Does an Innovation Ecosystem Need an “MIT” or Will Evita Perons Do?: A Romanian Tale

3/3/11Follow @BillAulet

In my role at the head of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center, I have the great opportunity, at times, to travel the world and learn about entrepreneurship on a global scale, and to gain knowledge and perspective to help us be more effective in our mission at home. This past week was such an experience.

There is an underlying assumption that to have an innovation-based entrepreneurial ecosystem, there has to be an “MIT-like” anchor university in the ecosystem (Technion in Israel, Stanford in Silicon Valley, IIT in India). The presence of such an institution that attracts, trains, and continually feeds skilled and talented workers into the ecosystem makes perfect sense.

What if I told you of a place where there is a growing and vibrant IT entrepreneurial community, and yet it is in a country that lacks a single university in the top 500 in the world? This is exactly what I found in Romania these past few days.

As I met dynamic entrepreneurs and heard stories of their friends, a pattern emerged. Most have never studied computer science at a university; they said they did have time to do so, and that it was better to get real experience (some did not even graduate from high school). Romania is a poor country, but it is also an industrious and diverse society (both of which are important). Since people don’t have much and life is hard, they have to be creative to get by and get ahead. Necessity is the mother of invention and, in this case, entrepreneurship.

There is also optimism in the air, partly a result of Romania joining the EU four years ago. That is helpful, but let’s focus instead on the “adjita” (an Italian-American word for stomach agitation) driving things in this situation. The Romanians are learning programming without formal institutions to train them, which seems perfectly natural to them. They note that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg didn’t graduate from college, either (Not a great analogy, but that’s how they see it). In my recent travels I have also found thriving, robust entrepreneurship in Scotland and Finland as well. Interestingly, if you ask people in any of these three countries if they are good at entrepreneurship, their answer is “Oh, no.” This very scrappiness is what makes these regional groups have a higher propensity for entrepreneurship than their counterparts in, say, Germany, Russia, England, France, or Spain.

Should this surprise us?

Not really, because here in the United States, the studies of MIT professor Ed Roberts show that immigrants are more likely to start companies than more comfortable, long-term American residents. It’s just as “Evita” narrator Che Guevarra described Eva Peron, who rose from the lowest levels of Argentine society to the very pinnacle of power: “Eva Peron had every disadvantage you need if you’re going to succeed. No money, no cash, no father, no bright light.”

So the moral of the Romanian tale is to reinforce a point made in an earlier article, that while other factors like the presence of a world class research institute close to MIT’s caliber is extremely valuable, never underestimate the importance of culture in creation of an entrepreneurial ecosystem. In descriptions of such a culture, you should not see the words like “comfortable —you should see words synonymous with scrappy. Just remember Evita.

[Note: Special thanks to my colleague Howard Anderson at the MIT Sloan School of Management, with whom I discussed this topic and who also first pointed out the Che Guevara quote].

Bill Aulet is the managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is also the author of “Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Steps to a Successful Startup”, published by Wiley, which was released in August 2013. Follow @BillAulet

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  • John Murray

    Bill,

    Will Ken and you change your mantra from “It’s a great time to start a new company” to “It’s a great time to start a new company, anywhere” :-)

    All the best

    John

  • Octavian

    Bill, I have to disagree with you a little: Romania is not a poor country; it has things that lack to most EU countries – the resources and the mind of the people. What we have (and what took us to this point) are poor leaders. And when a nation lacks this fundamental element, there is only one way: down.
    But I agree with you on the rest of your analysis, a very pertinent one.
    Romanian graduates are working all over the world and are appreciated. But due to the lack of leaders, the system (educational) is becomming less and less appereciated, from there the position of Romanian Universities. But the people, the students, are there. With their brilloant minds in a lot of cases. It is somehow like the example you gave with Bill Gates and the rest: you don’t have to graduate a ‘top 10′ University to have a brilliant mind…
    Anyhow, we are waiting for you to visit Romania again, baybe other cities (like Timisoara) aswell

  • Namita V

    I had the wonderful experience of attending MIT and the unfortunate experience of sitting in some of Aulet’s lectures last year. This article is filled with speculation, self-promotion and name dropping. I think “arrogant Bill” as many of us call him, wanted to figure out how he could get his name in an article with Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg, and the only way that could happen is to write it himself.
    The fact that Aulet was not Ed Roberts (or anyone else’s) first choice to run the E-Center, he should be the last choice to be an Xconomist!
    Ed Roberts could have done much better picking Ken’s successor and Xconomy could do a better job of screening its contributors….
    Nami

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  • http://timeop.com Bogdan

    The lack of comfort in Romanian society and economy most certainly contribute to our “need to succeed”.
    This is what persuaded me to startup TimeOP and this is what drives me forward.

    However, even if Romania has people with potential, you have to keep in mind that the system, the bureaucratic complication and the general perception in my country does not help.

    In Romania it is well known that Romanians who succeeded (from sculptors to inventors to entrepreneurs) did it abroad.

  • http://www.lorandminyo.com/ Lorand R. Minyo

    Well, maybe this is how it looks from the outside. Yes, Romanians do have the mindset and skills necessary to be successful. The right environment? Not at all.

    If you can read romanian (or even use google translate to some extent), read this article http://www.lorandminyo.com/mafia-internetului-romanesc/ – then the comments. They come from entrepreneurs and tech people from the “new Silicon Valley”.

    You might find out that while “if there’s a will, there’s a way” might hold true, there is more than it meets the eye – the lack of a true ecosystem.

  • Ioana

    @Namita V
    I feel I have to say that your above comment is in no way related to the situation at hand.
    I happen to have witnessed the discussions which lead Bill to this article.
    Believe it or not, when he says people mention Bill Gates, it is because they do. Octavian’s comment is a confirmation of this.

    Also, Bill took the time to visit Romania, a country most consider invisible in the global entrepreneurship environment, to try an make a difference here. And he did.
    Even more so, he wrote this article which actually is a source of hope and optimism if you’re a Romanian entrepreneur, hoping to make it worldwide, with no prestigious education, no big contacts and not the idea for the best thing since sliced bread.
    You don’t have to agree with the stated views. But if you’re going to comment you have to refer to them, not to your own personal concerns.

  • Bill Aulet

    Dear Nami,
    First I want to agree with Ioana and not loose the fundamental point of the article. That is what the focus of the discussion should be.

    None the less, I am truly saddened to see your comments as our primary goal at the MIT Entrepreneurship Center is to make the experience for each MIT student who takes my classes or anyone else’s class in entrepreneurship a positive experience. In your case, that was clearly not the case and we failed – but we want to now learn why and fix it. A year and a half ago, we implemented six new standards/guidelines for the ECenter and classes (rigor/excellence, collaboration, diversity, experimentation, honest broker and mens et manus) with feedback loops in the process. The analysis of the feedback and decisions on moving forward are made with multiple perspectives (not just one) to ensure as best we can that students do not get such an experience as you got. I and other faculty read through all the comments and we work to continually improve understanding of the reality and put in place remediation plans based on the fact that we are not perfect. We have gotten feedback on a number of fronts and have implemented plans to improve the classes and programs we run. I must say, this is the first time we have never heard mention of what you are talking about above which maybe our fault but we will certainly look into it.
    Hopefully you will respond to my email that I sent you privately as soon as I saw this and we can engage in productive dialogue to understand better what exactly you are talking about and constructively address the issues so others will not have the experience you had. We want to continually do better and we will. If you feel uncomfortable talking to me about it, which it sounds like you may, you can certainly, and I enourage you, to let Ed Roberts know and you know how to reach him. We all would like to get your feedback to improve. That is how we better fulfill our mission — to best serve the MIT students who have an interest in building entrepreneurial capacity while here at MIT. Personal agenda and egos will not get in the way of this.
    Good luck in your current endeavors and we hope to hear from you to address your concerns — and if any others feel the same, there is an open door/communication channel to Chairman Ed Roberts at all times.

    Best,
    Bill

  • Pedro T. Santos

    @ Namita

    I completely disagree with your perspective and frankly from the student view find it rather offensive and disrespectful to Aulet, Roberts, and MIT.
    Personal judgment should not cloud objectivity when making an assertion such as the one you have presented here.
    I was a full time student at MIT for 2 years and interacted frequently with both Aulet and Morse. As a contrast to your opinion, I believe Ken did a phenomenal job at building the E-center to a great position and then Bill Aulet (who in my perception was always the first choice of Roberts) has done a great job in further expanding the role and success of the entrepreneurship center by empowering students and reaching out to all of MIT.
    Aulet was very successful before deciding to put his professional career aside and dedicating himself to the service of the MIT community.
    He has never taken any equity position and yet has contributed tremendously to the success of his students and the community (myself included) without ever asking for a dime in return. All for the benefit of the students and the community.
    That being said, it would be great to have comments and back and forths on the content of the article instead of attacking/defending a writer/commenter/contributor.
    Is there any opinion/comment on the content itself? There your opinion would be valuable.

  • John Fox

    Another thoughtful article Bill. First of all, I would state that having recently had the pleasure of attending MIT I found the entire experience inspiring and extremely valuable on all fronts. Bill and his learned colleagues bring practical application of academic concepts, tools and process to the fore.

    On the article, it proves that entrepreneurial spirit can be fostered in any environment be it Silicon Valley, Scotland(my home) or Romania. Would Scotland and Romania benefit from an MIT type institution….yes….does it mean they aren’t entrepreneurs …no… it only means that they have different challenges from each other dependent on their environment. Of course, both Scotland and Romania and many other countries have access to MIT.

    I guess we have an entrepreneurial continuum where at one end there are entrepreneurs from necessity…..and at the other end entrepreneurs from choice…….with many in between… Access to learnings from MIT will support entrepreneurial development however perhaps the spirit and desire needs to be there in the first place from whatever motivation?

  • Edward Roberts

    It is unfortunate but reasonable that some of our students are not satisfied with their exposures to entrepreneurship classes and activities at MIT. We do try hard, and we have achieved immensely, over the 20 years since I founded the MIT Entrepreneurship Center. Among other dimensions of accomplishment, we have gone from 1 to now 30 classes, from 1 to about 20 faculty, about half academics and half successful practitioners, and from the tiny beginnings of student clubs to overwhelming membership and activities in so many ways across the entire Institute.

    For 10 of those years I worked very closely, warmly, and I think productively with Ken Morse, our first Managing Director, whom we hired in 1996. When Ken departed in 2009, we all quickly agreed that Bill Aulet, who had served for several years as our Entrepreneur-in-Residence and had as Senior Lecturer initiated our very effective energy-related courses, should be chosen as Managing Director. At the same time we were fortunate that Professor Fiona Murray agreed to become Associate Director, paying special attention to our large and still growing entrepreneurship education program.

    During the past two years Bill and Fiona have been enormously successful, in my judgment, in our collaboration for advancing entrepreneurship at MIT to new heights. I do hope this will continue.

    Ed Roberts, Founder and Chair of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center

  • http://www.mariuspop.eu Marius

    Bill, I have to disagree (and not just ‘a little’ as Octavian put it), you don’t have to be creative to “get by” only to “get ahead” and I think that is true in every country.

    Of course it’s just a question of perception and you are entitled to your opinion, but I just wanted to balance things out a bit.

    Thanks for the article

  • Bill Aulet

    Marius,

    Yes you are correct. Point well taken.

    Bill

  • Ioana

    About engineers – it seems that prizing experience and passion instead of education is not uncommon in the Valley as well.

    Here’s a paragraph from an article by TechCrunch:
    But unlike companies like Google and Amazon who rigorously hired based on college degrees, GPAs and standardized test scores, Facebook and the companies that have spun out of it have hewed toward sheer, raw, hacker-like genius. That’s created a more entrepreneurial culture inside the company. Justin Rosenstein– who was at Google and then Facebook before leaving to co-found Asana with Moskovitz– says that working at Google is often described as a wonderland for academics, while Facebook’s early days were more of an extension of a messy dorm room full of engineers hacking away all night, then collapsing most of the day.

    Read entire article here: http://tcrn.ch/eWk86Z

  • Bill Aulet

    Ioana,

    Thanks for this observation. Within great entrepreneurial companies, it is true meritocracy rules. In hacker companies, the best hackers rule and that does not necessarily correlate to degrees.

    Bill

  • Bill Aulet

    For further proof that learning can actually be facilitated by conditions where resources are very scarce, watch this video. It is amazing: http://www.online-educa.com/audio-video-9

    It comes to me from Marcus Dantus who runs an Entrepreneurship Center in Mexico City after we talked about this topic. It is called “The Hole in the Wall” and it states the case above more eloquently than I could ever possible do — with lots of data to back it up.

    Thanks for sharing Marcus.

    Bill

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