During my recent trip to Korea, an American expat told me about his friend, a successful young Korean entrepreneur who employed a half-dozen people in an education business. He fell deeply in love with a Korean woman and wanted to get married, but her parents refused to approve of the marriage until he got a “real job.” He agonized over this hard decision before he finally chose to pursue love, laying off his six employees and taking a groundskeeping job on the government payroll. When he told the woman’s parents about his new government job, the father said, “Welcome to the family, my new son.”
Politicians are pushing entrepreneurship on a global level with a lot of monetary investment, but their efforts will only be effective and efficient if a region’s underlying cultural mores, values, and pressures support risk-taking and entrepreneurship. This account of the Korean entrepreneur might seem a bit extreme, but it is representative of the underlying pressure on Korea’s best students and young people to get “stable jobs.”
Work in a big public company or the government, the mantra goes. Samsung, LG, and Hyundai don’t fire people.
The big public companies can afford to not fire people in the short term because of their size and recurring revenue streams. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, have no such security blanket. They learn to earn their stripes every day. Several generations have now been brought up in the German/Japanese/Korean conservative corporate mold, which is devastating to the growth of entrepreneurship—and to society. Entrepreneurs, much more so than large companies and governments, drive economies to innovate and to create the jobs needed to absorb a growing number of people into the workforce.
Finland is a good example of entrepreneur-driven economic growth. With the decline of the country’s flagship employer, Nokia, small groups of entrepreneurs are sustaining the economy through new innovations, such as mobile application software. The “Angry Birds” video game app is the most visible of the Finnish products getting global investment and attention. Rovio, the company that makes Angry Birds, is creating sustainable new jobs in Finland and establishing a cluster of excellence in mobile apps—resulting in even more sustainable jobs. Inevitably, there will be further disruptive innovations to replace “Angry Birds” and its cohorts, but a pro-entrepreneurship culture will embrace the risk-taking necessary to adapt and succeed.
Korea is not the only area where culture constrains entrepreneurship: Spain (especially Andalucia), for instance, has similar challenges, as do many other societies. In a companion post to this piece on the MIT Entrepreneurship Center website, I lay out counterpoints to the bias against entrepreneurship, along with some potential solutions for overcoming critical cultural obstacles to innovation. Please read that article for the full details, but just to give you a taste here, my counterarguments include:
1) Entrepreneurs Create Jobs
2) Entrepreneurship = Controlling Your Own Destiny = Stability
3) Entrepreneurship = Personal Growth = Personal Satisfaction
4) Entrepreneurship is Cool
Systemic issues like culture are hard to address because of their vexingly imprecise nature—it is far easier to develop and fund a new program. However, failing to address the root causes of an anti-entrepreneurship culture will lead to unimpressive results and disillusionment with entrepreneurship itself. This would be most unfortunate, because we need entrepreneurship now more than ever.
[Bill explains why it is not risky to be an entrepreneur in this companion article.]
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.
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