August 4, 2010

New Research: Childhood Trauma Could Hurt a Girl's Chances of Becoming an Entrepreneur

TEMPE, Ariz. — Family violence, physical abuse or parents divorcing can play a role in keeping a girl from becoming an entrepreneur later in life. That’s according to new research led by Assistant Professor Zhen Zhang of the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. It shows these negative experiences in adolescence might help discourage a girl from owning a business as an adult, but also that positive intervention can definitely help to overcome this problem.

“Childhood trauma might impede girls’ natural genetic inclination to become entrepreneurs,” explains Zhang, “but environmental factors like peer support, mentor programs, positive internships, and other activities where kids learn about financial independence and being a business owner can help mediate that. In the end, if girls get enough social and environmental support, their chances of becoming entrepreneurs can remain the same.”

Zhang is presenting his latest study at the prestigious annual meeting of the Academy of Management next week in Montreal. He completed the research with colleagues from Michigan State University and the National University of Singapore. They surveyed about 1,400 female pairs of fraternal and identical twins, asking them various questions about their childhoods and work history to help find out whether genetic influences on entrepreneurship are fixed or whether they can be weakened or strengthened by social environment. Statistical analyses showed parental divorce, family violence and physical abuse all significantly weaken the genetic influences on girls becoming entrepreneurs.

“Even though DNA is fixed, it needs human behavior to manifest itself,” says Zhang. “It’s the same thing for someone genetically inclined to be a scientist or an artist; they still need to be nurtured through social and environmental factors. Girls who have a supportive environment during adolescence will be more likely to reach their full genetic potential as entrepreneurs, while those affected by negative, stressful events can have their natural genetic disposition weakened.”

Zhang did earlier research on genetics and entrepreneurship published in the academic journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes last year. It explains that genetic influence has no bearing on whether boys become entrepreneurs, but many social factors, including family influence, do prompt men to own businesses. For girls, genetic factors play a role in determining personality traits like extroversion and emotional stability, and those traits can help sway whether girls become entrepreneurs. However, this new research adds the wrinkle that childhood trauma can still impede that genetic influence on girls.

Zhang hopes policymakers will use his research to focus on programs that will help shore up the social and environmental factors encouraging teens to become entrepreneurs.

“We want to make society better,” says Zhang. “We want to be clear that genes don’t determine everything, so we can provide training programs and other opportunities to help open up kids’ eyes to the possibility of working for themselves.”

The W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University is one of the top-ranked and largest business schools in the United States. The school is internationally regarded for its research productivity and its distinguished faculty members, including a Nobel Prize winner. Students come from 75 countries and include more than 60 National Merit Scholars. For more information please visit and