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WVU researchers studying challenges female and minority entrepreneurs face in rural areas

Train tracks cross a bridge after emerging from a tunnel and continue past a row of brick houses with gray roofs.

With support from the United States Department of Agriculture, WVU researchers are looking at why entrepreneurship among women and minorities lags, especially in rural areas. (WVU Photo/David Malecki)

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Self-employment and entrepreneurship rates among women and Black people lag well behind those of white males, especially in rural areas. With support from the United States Department of Agriculture, West Virginia University researchers are trying to understand why.

The research, led by Heather Stephens, professor of resource economics and management and director of the Regional Research Institute, aims to identify what factors could support entrepreneurship for women and minorities, as well as barriers that deter them from starting their own businesses.

The project is a collaboration with Daniel Eades, a WVU Extension specialist in rural economics. Results of the research will be used to help local and regional economic development professionals establish policies and programs to facilitate success for such groups.

For the first part of the study, Stephens, postdoctoral fellow Xiaoyin Li and a team of RRI PhD students from economics and natural resource economics collected and are analyzing county-level data. 

According to Eades, the research findings will then be translated into fact sheets and training materials that can be distributed to local policymakers and practitioners working within rural entrepreneurial development ecosystems. This will include educators in Extension, business incubators, regional economic development agencies, financial service providers and chambers of commerce. 

“We’ll engage with these folks not just as end users but as experts in their own right,” he said. “They will help us better understand the findings and revise curriculum and outreach materials so they are easy to understand and can serve as useful tools to help affect change in local economic development policy.”

Evidence suggests small employers are more likely to buy locally and recycle their earnings back into the economy, and self-employment decisions for women and minority groups may be different than those of white men. For example, for women, self-employment may allow them to enter the workforce and still provide flexibility with home or family obligations.

“There’s been some research that suggests women entrepreneurs or self-employed women aren’t as successful as their male counterparts,” Stephens said. “So maybe we need to measure success by different metrics. Maybe things like flexibility and child care availability would be part of their success. 

“The previous research has really not looked closely at rural self-employment, especially for women or minorities. Thus, rural communities don’t yet know how they might help women or minorities start their businesses or what factors might be more important.”

One of the challenges may be that in places that have historically had large employers, such as a mine, residents may not be in the mindset of starting a business — what Stephens calls an ‘entrepreneurial mindset.’

“This is important, because if people could use whatever skills they have and start a business that could fill a gap in their community, provide income for their family, increase tax revenues and everything else, we could see some economic growth in a rural place,” she said. “I’m really excited about the development of tools that will give local communities and others who are interested in supporting regional economic vitality some answers about what they might do differently.”

According to Eades, economic development has traditionally been framed as a zero-sum game in which communities benefit by being the cheapest place to do business. This has meant siphoning capital and labor away from other places and, historically, many of these resources have come from rural communities.

“In our view, entrepreneurship and local business development can change that narrative,” he said. “It’s about leveraging the skills and assets that are already in the community and reframing the challenges as opportunities for change. It’s not about taking more of the pie. It’s about making the pie bigger for everyone.”

WVU is working with colleagues from Penn State University and the University of Maine on the project.



MEDIA CONTACT: Laura Jackson
Research Writer
WVU Research Communications

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