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Faculty Research

Mindset Matters

In the quest to alleviate poverty, BYU researchers are discovering how a growth mindset matters as much as a skill set.

Tanzania’s rural northern coastline is canopied with banana trees and coconut palms, and the coastal waters of the Indian Ocean are rich with fish and seaweed. Sandy tidal flats stretch between the sea and the mangroves, providing a resting place for wooden fishing boats until the next high tide. Coral reefs and seagrass beds fill the waters and complete an ecosystem vital to life on Africa’s east coast.1

Boats and people on the shores of Tanzania in a sunset

Despite the tropical abundance, villagers struggle to stave off poverty. As in much of Africa, subsisting is a daily and often arduous task. The causes of and contributors to poverty are many, including lack of education, lack of economic and employment opportunities, and, as BYU Marriott researchers have recently learned, lack of confidence and hope.

International and local organizations have made significant efforts to address the challenges of poverty. In particular, “the Tanzanian government has taken various initiatives to promote entrepreneurship,” says Elly Tumsifu, a senior lecturer in business administration at the University of Dar es Salaam, the country’s oldest and largest public university.

“Training programs are designed to provide aspiring entrepreneurs with the skills and knowledge needed to successfully run a business,” explains Tumsifu, who is also coordinator of the African Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Operations in Resource Management and Food Supply. The investment in these programs is robust and the goals are specific and lofty. The hope is to create employment opportunities, improve economic prosperity for both individuals and communities, and ultimately lift people out of poverty, Tumsifu says.

One Tanzanian government organization sought help from researchers—including two from BYU Marriott—to examine its programs and identify stumbling blocks as well as solutions. Shad Morris, the William F. Edwards Distinguished Fellow and professor of organizational behavior and human resources, and Chad Carlos, associate professor of entrepreneurship, led a research team that included Tumsifu as well as researchers from The Ohio State University and York University in Toronto, Canada. Their findings, recently published in the Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal, contribute to a growing body of evidence that suggests the right mindset may have as much impact on success as the right resources.

Necessity Entrepreneurs

In the developing world, entrepreneurship is less about unique opportunities and more about simple necessity. In Tanzania, “the industrial sector is still growing, leaving the majority of the population—especially youth—unemployed,” Tumsifu says.

Therefore, entrepreneurship is often the only way to earn an income in underdeveloped areas. “People have to find their own work and eke out an existence whatever way they can,” Morris says.

The Tanzania Social Action Fund (TASAF) aims to alleviate poverty specifically by helping young necessity entrepreneurs ages 18 to 35. Its programs provide free financial support and technical skills training in areas such as business planning, financial management, and marketing. But despite rigorous interventions, few participants in the program have been implementing the skills they learn—and TASAF wanted to figure out why.

“[TASAF] said, ‘We are spending millions of dollars on these programs, but we are not seeing the impact we are hoping for,’” Carlos relays. “People come, they develop new skills and abilities, but they don’t put them into practice.”

Internal Motivation

For Morris, who has had a long-standing interest in poverty alleviation in emerging markets, the opportunity was a natural fit. He was first exposed to profound poverty on his mission in Bulgaria, where he served shortly after the fall of communism and “saw the fallout of a collapsed economic system.” Morris recalls a moment in which he saw a couple walking down a street, the man dressed in a suit and the woman in a dress. He remembers thinking, “What a cute little couple.” Then he saw them stop and rummage through a garbage can.

That moment stayed with him, and when Morris returned home, he felt compelled to do something. He worked for Grameen Foundation USA, which seeks to alleviate poverty through microfinance, and also with USAID as a Fulbright Scholar. As a consultant for the World Bank, Morris analyzed the efficacy of poverty alleviation programs, and as a Cambridge Fellow, he focused on improving organizational performance. Now, as a professor of organizational behavior, he focuses on human capital and international business.

Morris joined the project after an invitation from a former colleague, and he invited Carlos to add his expertise in entrepreneurship. When Carlos was a child, his family traveled to the Philippines to visit his father’s homeland, where Carlos witnessed widespread poverty for the first time. “As a kid growing up in middle-class America, this was completely eye opening,” he says. “It really changed my view of the world.”

Carlos developed an internal motivation to address the enormous challenge of poverty. His career, however, took him in the opposite direction—to Silicon Valley, where he worked for KPMG with Google as his main client. While there he saw “how innovation and entrepreneurship can have massive impacts.” When he left Silicon Valley to pursue a PhD, Carlos welcomed the opportunity to put innovation and entrepreneurship to the test.

Morris and Carlos’s research was supported in part by BYU Marriott’s Melvin J. Ballard Center for Social Impact, which evaluates programs and interventions based on their demonstrated ability to improve lives. “This means focusing not only on solving issues but also on demonstrating that the solutions we employ actually make people healthier, happier, safer, and more able to achieve their highest potential,” says Eva Witesman, director of the Ballard Center and professor of public management.

The Aha Moment

As they began the project, Morris and Carlos were fairly sure what problems they would find. The training TASAF provides is a well-established program called Start and Improve Your Business, which was developed by the International Labour Organization. It has been implemented globally in more than 100 countries.2 But the researchers wrongly assumed either the training materials fell short in this setting or the entrepreneurs were not retaining what they had learned.

“Our initial hunch was it was just too complex or not appropriate for the circumstances,” Carlos says.

To explore their theory, the research team conducted extensive interviews with more than 100 participants to understand what was taught, what they had learned, and what they were implementing. To the surprise of the team, the materials were thorough, and the participants learned quite a lot. They could recite information from the training, including technical accounting and marketing concepts. They even acknowledged that the training was relevant to them and their businesses.

So what was the hang-up? The participants did not view implementation as possible in their circumstances.

Researchers repeatedly heard comments such as “This could help my business, but I am not as smart as my neighbor” or “This could help my business, but I was born into a family who raises goats, and this is how we do it.”

At the same time, they found notable exceptions of entrepreneurs who had implemented the training. For instance, off the shores of the town of Mlingotini, there is an abundance of fish, but transporting the fish without spoilage has been an ongoing problem. There are not enough buyers locally, and the fishing industry lacks the infrastructure to get the catch from the water to larger markets farther away.3

However, several entrepreneurs in the town had banded together and invested in a solar-powered freezer. With the freezer they created ice—out of whatever buckets and bottles they could scavenge. They then used the ice to transport fish, and with their increased revenue, they purchased additional freezers. They later expanded their business to also sell ice, which positively impacted the fishing trade of their community.

As the team grappled to understand the difference between the few successful students of TASAF’s programs and the majority who hesitated to implement their training, it struck them that the contrast was mindset more than skill set.

“The barrier was largely a lack of confidence—a belief system that they were born into a certain situation that could not be changed,” Carlos says.

Shad Morris visits a cinema owner in Tanzania
Shad Morris visits a cinema owner who implemented the training by using increased signage to market the films being screened.

The Growth Mindset

“At this point we started turning to research on the psychology of poverty and how it affects people’s ability to think long-term and believe in themselves,” Morris says. Most entrepreneurs they interviewed seemed fixed in their belief that they could not improve their businesses, but a few standout examples, like those in the fisheries, suggested some were able to shake those beliefs.

To better understand why that was, the team tapped into the work of Stanford psychologist Carol S. Dweck, who coined the terms “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset.” In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck explains that beliefs about ourselves become our mindset and that “much of what may be preventing [us] from fulfilling [our] potential grows out of it.”4

But she also explains that mindsets can be changed. “You have a choice,” she writes. “Mindsets are just beliefs. They’re powerful beliefs, but they’re just something in your mind, and you can change your mind.”5

The function of a growth mindset directly counters the scarcity mindset that often plagues necessity entrepreneurs. People exposed to long-term and even short-term poverty develop a scarcity mindset because their cognitive bandwidth is overloaded with immediate concerns, leaving little mental space to explore or evaluate a broader set of alternative actions.

“The scarcity mindset dwindles our ability to plan long-term because we are just in survival mode,” Morris says.

Dweck’s work has largely focused on education, although her concepts are now widely discussed in parenting, sports, and business. Studies have shown that even small interventions can help people move from a fixed mindset of “I can’t do this” or “I am not smart enough” to a growth mindset that enables them to attempt to accomplish tasks and learn from the trial-and-error process.6

It became clear to Morris and Carlos that what these Tanzanian entrepreneurs faced was not a lack of knowledge or training or even financial resources—all of which were provided through TASAF. Rather it was a lack of confidence that their efforts would be successful.

Value Proposition

The team set out to see if their new assumptions were accurate.

Nothing about the standard weeklong training was changed, but the team devised a randomized control trial that included growth-mindset training to see if it would move the needle for implementation of the standard training.

According to their published findings, the hypothesis was that “entrepreneurs who receive growth-mindset training, coupled with technical training, will be more likely to experiment with new business activities than those who receive only regular technical training.”7

To test this, they divided entrepreneurs into two groups of about 100 participants each. After the standard weeklong training, the control group received a half day of review and the study group received a half day of growth-mindset training, which customized interventions similar to those done by Dweck in formal educational settings. The idea was to help the TASAF students develop a belief that through experimentation and even failure they could develop skills to be successful. The training explained what a growth mindset is and provided examples of entrepreneurs who exhibit it. Researchers then reinforced these concepts through games and activities.

Morris is not embarrassed to admit they were surprised by the results. “When we were overseeing the delivery, I was like, ‘I don’t know how this is going to work.’ It feels a little like positive affirmations,” he says. “But then we started seeing the results.”

They first observed success within the training itself—participants were more willing to take risks and practice trial-and-error during the games. “This is when we knew we were on to something,” Morris says.

Researchers repeated this process three separate times, involving approximately 600 entrepreneurs altogether. Their published paper focuses on the third experiment group and includes a monthlong follow-up with study participants to document if they changed their entrepreneurial actions after receiving the growth-mindset training.

In that follow-up, researchers quantified that those who had received the growth-mindset training did indeed demonstrate one-third more “entrepreneurial actions” going forward than those who had received the standard training.8 Such actions included one entrepreneur who tried selling two types of flashlights—solar powered and battery powered—to see which would sell better. Another expanded her chicken business from just raising and selling chickens to keeping some chickens as laying hens so she could also sell eggs. Other entrepreneurs expanded their marketing practices by increasing sign-age or offering referral bonuses.

“While the changes tended to be small, they were consistent with the types of business experimentations they learned about in the technical side of their traditional business training,” the researchers reported.9

Tumsifu points out, “Experimenting in small ways progressively encourages entrepreneurs to eventually try and engage in big things.”

Often people think about trying to solve problems with more money, more resources, more training, and more mentoring, Carlos says. “And we’re not saying that more money and resources and training is not important. But the implications of the study indicate that to fully achieve the potential of those resources, there’s an additional component that needs to consider psychological and social dimensions. It’s a simple, low-cost way to begin to attack the problem of poverty.”

A Tanzanian entrepreneur sells fruit
Entrepreneurs who received the growth-mindset training in their workspaces.

Small and Simple Things

These results directly echo results Dweck and fellow researchers have seen in other settings—that teaching the principles of a growth mindset, even in small increments, has a significant impact.

For example, in a study published in Nature, researchers examined growth-mindset interventions for lower-achieving secondary education students in the United States. They discovered that even a one-hour online growth-mindset intervention improved grades and increased enrollment in advanced courses and showed results similar to “rigorously evaluated adolescent interventions of any cost or duration.”10

Olga Stoddard, a BYU assistant professor of economics, was involved in a separate study that looked at implementing growth-mindset principles to attract more diverse job applicants. In her research, she found that simply adding a note to a job advertisement explaining “that many of the critical skills for the position may be strengthened through experience at the company” has a significant impact on application probabilities among minorities and minority women in particular.11

“It’s important to note that our study does not discount the importance of more complex solutions,” Carlos says. “But one of the most important implications is that even the best training or resources in the world may not make a difference if the individual receiving them lacks the confidence to take action.”

He adds, “From a return-on-investment perspective, it is really inspiring to see how a simple intervention like this can act as a powerful catalyst in enabling individuals to unlock the power of the education and resources they receive.”

Gospel in Action

“One thing I love about this research is that it works toward a higher aim,” Witesman says. “Their work demonstrates how some empowering principles can lift people who might otherwise struggle. That commitment to using our skills and tools for the benefit of the world, specifically in alleviating poverty, is at the heart of who we are as a business school and as a university.”

Witesman believes a growth mindset acknowledges that children of God are meant to learn, grow, and progress. “It’s fascinating that this research showed that business tools alone have less impact, but when paired with a core principle of the gospel, these tools take on new meaning and effectiveness,” she says.

The plan of salvation can be boiled down to growth, Carlos adds. “We are here to learn and grow. God knows we are going to fail, so He provides a way for us to overcome those failures and to learn and to get better to become the people He knows we can become.”

Morris says when you look at the growth mindset that way, it’s really not that innovative. “We have been teaching that in the gospel all along,” he notes. “But it’s nice when science comes along and backs you up.”

Click to view a short video on this research. 


Written by Lisa Ann Thomson
Photos courtesy of Shad Morris and Chad Carlos


About the Author
Lisa Ann Thomson has written for a variety of regional and national publications, including several BYU alumni publications. She lives in Salt Lake City with her husband and children, where she is conducting her own natural experiment of growth mindset with her three teenagers.


  1. See Rosemary Peter Mramba and Kelvin Emmanuel Mkude, “Determinants of Fish Catch and Post-Harvest Fish Spoilage in Small-Scale Marine Fisheries in the Bagamoyo District, Tanzania,” Heliyon 8, no. 6 (June 2022): article e09574.
  2. See Susanne van Lieshout and Pranati Mehtha, Start and Improve Your Business Global Tracer Study, 2011–15: The Next 15 Million (Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Organization, 2017), 9.
  3. See Mramba and Mkude.
  4. Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York: Ballantine Books, 2008), ix.
  5. Dweck, 16.
  6. See “Teacher Practices: How Praise and Feedback Impact Student Outcomes,” Mindset Works,
  7. Shad Morris, et al., “The Impact of Growth Mindset Training on Entrepreneurial Action Among Necessity Entrepreneurs: Evidence from a Randomized Control Trial,” Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal 17, no. 3 (September 2023): 675.
  8. See Morris, et al., 682.
  9. Morris, et al., 680.
  10. David S. Yeager, et al., “A National Experiment Reveals Where a Growth Mindset Improves Achievement,” Nature 573 (19 September 2019): 368; see also pages 364–69.
  11. Jeffrey A. Flory, et al., “Leader Signals and ‘Growth Mindset’: A Natural Field Experiment in Attracting Minorities to High-Profile Positions,” Management Science, Articles in Advance (3 October 2023): 2.