Over the past decade, the influence of political affiliation on Americans’ daily lives has become increasingly pronounced, impacting their residential choices, friendships, and even familial relationships. A recent survey by the Cato Institute disclosed that nearly one-third of Americans harbor concerns that expressing their political views may adversely affect their employment. This surge in political tribalism, particularly in election years, poses a potential threat to the essential social networks crucial for entrepreneurs.
In a surprising turn of events, a study published in the Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal provides an illuminating example of how entrepreneurs can bridge political divides, drawing inspiration from an unexpected source: Kenya.
“Kenya presented a fertile ‘extreme context’ for studying how entrepreneurs establish business connections in divided societies,” explained Christian Busch, an associate professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business and one of the study’s authors. “Kenya, a hub of entrepreneurial activity in Africa, recently underwent profound institutional changes that heightened ethnic awareness in the country.”
Busch and co-author Robert Mudida, affiliated with the Central Bank of Kenya, meticulously tracked four IT companies based in Nairobi over seven years, commencing with the country’s devolution in 2013. This transfer of power from a central government to 47 local entities amplified ethnic affiliations, as most localities aligned themselves with tribal communities. Simultaneously, decentralization prompted a push for digitization at the county level, presenting business opportunities for IT entrepreneurs if they could forge ties across deeply ingrained ethnic boundaries.
Having previously collaborated with pragmatic central government officials, these companies were now compelled to engage with locally-oriented government officials influenced by tribal affiliations. Facing challenges such as the lack of experience with complex IT projects and a predisposition towards tribal interests, the IT entrepreneurs employed two primary strategies to transcend ethnic boundaries: establishing alternative social connections or redirecting focus away from ethnicity.
“At times, they reshaped connections with government officials by finding common ground in areas such as sports or faith,” noted Busch. “Other times, they consciously shifted the conversation away from ethnicity, concentrating on product benefits, technology certifications, or collaborative ventures with business schools.”
The entrepreneurs also extended pro bono IT consulting services and utilized their social networks to aid potential clients in resolving business challenges beyond the scope of prospective projects. These tactics paved the way for building trust, typically associated with ethnic commonality, while highlighting the shared business goals of the government and IT companies.
Mudida emphasized that in fractured societies, cultural pressures may outweigh economic considerations, challenging the assumption that economic gains can effortlessly mitigate dissimilarities. Notably, the study highlighted the advantage that the four IT companies had due to their founders’ prior experiences with cross-ethnic relationships. Each founder was either married to a partner from a different tribe or had mixed ethnicities, fostering a cosmopolitan upbringing.
The study not only offers pragmatic tactics for navigating partisan divides within a business context but also provides valuable insights applicable beyond the corporate realm. It underscores the importance of thinking beyond social boundaries and fostering relationships based on multiple foundations as a key to expanding social networks. Additionally, it serves as a crucial lesson for global companies, emphasizing the significance of understanding the social and ethnic context of a region for a successful product launch.