Startup leaders’ perceptions of CSR and its role in internationalisation strategies

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School of Business | Master's thesis
Degree programme
Global Management
Today, more and more small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and startups internationalise. However, Russia’s invasion in Ukraine in 2022 proved that internationalisation poses ethical risks on companies. This raises the role of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in internationalisation into the spotlight. CSR is a burning theme in the business world: Stakeholders such as investors, governments, communities and customers are expecting startups to engage with CSR in all of their operations, including internationalisation strategies. Startups have a unique context in internationalisation because they have limited resources and the attitudes and experiences of their leaders play a major role in the operations of the entire company due to the leaders’ central role. The purpose of this research is to first examine startup leaders’ perceptions of CSR and internationalisation and then analyse how they perceive CSR’s role in internationalisation strategies. The goal is to identify which aspects of CSR and internationalisation startup leaders emphasise and find the links between these perceptions. We also analyse how the leaders’ international experiences impact their perceptions and compare the views of leaders with different kinds of international experiences. The theoretical framework of this study is composed of themes around internationalisation strategies such as drivers and motives, market selection and market entry approaches, as well as CSR-related concepts such as Carroll’s CSR pyramid, sustainability and stakeholder theory. In addition, the effects of leaders’ international experiences on these themes are covered. In this study, we take a qualitative approach, and the data collection method is a semi-structured interview. The data is analysed through cognitive mapping, after which we categorise the leaders with different kinds of international experiences and their perceptions. The findings of the research show that startup leaders’ perceptions towards CSR and its role in internationalisation vary depending on their international experiences. All leaders emphasised the environmental and economic aspects, but some also emphasised for example the social, ethical and legal perspective. All leaders perceived CSR as something that is in the core of the business and brings additional value to their company. The ones with highest scope of international experiences found more perspectives towards CSR and found more links between these themes. The leaders with intermediate scope of international experiences underlined transparency of CSR communication and employees’ wellbeing, and the leaders with the lowest scope emphasised the role of customers in both CSR and its role in internationalisation. All leaders emphasised CSR communication’s role in internationalisation. The international experiences did not have a clear impact on the perceptions of internationalisation strategies. The startup view was apparent for example in the emphasis of survival of the business, and most leaders found stakeholders’ perspective important.
Thesis advisor
Niittymies, Aleksi
corporate social responsibility, CSR, SMEs, startups, leaders, internationalisation, strategies, international entrepreneurship
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