“Human endeavour for the benefit of all” was how Jonathan Ortmans, chair of the Global Entrepreneurship Network (GEN), described contemporary entrepreneurship at the welcome ceremony of the eighth edition of the Global Entrepreneurship Congress (GEC) in Medellin. His welcoming speech sought to connect entrepreneurs from all over the world who had gathered in Colombia, and encouraged communities to come together to maximise possibilities in the entrepreneurial process. In the setting of a city that has come so far, from the crime-ridden place it was under the reign of Pablo Escobar to the entrepreneurial capital of Latin America, the stage was set for an exhibition of global problem solving. This article will analyse the issues discussed at the GEC and the extent to which it was useful in alleviating global problems.
By Jon Harvey
The education solution
Entrepreneurship has, over the course of the last couple of decades, been gaining recognition as a legitimate academic field. Thus, the demand for entrepreneurial education has skyrocketed since the consensus shifted from entrepreneurship as a niche field to a genuine framework for alleviating one’s own economic problems. For this reason, Bill Aulet of MIT suggested that the next step to increase entrepreneurship globally was to move education out of institutions and encourage its widespread availability. Making use of a digitalised world, he believes that everyone in society should have access to entrepreneurship education.
However we may not currently know enough about the appropriateness or relevance of entrepreneurial education for the masses. Perhaps their coherence would be poor, or their applicability to certain global contexts would be misconstrued. The solution here would therefore be to encourage the working together of academics and those entities that deliver this widespread education, to research global education methods and deliver rigid conceptual frameworks that are sure to help entrepreneurs the world over.
For this reason a drive towards specificity, suitable for budding entrepreneurs in developing regions, may be necessary. By tailor-making entrepreneurial education programs, utilising specific components of entrepreneurship like online financial literacy modules, a whole host of global entrepreneurs can gain access to this vital education to encourage their own self-sustainability. This, in turn, may elicit economic growth in developing regions and encourage the alleviation of poverty.
The low hanging fruit
The aforementioned digitalised world is offering a whole host of opportunities to entrepreneurs. The so-called technological revolution has resulted in a global tally of three startups per second, which have exploited technology in the best possible ways we know how. However, Donna Harris, a GEN board member and founder of 1776, suggested that entrepreneurs globally are only grabbing the low hanging fruits of the technological tree, merely scratching the surface of what is possible in this new age. Despite this, they are upending the global economy and transforming the rules of engagement of the industrial era. What was once a top down system is being transformed into one of collaboration, sociality and transparency.
With the United States West Coast established as the global hub of technological entrepreneurship and several events over a decade old set up to acknowledge its success in research and innovation, it is easy to overlook less developed regions with regards to this new form of entrepreneurship, especially in a setting as Americanised and celebratory as the GEC.
However, several examples were given throughout the GEC as to the technological and entrepreneurial potential of less developed regions. Attention was paid to Africa, for example, as a continent that is catching up with other areas of the world in the pursuit of global competitiveness, and its potential as an area that should be recognised as one worthy of venture capital investment. Innovation in Africa is on the rise in several industries. For example, within the engineering industry, African companies have developed a technology that allows cyclists to know exactly what hazards are around them, that works in the same way as radar. Furthermore, much investment is being made in the solar energy sector, which accounted for one third of all venture capital investment in Africa last year. Though this positive view of Africa and other developing regions was made clear at the GEC, the impression gained from this argument was not one that considered the needs of the many, or one that held entrepreneurship in the light intended by Jonathan Ortmans at the conference’s beginning. Africa has widespread problems of poverty and inequality that were overlooked, as well as governmental problems which make doing business hard for African people.
The problem of Africa
The governmental problems that face African populations were unfortunately examined through the lens of venture capital acquisition, rather than from the points of view of individuals trying to solve their own economic challenges through entrepreneurship. Nevertheless, these problems should be highlighted to emphasise the difficulties some regions of the world face with regards to entrepreneurship compared to others. Primarily, poor policies, or the complete lack thereof, serve as constraints to entrepreneurship. Business ecosystems are so misaligned all over the continent that international business proves difficult; companies are reluctant to trade in other countries or to scale up and move into these others as well. For example, bribery is a common issue in Africa, with short-term oriented businesses preferring to offer bribes as a tool for economic growth than invest in fixed assets, which prevent them from scaling up. The issue stems from ‘bureaucratic red tape’, which hinders the overall business environment.
Therefore, it can be seen that the difference between governments that take entrepreneurship seriously and those that do not has serious ramifications. This links to the aforementioned entrepreneurial education programmes: governments can be encouraged to set policies and create a conducive business environment but they cannot ‘do’ – that is up to the people and by expanding their skillset, successful entrepreneurship can be made a reality in developing regions.
Criticisms – a personal view
Over the course of the GEC, there seemed to be an air of celebration of past endeavours, with a smattering of inspirational stories from those willing to share. An occasional mention of the Kauffman Foundation was made to highlight the supposedly philanthropic nature of the congress, but the content of the sessions held did not focus on entrepreneurship “for the benefit of all” as Jonathan Ortmans originally suggested.
The GEC was thus tarnished as an event to celebrate storytelling, rather than one to help fix the world’s problems through entrepreneurial thinking.
Whilst careful consideration of the idea of entrepreneurial education in the context of developing regions resulted in the possible usefulness of its application in these areas, the general impression received from Bill Aulet was that the idea for widespread education was aimed at developed countries. No mention at all was given of developing regions, nor was it implied. His talk on education had the potential to be aimed at solving issues of poverty both in developed and developing countries but as it turned out, its content was intended to inspire and impress the crowd rather than direct its attention towards philanthropy.
It was particularly disappointing to see that a talk entitled “What’s next for Africa?” focused on the endeavours of the participating panellists, which varied from research on African entrepreneurship to venture capitalism to a success story of a contemporary African entrepreneur. When challenged with a question as to what is being done to alleviate poverty, the panellists met it with vague answers that seemed to deliberately revert the question back to the encouragement of investment in African businesses.
Moving forward, the GEC should, in my opinion, aim to change its focus from one of celebration to one that is genuinely philanthropic.
It was mentioned several times throughout the conference that entrepreneurship could be used as a tool with which to solve problems, utilising innovative thinking to pave the way for sustainability. The overall topics on which the GEC focused could have fooled anyone into thinking that this is exactly what it achieved, but sadly this was not the case.
The only way the GEC can become a genuinely useful tool for global entrepreneurship is acknowledging that its focus at the moment will not alleviate global issues.
By avoiding these pitfalls next year in Johannesburg, the GEC does have the potential to do this as it moves into Africa for the first time.
About Jon Harvey: Originally hailing from Bath, Jon is a Masters student studying Entrepreneurship and Management at Sheffield University. Jon has a particular interest in social entrepreneurship and sustainability, as well as the study of entrepreneurship in the economies of developing countries.