Spotting tomorrow’s entrepreneurs today


Could you spot the next Mark Zuckerberg or Richard Branson by watching and listening to them pitch for business?

Academics at the University of Leeds think it may be partly possible and are carrying out a major research project to identify and analyse the language and body language that successful entrepreneurs use to persuade investors to support their new venture.

The project’s over-arching aim is to boost the UK economy by giving nascent entrepreneurs the tools that they need to convince funders to invest in their business. By doing so, it is envisaged that the research will help a new generation of companies like Facebook and Virgin get off the ground.

Dr Jean Clarke of Leeds University Business School, who is leading this project, said: "Many believe the role played by entrepreneurs will be essential for reviving Britain’s flagging economy and creating new jobs, but one of the biggest challenges they face is persuading investors to back them financially, particularly when funds are scarce.

“We think that the communication skills of entrepreneurs - such as the physical gestures they make and the words they use and repeat for emphasis – when trying to convince people to invest are central to their chances of actually gaining funding. If we can identify the techniques used that are successful and teach them to other entrepreneurs, we believe we can help them start or grow their venture and so contribute to economic growth."

The three year research project is funded by a £200,000 grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Dr Clarke will work with Connect Yorkshire to identify 30 technology entrepreneurs in the region to take participate.

Recordings will be made of the entrepreneurs making pitches to venture capitalists and other potential funders, and an analysis made of the words they use and the body language they employ.

An experimental study will then be conducted where an actor will deliberately use different gestures and language in pitches in order to assess which techniques are most useful in convincing investors. State-of-the-art training materials will then be developed and used within the Connect Networks to help generate enterprise.

Dr Clarke said that this approach will overcome limitations within existing approaches to understanding and improving enterprise. She said: "Existing research in entrepreneurship focuses on two main approaches - "the cognitive" and "the institutional" but there are limitations with both of these. The cognitive approach assumes that the personality traits of entrepreneurs are largely innate and so cannot be taught, but this is of course of no use when trying to stimulate the economy.

“The institutional approach states that entrepreneurs make a success of the venture by using cultural symbols such as emphasising that they were educated at a top business school or that they have high-powered individuals involved in the business. But this cannot explain why entrepreneurs who do not fit this mould can be successful. We are taking a more integrative approach to understanding what makes an entrepreneur successful in these situations because ultimately we are interested in moving away from a rather fatalistic approach which is that successful entrepreneurs are just born that way. We want to know whether these are skills which can be learned and developed."

For more information:

Contact: Ben Jones, Communications, University of Leeds
Tel: 0113 34 38059 or