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Ethnic entrepreneurship: the distinct role of ties.


Ethnic entrepreneurship has become an important subject of inquiry since the role of ethnic entrepreneurs in the local economy appears to be expanding across the globe (Cui, 2001). While it is anticipated that the increase in levels of such entrepreneurship is likely to have a positive effect on economic development (Johnson, Munoz and Alon, 2007), the research suggests that it is challenging to establish and sustain entrepreneurial initiatives by ethnic groups due to limited resources such as finance, labor, markets, language and cultural differences to name a few (Fuller-Love, Lim and Akehurst, 2006). To access these resources, ethnic entrepreneurs often rely on their own group's social capital, that is, capital that develops from their in-group ties (Kalnins and Chung, 2006). It is therefore not surprising to find that such entrepreneurs often cluster in a particular industry in their host nation, for example Chinese laundries in California (Ong, 1981), Gujarati "cornershops" in Great Britain (Aldrich et al., 1984) as well as Gujarati hotel owners in the US (Kalnins and Chung, 2006).

While the literature in ethnic entrepreneurship has discussed the facilitating role of ingroup ties, it has seldom mentioned the constraining role of these ries in seeking and sustaining entrepreneurial opportunities. I draw upon the social network literature to discuss the facilitating and constraining roles of these ties. According to the social networks literature, a debate has arisen over the form of network that can appropriately be regarded as beneficial. According to one view, densely embedded networks are beneficial because of the "closure" these networks offer (Coleman, 1988). Ties in a closed network facilitate the flow of information. At the same time, these ties may constrain the participants in a closed network. Structural hole theory (Burt, 1992) provides an alternate view in social networks literature. According to this view, the size of one's network and strength of one's ties are not as important as the diversity of one's contacts. Open or sparse networks-networks that have disconnected clusters and that are loosely connected via structural holes that occupy brokerage positions in the network-offer the most economic returns because such networks provide diverse non-redundant information. I build upon the structural hole theory to deliberate how structural holes may have the potential for compensating the constraining aspect of in-group ties.

Using social capital theory as my theoretical lens, I develop arguments for the role of different types of ties that may help ethnic entrepreneurs to expand beyond the traditional businesses which their ethnic community exemplifies. I use the closure argument to suggest that while in-group ties offer definite benefits to ethnic entrepreneurs, these ties also constrain these entrepreneurs and make them vulnerable because of their limited access to outside information. Further, I use the structural hole argument to suggest that out-group ties, or ties in open networks, are valuable resources of information for ethnic entrepreneurs if these entrepreneurs gain access to those players in the open network that occupy brokerage positions. I then examine certain types of organizations/institutions that have competencies to occupy brokerage positions in open networks, and that could be a source of non-redundant information to ethnic entrepreneurs. Such a discussion starts the conversation about the contingencies of different types of ties and the role that each of them may play for sourcing resources for ethnic entrepreneurs.

Theoretical Background

Ethnic Entrepreneurship: The Role of In-group Ties

Ethnic entrepreneurship, defined as "a set of connections and regular patterns of interaction among people sharing common national background or migration experiences" (Waldinger, Aldrich and Ward, 1990: 3), has come to occupy an increasingly important position in the economy of industrialized nations (Chaganti and Greene, 2002). Such entrepreneurship has been reported to be vital for the regeneration of economies in countries such as United Kingdom (UK Small Business Service, 2003) and the United States (Iwata, 2007). Many countries such as China and India have also increasingly attempted to attract overseas entrepreneurs to strengthen their economic development. The increased mobility across global borders predicts a consistent rise in ethnic population across the globe. For example, in the United States, the percentage of only-white population has decreased by 10% from 1980 to 2000 and this has been paralleled by an increase in the ethnic population (US CensusScope). US Small Business Administration also reports a consistent rise in ethnic businesses over these years. It is, therefore, in the strategic interest of these nations to provide policies and institutional support for nurturing, creating and sustaining ethnic businesses.

Literature suggests that ethnic entrepreneurship is distinct and deserves attention because of the uniqueness and limitation of ethnic entrepreneurs (Greene, 1997; Lai Si Tsui Auch, 2005). For example, members of ethnic groups often find themselves disadvantaged in the labor market because of a lack of language skills and recognized qualifications, and this prompts them to consider entrepreneurial opportunities. Further, access to resources, including finance, labor and market, may be difficult for some ethnic groups (Fuller-Love, Lim and Akehurst, 2006).

Three main perspectives exist in the literature that explain the emergence of new business for ethnic entrepreneurs-the middleman minorities perspective (Bonacich, 1973), the ethnic enclaves perspective (Wilson and Martin, 1982) and the collectivist perspective (Butler and Herring, 1991). The main position of the middleman minorities perspective is that factors such as host country hostility and race discrimination often lead immigrants to develop enterprises that are located in the middle of the economic system such as labor contractor, small retail trade, broker, etc. Ethnic enclave perspective is similar to the middleman minorities perspective, but in this case the enterprises are located in geographical proximity. Finally, the collectivist perspective states that cultural attributes such as religion and communal solidarity prompt ethnic minorities to create and sustain their own enterprises (Redding, 1990). While the interest in this field has been on the rise, the literature regarding a distinct and systematic consideration of the mechanisms that nurture, create and sustain such enterprises is still very limited.

Centrally embedded in this entire stream of literature is the role of in-group ties that the ethnic community provides to new entrepreneurs. Ethnic community members share similar characteristics-the networks are closely connected and densely embedded. The closure generates trust and cohesiveness among them, resulting in stronger in-group ties among the community members. These ties facilitate access to information, resources and opportunities (Tsai and Ghoshal, 1998) about capital, market and labor to new entrepreneurs in these communities, and therefore serve as a natural business incubator for the new entrepreneurs (Greene and Butler, 1996). Easy and quick access to information and resources helps in minimizing the costs of searching information about business and therefore results in increased efficiency (Uzzi, 1997) for new entrepreneurs. Since norms of co-operation are high in networks with strong-in-group ties, deviance in behaviors and the threat of opportunism is low (Walker et al., 1997).

For all these reasons, it is not surprising, therefore, to find that ethnic entrepreneurial ventures 'tend to occupy mainly traditional business lines, and only seldom do they grow into larger firms and shift to more profitable and advanced fields' (Lerner and Khavul, 2003: 6). Traditional business lines may include businesses that maintain the same trade specializations over time and that do not diversify in different or unrelated industries. This explains why specific industries, for example in the United States, are largely dominated by certain ethnic minorities; for example, while the construction industry is primarily dominated by Hispanics, the retail (hotel/motel) industry is largely owned by Gujarati Indians (United States Small Business Administration, 2001).

While ties in a closed network provide a definite advantage to new entrepreneurs, they also come with the paradox of embeddedness (Uzzi, 1997). First, costs of network maintenance associated with these ties are high (Burt, 1992). For example, entrepreneurs in a closed network incur costs (resources) to maintain the norms of co-operation and conform to the norms of reciprocity in the community. Failure to reciprocate may result in a serious damage to the defector's reputation, affecting his/her access to social capital in the future. Second, members in a closed network are locked-in to the membership of their own ethnic communities, leaving them with limited information from outside (Karra, Phillips and Tracey, 2005). Over-embeddedness with their community generates a cognitive lock-in (Garguilo and Benassi, 2000) and isolates these entrepreneurs from the outside world. This has the potential to make such ethnic enterprises vulnerable with limited opportunities and lack of alternatives (Uzzi, 1997; Greene, 1997). Therefore, while in-group ties may encourage members from similar ethnic backgrounds to pursue business interests in similar/same industries, these may also serve as mobility barriers for such members into industries other than their own because of the constraining effects of these in-group ties. Portes and Sensenbrenner (1993) describe both forces--enabling and constraining--of these ties in their study of ethnic entrepreneurs. In their study, they found that while the entrepreneurs benefited from the support and resources provided by their cohesive networks, but the obligations that resulted from those benefits curtailed their subsequent ability to pursue new opportunities.

Taken together, the literature suggests that while in-group ties may serve as enabling forces for the entrepreneurs within the ethnic community, they may also serve as constraining forces for these entrepreneurs with regard to their choice of entrepreneurial activities beyond the traditional industries which their community represents. The central question for ethnic entrepreneurs, therefore, is to examine the mechanisms that (1) provide them with opportunities to reach outside their in-group ties and (2) enable the mobility of ethnic entrepreneurs in businesses/industries other than the ones with which they have been traditionally associated with.

Ethnic Entrepreneurship: Reaching Outside the In-group Ties

If seeking diverse information is key for enabling ethnic entrepreneurs to conduct business in diverse fields, then networks that provide these ethnic entrepreneurs with heterogeneous, non-redundant resources are critical. Burt's structural hole theory (Burt, 1992) provides a view that open or sparse networks--networks that have disconnected clusters and that are loosely connected via structural holes that occupy brokerage positions in the network-offer the most economic returns because such networks provide diverse nonredundant information. As against a closed network, ties in open networks do not lead to the paradox of over-embeddedness. Ties in open networks connect participants from different groups who are dissimilar from each other. Thus, the strength of these weakly connected ties lies in helping actors reach more people to access more non-redundant information (Granovetter, 1973)--this provides more alternatives, information and opportunities and offers flexibility to these actors for adaptation and innovation. Moreover, building open networks may be an effective way for actors to enjoy benefits of network size without paying the costs of network maintenance associated with in-group ties in a closed network (Burt, 1992).

In a qualitative study examining Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs in Singapore, Lai Si Tsui-Auch (2005) found support for the strength of weak ties (Granovetter, 1973) in linking loosely associated communities and providing people with a wider range of information. The data revealed that most Indian entrepreneurs relied on their in-group ties and maintained their trade specializations and family management, whereas most ethnic Chinese entrepreneurs effectively made use of heterogeneous weak ties to pursue unrelated diversification. Weak ties with loosely associated networks of friends and business contacts enabled the Chinese entrepreneurs to tap information about industrial trends, potential business partners and managerial talent. This research implied that open networks served as a rich source of non-redundant information for the Chinese entrepreneurs. In a similar vein, Garguilo and Benassi (2000) provide evidence that managers who were linked to multiple other people with loosely connected networks had more information available to them that allowed them to co-ordinate flexibly. Likewise, research has also demonstrated that a firm's network that is rich in structural holes may have a higher innovation output since the indirect ties (that structural holes provide to the firm) serve as a mechanism of knowledge spillovers (Abuja, 2000).

Implications of the Distinct Role of Ties for Ethnic Entrepreneurship

One option for an ethnic entrepreneur lies in developing these ties in open networks himself/herself across multiple industries and knowledge resources. This will demand that the entrepreneur reach out to multiple non-redundant clusters of relationships. The challenge, however, is that costs for searching through open networks are high for an entrepreneur. Further, since norms of co-operation are less likely to be established among all participants in such networks, the assurance of co-operation is likely to be low and threat of opportunism is likely to be high (Walker et al., 1997). The entrepreneur may need to expend greater time and effort to monitor these relationships.

Alternately, the entrepreneur may develop ties with an actor that is a structural hole. Since actors that occupy the structural hole position enjoy better access to information, relationships with structural holes provide opportunities for the entrepreneur to acquire new information. Hargadon (1998) calls such actors as knowledge-brokers-they span multiple markets and technology domains and diffuse knowledge from where it is known, to where it is not. Such actors (organizations/institutions) that could assist ethnic entrepreneurs to reach outside their in-group ties have at least two fundamental roles: (1) they possess heterogeneous knowledge bases and (2) they have the capability to connect disparate knowledge.

Such actors should necessarily be in a subject position of possessing overlapping domains of knowledge. For example, by virtue of their engagement with multiple clients and industries, such actors may possess disparate knowledge bases (Weiss, 1999). This increases the absorptive capacity (Cohen and Levinthal, 1990)-defined as the ability to recognize the value of new knowledge, assimilate it and apply it successfully to commercial ends-of these actors and provides them with greater legitimacy. Since, knowledge accumulation is a cumulative process (Cohen and Levinthal, 1990; Lane and Lubatkin, 1998), legitimacy and absorptive capacity further eases the acquisition and accrual of knowledge by these actors. These actors generate a significant knowledge pool and therefore are considered as knowledge-bearing actors.

Such actors should also necessarily be able to facilitate cross-pollination and transfer knowledge across disparate industries, providing clients access to knowledge to which they would not otherwise have access (Semadeni, 2000). It is this capability, to arbitrate and move knowledge across disparate constituencies and to connect knowledge seekers and knowledge sources (Weiss, 1999), which provides such actors with their distinctive competence.

What type(s) of organizations/institutions can serve as knowledge brokers to contribute to the knowledge development for ethnic entrepreneurs? Research indicates that institutions such as research and science parks (Colombo and Delmastro, 2002), local authorities, for example the Chambers of Commerce (von Malmborg, 2004), support agencies such as Small Firms Division within the Department of Trade and Industry in UK (Dhaliwal, 2006) and organizations such as management consulting firms have the potential to serve as knowledge brokers.

Colombo and Delmastro (2002: 1107) define a research and science park as "an initiative which (i) has formal, operational links with centers of knowledge creation, such as universities and research centers; (ii) is designed to encourage the formation and growth of innovative businesses; and (iii) has a management function which is actively engaged in the transfer of technology and business skills to 'customer' organizations." While the operational links with disparate constituencies provides these parks with knowledge-bearing capabilities, these links also provide them with an ability to transfer knowledge to customer organizations.

Likewise local authorities such as support agencies have been suggested to play an important role in supporting the development and management of regional industrial ecosystem. These public-private partnerships involve an active interaction between government and business. Von Malmborg (2004) identifies two conceptual roles for local authorities-serving as a knowledge bank and as a knowledge broker. Since local authorities span their network of relationships across multiple private and public partnerships, they possess vast amounts of knowledge and therefore are considered as knowledge banks. Such authorities also act as knowledge brokers because of their ability to connect disparate knowledge sources. For the same reason, the United Kingdom has established a Small Firms Division within the Department of Trade and Industry (Dhaliwal, 2006). The role of this division is to provide training programs, information and advisory services especially to ethnic minorities' business.

Management consulting firms may also be conceptualized as heterogeneous knowledge-bearing entities (Hargadon and Sutton, 1997; Weiss, 1999). Such firms possess cumulative knowledge bases due to their prior consulting engagements with multiple clients and industries and due to their boundary-spanning roles across multiple client groups. With these distinctive capabilities, management consulting firms could be considered as knowledge brokers.

Taken together, this discussion demonstrates that actors that possess the unique capabilities of (1) possessing heterogeneous knowledge bases and (2) connecting disparate knowledge bases, therefore are potential sources for offering non-redundant knowledge sources to ethnic entrepreneurs.

However, one caveat in place is that the role of these actors does not simply end with collecting and connecting knowledge (Weiss, 1999). Transferring knowledge from one context to another may be problematic if the source of knowledge (for example, local sup port agencies) and the recipient of knowledge (for example, ethnic entrepreneurs) map different interpretations of the same knowledge (Galunic and Rodan, 1998). For example, different "thought worlds" between the two parties involved in the knowledge exchange process may hinder the exchange of knowledge (Dougherty, 1992) because of the high level of abstraction in some types of knowledge. Therefore, whether these actors can effectively facilitate the spread of knowledge across multiple non-redundant knowledge bases will depend upon their capability to understand and articulate the complex elements of knowledge, and also upon their ability to choose which knowledge is significant (and which is not) for a particular ethnic entrepreneur. In her research, Dhaliwal (2006) contends that support agencies for the minorities in the UK have not been popular. One big reason for their ineffectiveness is that these support agencies are "attempting to increase their services without understanding the needs and diversity of customers" (88).

Discussion and Implications for Future Research

Ethnic entrepreneurs face a unique challenge. Due to limitations in language and recognized qualifications, these individuals rely on entrepreneurial opportunities. Strong ties with their own community provide them with valuable resources such as labor, knowledge and capital to start their own entrepreneurial ventures. It is not surprising to see institutionalized practices and forms of business in certain ethnic communities. For example, the Gujarati Indians are largely dominant in the hotel/motel industry in North America. While these resources are valuable, ethnic entrepreneurs also find themselves constrained to diversify in different businesses.

Literature in ethnic entrepreneurship is replete with studies on the role of closed social networks in initiating entrepreneurial initiatives. However, the constraints that these closed networks offer and the roles of out-group ties for ethnic entrepreneurship has been less studied. One key contribution of this paper has been to re-direct our attention to the role of different types of ties of entrepreneurial activity. This research prompts us to reconsider the distinct roles of in-group ties and out-group ties for entrepreneurial activity.

Generating, sustaining and nurturing a business is a complex social process. Each of these ties may be valuable to an ethnic entrepreneur, albeit at different stages of business formation. For example, in-group ties may be useful at the early stage of setting up a business. These ties provide resources such as information, labor and financial support in addition to the intimacy and emotional support an ethnic entrepreneur may need at the early stage of business formation. Out-group ties may be beneficial as the ethnic entrepreneur continues to grow the business and considers diversifying. Information about other industries, financial obligations, labor requirements and supply arrangement in these industries may be significantly different and ties to an open network may be useful to access such a variety of information. Future research could examine the optimal structure of ties for an ethnic entrepreneur at different stages of business formation. This may shed light on the stage where the different types of ties may be most appropriate. As the entrepreneur evolves into diversification, resource demands on the entrepreneur may constraint him/her to devote attention to both types of ties. Future research may investigate these dynamics.

Another contribution of this paper has been to explore mechanisms that provide ethnic entrepreneurs with opportunities to develop ties outside of their in-group networks. The discussion in this paper notes that certain types of institutions and organizations such as local support agencies and management consulting firms have unique capabilities to possess knowledge and broker multiple non-redundant knowledge bases across diverse groups. These capabilities provide them with competencies to facilitate the construction of new "recognized areas of life" for ethnic entrepreneurs. By bridging diverse groups, they have the capability to provide ethnic entrepreneurs with choices to explore beyond the traditional choice of industries available to them. In doing so, these institutions and organizations have the capability to serve as powerful agents of change.

There are some limitations in this paper that merit the reader's attention. These limitations also offer potential agendas for future research. This paper assumed that all ethnic entrepreneur communities exhibit the same characteristics. It remains to be seen whether in-group ties of all ethnic communities are as constraining. Future research could also examine which ethnic communities seek value from indirect ties. For example, limited data in Dhaliwal's (2006) study suggests that while the Indian community was open to seek help from the support agencies in United Kingdom, the Korean community was very hesitant. Uncovering the nuances between the different ethnic groups may provide valuable information that may guide the type of service that support agencies could offer to different ethnic communities.

Yet another limitation of this conceptual paper is that it assumes that the characteristics of all ethnic entrepreneurs are the same and that all ethnic entrepreneurs display the same involvement in their in-group ties. This may not necessarily be true. For example, Chaganti and Greene (2002) distinguished between ethnic entrepreneurs who are very involved with their ethnic community and those who are not. Building on their work, Menzeis et al. (2007) developed an Index of Ethnic Involvement implying that in-group ties for individuals may vary depending on a number of personal attributes. The value that actors such as support agencies provide may therefore depend upon individual characteristics as well. Future research may reveal how entrepreneurs embedded in their ethnic heritage and community may develop indirect ties outside of their group.

While I have only considered a certain cluster of actors (such as management consulting firms, support agencies, research parks) as sources for indirect ties and non-redundant knowledge bases for ethnic entrepreneurs, what remains to be studied is the distinct value that each of these offers over the others and how they may complement (or not) strong in-group ties.


An early version of this paper was presented at the Academy of Management Meeting (AOM) in Atlanta, 2006. I would like to express my thanks for the helpful comments that I received from the participants in my session at the AOM. I would also like to extend my gratitude to Hema Krishnan (Xavier University) for the constructive feedback that I received from her.


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Contact Information

For further information on this article, contact:

Rashmi H. Assudani, Department of Management & Entrepreneurship, Williams College of

Business, Xavier University, Cincinnati, OH

Tel: (513) 745-1082/Fax: (513) 745-4383


Rashmi H. Assudani, Williams College of Business, Xavier University, Cincinnati, OH
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Date:Mar 22, 2009
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