Date of Award

Summer 2023

Degree Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Psychology, PhD


School of Social Science, Politics, and Evaluation

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Michelle Bligh

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

Jeffrey Yip

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

Vijay Sathe

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

Charles Murnieks

Terms of Use & License Information

Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.

Rights Information

© 2023 Gregory Gerald Hennessy


assessment, character, founders, passion, purpose, selection

Subject Categories

Business Administration, Management, and Operations | Entrepreneurial and Small Business Operations | Psychology


This manuscript documents a research project that employs grounded theory to determine what criteria contemporary investors in early-stage startups use to assess founders. One of the first questions posed by entrepreneurship researchers - even before entrepreneurship had formalized as a field - was, what criteria do investors consider when making investments in startups? Initially, the central concern was whether it was the founder(s) or the business model, often characterized as the “jockey” or the “horse.” From the start, it was generally accepted that the founder was the primary consideration, especially in early-stage ventures. Nonetheless, while business model considerations were parsed into separate factors (e.g., market, financial, product), understanding of founder characteristics evolved rather slowly and centered on the macroeconomic construct of human capital - an aggregate measure of investment in human factors that is ill-suited to measuring micro-level characteristics of individuals. Of course, years of education and experience are reasonable criteria and in many cases are a sound foundation for assessing entrepreneurs. Recently, researchers have been increasingly examining the role of individual-level traits and behaviors across a range of entrepreneurship questions. For example, characteristics such as passion and persistence have been examined for their roles in issues like entrepreneurial intention, performance, and decision-making. Some researchers have examined how such characteristics affect investment decisions, especially among angel investors who essentially have no reliable business model information to include in their decision-making process. Also relatively recently, other organizational researchers, especially those outside of entrepreneurship, have begun serious inquiries into the constituent elements of leadership and the role of purpose, character and emotion in organizations. To assess whether these factors have infiltrated the investment selection criteria of professional early-stage venture investors, the project described herein assesses whether these topics are now openly considered during the investment selection process. Over a dozen investors were interviewed to solicit the criteria they use when evaluating the founders of early-stage ventures prior to investment. All study participants stated that they assessed the startup founder, and most underscored the importance of assessing the startup team. Participants suggested several criteria are important when assessing a startup founder, which included hard skills, soft skills, personality, character, and mindset or mental attitude. Hard skills essentially correspond to human capital and other legacy criteria that have long been understood to be part of founder assessment. The other criteria are clusters of traits and abilities that are related to the once-frowned-upon factors. This research contributes to the discussion of founder assessment by linking it explicitly to established theories from the broader management, leadership, and social science arenas.