Organization Theory | Cultural Analysis | Entrepreneurship
I am an organizational theorist who studies the rise of start-up entrepreneurship around the globe through cultural analysis, a topic I believe is best studied from the ground. In my case, studying something from the ground involves qualitative and ethnographic work— essentially, the practice of deep hanging out. Here, I’ll tell you a bit more about what I study, how I got there, and where the journey is going. Let’s get to it.
During my doctoral studies, I took a deep dive into Kenya’s start-up world and ICT sector. And since 2014, I have been conducting a longitudinal study of start-up entrepreneurs in Kenya, with an eye to answering questions such as: How do founders go about securing resources without ready access to venture capital and government contracts? How do they build and grow businesses in volatile markets? And, more broadly, what does the rising prominence of start-ups mean for Kenya’s socio-economic development?
By answering these questions, I aim to create new knowledge on how entrepreneurs build scalable businesses in a country where there is no established blueprint for successful innovation, and where the constraints and opportunities are often very different from those in the Global North.
I also study the meaning system of start-up entrepreneurship. During my time as a post-doc, I collected data to study Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial spirit. I draw on observations, interviews, and archival data from the Bay Area to explore the meanings attached to successful entrepreneurial action. For example: What does it mean to be a successful entrepreneur? And, how do you become one? Through cultural analysis, I unpack how entrepreneurs, investors, and educators convey the entrepreneurial spirit to newcomers. Entrepreneurship today is not just about building a business but also fundamentally about impacting the world and changing its future. My interest here is to understand how a particular variant of entrepreneurship has become popular and in what ways it affects society more broadly.
In 2019, I started field work on a contrast case to start-up entrepreneurship by studying informal entrepreneurial work in an automotive repair cluster in Nairobi, Kenya. Through interviews, observations, and satellite images, I tackle the broader question of why firms in the Global South tend to congregate in particular neighborhoods of a city. Think of the street where everybody sells the exact same products or services like furniture, technical equipment, or produce. It’s a mystery, because these entrepreneurs, unlike those in Kenya’s Silicon Savannah and Silicon Valley, don’t seem to drive technological innovation, rapid growth or differentiation when they cluster. Why, then, are such clusters so common in the Global South?
So, how did I get interested in entrepreneurship in Kenya and the U.S.? Before becoming an academic researcher, I worked in emergency and development aid in Kenya and Ethiopia. Burned out by my experience in the international aid machinery, I eventually came across the technology space, the iHub, and was intrigued by the individual stories of entrepreneurs, coders and investors. Something new was in the air and I wanted to know what that newness was about. Was I witnessing just another fad, or was there a new pathway to employment and development in the making? After getting immersed in Kenya’s start-up world, beginning research in Silicon Valley was the logical next step, as all data in Kenya referenced this region in an almost mythical way.
Aiming to capture some of what I’ve learned about Kenyan start-up entrepreneurship, I co-edited the open-access book Digital Kenya: An Entrepreneurial Revolution in the Making (Palgrave, 2017). It’s the first book on entrepreneurship in Africa that focuses on a single sector and the publisher’s most downloaded digital business title. Digital Kenya gathers insights and observations of people who experienced Kenya’s entrepreneurial revolution firsthand, explores how a new generation of entrepreneurs seeks to harness technology for the benefit of society, and offers recommendations for the future.
Here is the obligatory list of my academic qualifications: I joined the faculty of the Department of Management in the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Area at Imperial College London in 2019. Before that, I was a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Work, Technology & Organization in Stanford’s Management Science and Engineering Department. I received a doctorate and master’s degree from a start-up academic institution, Zeppelin University in Germany. During my doctoral studies, I visited Northwestern University frequently. I also spent time in Austria and hold a bachelor of science in business administration from the University of Vienna.
Outside work, I enjoy cycling, meditation, boxing, and spending time with my wife and young son. I have a deep affection for oak trees.