Whitman Professor Pioneers Research on Benefits of ADHD to Entrepreneurship

Johan Wiklund

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Individuals with ADHD have a high activation level, a focus on doing rather than planning...That penchant for risk-taking aligns with what’s needed to succeed in entrepreneurship. And people with ADHD can be very highly creative, good at doing the things they enjoy and are passionate about.

Approximately 14% of American youth have a formal ADHD diagnosis, commonly characterized by lack of focus, hyperactivity and impulsivity. While those traits can make traditional classroom education and conventional employment challenging, research by Johan Wiklund, Al Berg Chair and professor of entrepreneurship at the Whitman School, has found that ADHD can be beneficial in entrepreneurship.


“Individuals with ADHD have a high activation level, a focus on doing rather than planning,” he says. “That penchant for risk-taking aligns with what’s needed to succeed in entrepreneurship. And people with ADHD can be very highly creative, good at doing the things they enjoy and are passionate about.”


But starting a successful business can be daunting, particularly without education and training. Wiklund is developing a summer program for neurodivergent middle and high school students designed to give them practical skills in entrepreneurship. “The goal is to provide hands-on experiences that impart business and decision-making skills at a young age that can lead to a greater chance of success later on,” he says.


He’s in the process of securing funding and hopes to test run a pilot course in Sweden as early as summer 2024. “We’ll be using the pilot course to evaluate what works and then can adapt and hopefully expand more widely,” he says.


Wiklund’s research was sparked by his own ADHD diagnosis 12 years ago. Although the diagnosis explained some of his struggles, he’d also achieved considerable success. Wiklund wondered if conditions commonly thought of as disorders also might provide certain advantages.


As an academic, he consulted the literature on the topic. He found little. That set him on a path to explore the connection between mental health symptoms and entrepreneurship.


In one of his first studies, Wiklund surveyed Swedish entrepreneurs with ADHD diagnoses about why they chose to run their own businesses and how personality traits related to their diagnosis played a role. “A lot of people with these kinds of diagnoses self-select into entrepreneurship because they feel the corporate world isn’t for them,” he says. “There was a particular direct link between ADHD and entrepreneurship.”


Subsequent studies in Denmark, Spain, Australia and the United States confirmed that link. “I think I’ve demonstrated that there are some positive aspects to ADHD in entrepreneurship,” he says.


And it’s no longer a nascent field. Wiklund’s research, along with workshops he’s organized and media attention, has generated a proliferation of interest. “My Ph.D. student and I just did a literature review, and if you look year by year, you can see there’s an explosion of papers,” he says. “I’m really happy that this has developed into an established area of research.”


Wiklund’s interest in entrepreneurship is lifelong. He grew up in an entrepreneurial family in a small town in southern Sweden. His mother ran a family printing business that had been started by her grandfather a century earlier. Wiklund started working for the family business at the age of 10.


He studied mechanical engineering as an undergraduate, thinking it would be useful for the printing business. After earning a master’s degree in engineering, he worked as a small business consultant a few years until enrolling in a doctoral program in entrepreneurship at Jönköping International Business School, focusing his dissertation research on small business growth.


Much of his early research focused on the innovation and growth of small business. He also examined entrepreneurial failure. “Entrepreneurs introduce something new into the market and assume risk in doing so,” he says. “As all risky enterprises, they can go wrong and fail. It is something we don’t talk about enough, in particular in the classroom.”


In 2007, while working as an entrepreneurship professor in Sweden, Wiklund was recruited to the Whitman School to strengthen research and help build a doctoral program in the School’s growing Department of Entrepreneurship and Emerging Enterprises.


Today, that program is one of the top-ranked in the country. Wiklund has published more than 100 articles in leading entrepreneurship and management journals and is editor-in-chief of Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, one of two major journals in the field. A prolific advisor of Ph.D. students, he received the Academy of Management Entrepreneurship Division Mentor Award in 2011.


Over the last decade, Wiklund says there is much more general awareness and acceptance of ADHD and other forms of neurodiversity, such as autism and dyslexia. “I think various forms of neurodiversity should be put on equal footing with all other aspects of diversity,” he says. “People talk about the advantage of getting different perspectives; I think there’s no better way to get different perspectives than from people who are differently wired and process the world differently.”


By Renee Gearhart Levy 

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