

Secondly, re-calibrating the agenda of diversity in order to avoid essentialism and diluting issues which can be part of a strong business case about neurodiversity in organisations; acknowledging and accepting intersectionalities as catalytic for innovative and possibly entrepreneurial outcomes; related to those, the HR agenda that can foster entrepreneurship and innovation with neurodivergent employees and teams via programmes and systems for collaboration, mentoring, or managerial support.

Finally, the national, regional and global contexts that underpin ecosystems for entrepreneurship where neurodivergent individuals and organisations can support innovative and entrepreneurial outcomes.

This fascinating area is inviting several new perspectives and theorisation - and most importantly, a call for action to consider the generation of further evidence-based insights that can inform not only our understanding, but also future curricula and the way that these topics are also taught in business schools: it seems that this is only the beginning!

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