How the Zebra Got Its Stripes: Imprinting of Individuals and Hybrid Social Ventures
Executive Summary — Creating hybrid organizations that combine existing organizational forms is a complex process. Given the legitimacy challenges facing hybrid organizations, why are they created in the first place? The authors focus on the role of "environmental imprinting" on individuals: this means the persistent effects that individuals' environments during sensitive periods have on their subsequent behaviors. After constructing and analyzing a novel dataset of over 700 founders of social ventures, all guided by a social welfare logic, the authors suggest that individual imprinting helps to explain why an entrepreneur founding a social venture might create a hybrid by incorporating a secondary, commercial logic. Overall, the paper contributes to the understanding of hybrid organizations by providing the first large-scale, empirical examination of the antecedents of the widely-discussed type of hybrids that combine social welfare and commercial logics. Key concepts include:
- Environmental imprinting refers to the effects that characteristics of individuals' environments during sensitive periods have on their subsequent behaviors.
- Entrepreneurs' direct exposure to various work environments through their own experience influences their likelihood to create a new hybrid venture.
- The findings contribute to institutional theory more generally by showing how environmental imprints on individuals may enable divergence from current, institutionalized structures, as well as how the contours of such imprints may vary with characteristics such as tenure and type of exposure.
Hybrid organizations that combine multiple, existing organizational forms are frequently proposed as a source of organizational innovation, yet little is known about the origins of such organizations. We propose that individual founders of hybrid organizations acquire imprints from past exposure to work environments, thus predisposing them to incorporate the associated logics in their subsequent ventures, even when doing so requires deviation from established organizational templates. We test our theory on a novel dataset of over 700 founders of social ventures, all guided by a social welfare logic. Some of them also incorporate a commercial logic along with the social welfare logic, thereby creating a hybrid social venture. We find evidence of three sources of commercial imprints: the founder's own, direct work experience, as well as the indirect influence of parental work experiences and professional education. Our findings further suggest that the effects of direct imprinting are strongest from the early tenure of for-profit experience but diminish with longer tenure. In supplementary analyses, we parse out differences between the sources of imprints and discuss implications for how imprinting functions as an antecedent to the creation of new, hybrid forms.