Green Shoots of an Entrepreneurial Spring

6/20/11

[Editor's note: Cross-posted from The Economist, 6/16/11]

As the G8 last month pledged $10 billion to aid the Arab Spring to support the building of economic and political institutions, the May 24th NASDAQ debut of Russia’s $10 billion Yandex was but one of many green shoots of an equally significant Entrepreneurial Spring blossoming out from Chile to China, and Israel to India. Led by two brilliant entrepreneurs who knew how to take native search engine technology and implant it in the emerging Russian marketplace, for over a decade, Yandex, a Moscow-based Internet venture, had been growing inside of its language-walled garden. Finally, after a planned 2008 IPO was foiled by the economic crisis, this ambitious venture burst onto a global stage with the largest NASDAQ Internet offering in recent history.

Like its Middle East counterpart, the Entrepreneurial Spring is a grass roots movement, and, although fertilized by innovations originating in the United States, it is fundamentally global and only loosely connected to America. China’s RenRen, Estonia’s Skype, Japan’s Rakuten, and Bangladesh’s GrameenPhone represent ripe fruits of the last decade’s entrepreneurial investments in environments outside the U.S.

Also similar to its Middle East counterpart, the global Entrepreneurial Spring can lead to the democratization of opportunity and increased control by citizens over their own economic fates. However, just as the Arab Spring is a first fraught step on a long, even treacherous, path, so is the Entrepreneurial Spring neither a panacea nor a fait accompli. Left unaided, exposed to the vicissitudes of climate and availability of resources, the fragile shoots can easily be stunted or trampled. To take root, they will require enlightened leadership and the patient cultivation of a rich environment of institutions and norms in order to become part of a self-sustaining ecosystem.

To sustain and spread these new ventures, like political democracy, leaders everywhere—not only publicly elected leaders, but a broad base of leaders of public and private, formal and informal, institutions—need to democratize the entrepreneurial choice without over-controlling it. That will require deliberately fostering an entrepreneurship ecosystem that (a) is conducive to increasingly broad numbers of citizens making the choice to take their economic futures into their own hands, and, (b) after that choice is made, facilitates the broad, merit-based access to the resources—capital, human, cultural, institutional, educational, and legislative—required in order to be successful. The helping hand and the invisible hand must clasp each other.

Fortunately, there are also green shoots of such enlightened leadership. Startup America, StartUp Britain, Startup Africa, and Start-Up Chile are but a few outward manifestations of the new national priority that leaders are assigning to entrepreneurship. Kauffman Foundation-initiated Global Entrepreneurship Week, launched less than three years ago, already conducts 100,000 discrete activities in more than 100 countries. In four years, Startup Weekend has spread to more than 100 cities in 30 countries with 30,000 participants. These two private initiatives, impressive by themselves, show that leadership of the Entrepreneurial Spring can and must go beyond government.

The bubbling up of the Entrepreneurial Spring shouldn’t be confused with the capital market bubble of social media valuations. Up-and-coming next generation stars from Lebanon (SABIS; management of K-12 schools in 15 countries), to Slovenia (Studio Moderna; multi-channel retailing in 20 countries), to Brazil (Tecsis; wind-turbine blades for the US and Europe) to Iceland (Actavis; generic pharmaceuticals in 40 world markets) show that entrepreneurship spreads far beyond the latest Internet technology. These rapidly growing, high potential ventures––and thousands like them––may still be under the public radar, but they are already having huge impact in their respective fields; no less importantly, they are making their economies more competitive, their citizens more prosperous, and they are creating jobs for many and inspiring further entrepreneurship in others.

For those countries not yet blooming with new ventures, get ready. As the successes become more visible and prove that value-creating entrepreneurship can and does happen anywhere and everywhere, the cultivation of a conducive ecosystem will not be a “nice-to-have” opportunity but a “must-have” necessity. Citizens everywhere will expect and demand the equal access to the possibility of prosperity that entrepreneurship can provide.

Daniel Isenberg is the founding Executive Director of the Babson Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Project and Professor of Management Practice at Babson Global. Leonard A. Schlesinger is the 12th President of Babson College. President Schlesinger served for over 20 years as Professor at the Harvard Business School. Follow @

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