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The founding of new firms has always been a focal research issue in the entrepreneurship research tradition. In order to support the founding of new firms, it is important to know who starts new firms, in what kinds of situations, and for what kinds of reasons. The early research on entrepreneurship strove to identify the psychological characteristics, or traits, of those people who start new firms. This research tradition established a number of significant influences, the most well known of these including the (also highly criticized) need for achievement, strive for independence, internal locus of control, perceived feasibility, and social desirability. The typical ‘entrepreneur’ herself remained elusive, however.

One problem of this ‘trait’ line of research was that it focused on ex post situations, interviewing entrepreneurs who already had started a firm. By collecting personality data on an entrepreneur after the entrepreneurial event, the researcher makes an assumption that the entrepreneur's traits, attitudes, and beliefs do not change because of the entrepreneurial experience itself (Gartner, 1988; Gartner, 1989). This is a strong assumption. Criticizing the ex-post rationalization tendency of ‘trait’ studies, Gartner (1989, p 33) posits that individuals seldom behave consistently in different times and situations, and that personality traits are not good predictors of future action. Therefore, to demonstrate causality, one should study individuals before the entrepreneurial event.

One way to overcome this problem is to study nascent entrepreneurs (Reynolds, 1995), individuals who are actively engaged in the process of starting up a new firm. Another way of looking at the issue is to study the entrepreneurial process by applying the theory of planned behavior (Ajzen and Fishbein, 1980; Ajzen, 1987, 1991; Kim and Hunter, 1993). Here, the focus is on entrepreneurial intentions (Shapero, 1982; Bird, 1988; Krueger, 1993). The argument for using this approach is that intentions are a robust predictor of planned behavior, such as starting a new business (Ajzen, 1991; Krueger, 1993). This approach directs attention toward the emergence of entrepreneurial ideas, away from much studied entrepreneurial traits and contexts (Bird, 1988, p 442).

During recent years, the process-based approach of studying entrepreneurial intentions has become increasingly widely used (Krueger, 1993; Krueger and Carsrud, 1993; Krueger and Brazeal, 1994; Davidsson, 1995; Reitan, 1996, Niittykangas and Laukkanen, 1996). This study continues on this line. We will build and test a model that incorporates a number of factors influencing entrepreneurial intent. The model builds on models suggested in recent research (notably Davidsson, 1995), developing an application tailored to university environments. The model is tested on students of technology from four countries. The empirical samples have been compiled from Finland, Sweden, USA, and South-East Asia. This approach allows us both to test the stability of the model, as well as compare the prevalence of entrepreneurial intent among students in different countries.

Our epistemic goal is to test the robustness of the intent approach to studying the entrepreneurial event. This is our main motivation for doing an international comparison. Our practical goal is to come up with policy recommendations geared to supporting the founding of new firms. For this purpose, the model was designed in such a way that tangible policy recommendations are possible.

The Theory of Planned Behavior

The theory of planned behavior (Ajzen and Fishbein, 1980; Ajzen, 1987; Ajzen, 1991) suggests three conceptually independent antecedents of intention. The first is the attitude toward the behavior. This refers to the degree to which a person has a favorable appraisal of the behavior in question. The second predictor of intention is subjective norm. This refers to the perceived social pressure to perform the behavior. The third antecedent of intention is the degree of perceived behavioral control. This refers to the perceived ease of performing the behavior. Perceived behavioral control reflects past experience as well as anticipated impediments and obstacles. The more favorable the attitude and subjective norm with respect to the behavior, and the greater the perceived behavioral control, the stronger the intention to perform the behavior should be.

The theory of planned behavior has been used with good success in practical applications as well as in basic research (Krueger and Carsrud, 1993). Attitudes have been shown to explain approximately 50 % of the variance in intentions, and that intentions explain approximately 30 % of the variance in behavior. These results compare favorably with trait measures, which typically explain approximately 10 % of the variance in behavior (Ajzen, 1987; Kim and Hunter, 1993). These studies suggest that the greater the degree to which the behavior can be controlled, the greater is the influence of intent on eventual behavior.

Studies on Entrepreneurial Intent

Entrepreneurial action falls clearly into the category of intentional behavior (Shapero, 1982; Bird, 1988). Yet, practical applications of the intent theory have been relatively few. Even Shapero’s model (Shapero, 1975, 1982; Shapero and Sokol, 1982) remained untested until Krueger’s (1993) study. Shapero proposed that the intent to start a business, what Shapero terms credibility, derives from perceptions of both desirability and feasibility, as well as from a propensity to act upon opportunities. Krueger concentrated on measuring the effect of prior entrepreneurial exposure, through perceptions of feasibility and desirability, on intention. Krueger split Shapero’s exogenous influence items of entrepreneurial experience into two groups: the positiveness and the breadth of entrepreneurial experience. Propensity to act was shown to have links to perceived desirability and feasibility, in addition to the expected direct link to entrepreneurial intention. The explanatory power of the model was 50 %.

Krueger called for richer models and for more refined measures. Such models were tested by Davidsson (1995) and Reitan (1996). Davidsson proposes an economic-psychological model of factors influencing individuals’ intentions to go into business for themselves. In the model, Davidsson tried to combine relevant parts of previously published models, as well as making a clear effort to adjust the model to be more specifically suited to the study of entrepreneurial intent. The major change compared to previous models was the central role of conviction as the primary determinant of intentions. In Davidsson’s model, personal background variables affect both general attitudes and domain attitudes. General attitudes refer to general psychological dispositions, while domain attitudes are specifically attitudes toward entrepreneurship.

General attitudes and domain specific attitudes give rise to conviction that entrepreneurship is ‘a suitable alternative’. In this construct, Davidsson combines Ajzen’s self-efficacy, subjective norm, and attitude toward the behavior. The model was tested on a random sample of 1313 Swedes between the ages of 35 and 40. The results of the analysis largely support the relationships suggested in the model. The explanatory power for conviction is 35%, while the explanatory power for intentions is 50%. Conviction stands out as the primary explanation for, and determinant of, entrepreneurial intentions.

Reitan (1996) combined two Ajzen’s and Shapero’s models. The model was tested on a rather large sample of randomly selected Norwegians. Reitan used three different measures for intentions: short-term intentions were measured by a willingness to start a new firm within 2 years. Long-term intentions are defined as willingness at ‘some point of time’ to start a new firm. Reitan found evidence suggesting that situational variables more important for short-term intentions than for long-term intentions.

There are more studies on the determinants of entrepreneurial intent than on the link between intent and action. Katz (1988) followed up a sample of individuals, whose self-employment aspirations had been surveyed in 1968. Katz found that expressed intent for self-employment was followed up in 30 % of the cases during the subsequent four-year period (10 out of 33). On the macro level, Katz found intention to be a poor predictor, however: of the remaining 2218 people in the sample, 195 (8.7%) entered self-employment at some point. This suggests a high influence of situational factors, a point also emphasized by Reynolds (1995).

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