Harnessing the Power of Entrepreneurs Globally by Kevin Langley, Global Chairman, Entrepreneurs Organization (EO) & Cari E. Guittard, Senior Advisor to EO & Adjunct Faculty for Corporate Diplomacy, USC Annenberg

Istanbul, Turkey — December 2011

They came from thousands of miles away on buses, planes, and cars. Hundreds of entrepreneurs, some as far as Syria and Palestine, traveled all day and through the night. Many came with no support, no money, and no resources, just a dream. On the surface, this mix of countries, cultures and geopolitical differences could have been a recipe for disaster. Their collective hope and passion for starting or continuing their own businesses and building economic prosperity brought them together. From every socio-economic background and culture, they came together to share, encourage, and inspire: men and women of all ages. The scene was one of mutual understanding and connection that was instant and palpable, fueled by an indescribable energy, excitement and optimism. They shared horrific stories of loss and overcoming hardship. One entrepreneur from Kosovo lost over 400 friends and family members in the war, yet he is still fighting the battle to bring economic opportunity to help his country fully rebuild. Another entrepreneur shared his passion for making educational toys for local schools and expressed his need for seed funding to purchase a laser cutter to expand the effort. Though there is no metric for measuring the inspiration and resultant actions that occur after gatherings of this magnitude, the power was evident. When entrepreneurs come together, magic happens. They are redefining soft power at a time when their collective efforts could not be more sorely needed around the world.

The Enlightened Entrepreneurial Mind

Though there are varying definitions of what constitutes a successful entrepreneur, the skill sets and mindset have striking similarities and patterns. A colleague who teaches entrepreneurship at Stanford recently shared that on the first day of class, he asks the students to raise their hands if they consider themselves an optimist. Those who don’t raise their hands are advised that entrepreneurship may not be the best career direction. By and large, successful entrepreneurs are unapologetic and enduring optimists. Interestingly, colleagues who teach diplomacy report that many of their students – most of whom aspire to Foreign Service and senior government posts – are most often self-identified pessimists.  Is there any wonder then how entrepreneurs are able to succeed in environments where traditional diplomacy has failed? Entrepreneurs routinely welcome challenges, develop solutions, and find a way to move forward even under the most severe constraints. They are known for finding common ground and are, perhaps, the most powerful and successful problem solvers in the world.

Whether it was the economic downturn, lack of job opportunities, a fascination with Steve Jobs and other iconic entrepreneurs, or some combination thereof – at some point in the last decade it became cool to want to be an entrepreneur. Go to any major city anywhere in the world and there are countless forums and classrooms featuring entrepreneurs. People now aspire to innovate and create on a scale unlike generations before. A Kauffman poll from last fall revealed that more than half of the millennial generation — those ages 18 to 34 — want to start a business or have already started one. [1] And millennials aren’t the only ones. Vivek Wadwa, noted scholar and serial entrepreneur, shared some of his related research in a Washington Post blog, “[We] learned that the average and median age of successful founders was 39. Twice as many founders were older than 50 as were younger than 25. And there were twice as many over 60 as under 20.”[2] Building off this work, Kauffman research found that the average age of U.S. entrepreneurs is actually rising, with the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity shifting to the 55–64 age group. Thankfully, the entrepreneurial mind has no age limit or expiration date.

Though there may be many more entrepreneurs surfacing globally, to most, the entrepreneurial mind is an enigma. However to work with and partner with entrepreneurs successfully, one needs to understand and appreciate how they think. To get inside an entrepreneur’s brain and to work with and among entrepreneurs is an exercise in extreme patience, endurance and creativity, but it is one that pays off. Fill a room with entrepreneurs who have never met and they will have an immediate kinship, a mutual understanding.

Entrepreneurs don’t think or operate like most people.  Spend a few days surrounded by entrepreneurs and the following qualities instantly become apparent. They are:

  • High energy with an insatiable curiosity
  • Eternal optimists who know how to sell
  • People who fundamentally think differently.
  • Risk-takers who know how to get things done under severe constraint
  • Extremely adaptable

Known for their innovative and creative abilities, many entrepreneurs are turning that focus inward and have been seeking deeper purpose and meaning for their work. Entrepreneurs at every stage are evolving and progressively seeking innovative ways to bring business solutions to pressing social needs.  Increasingly entrepreneurs in every region of the world consider themselves enlightened entrepreneurs, a growing breed focused on doing good, while doing well. A new sector has developed under the notion of social entrepreneurship that is changing and challenging traditional funding and development models. Social enterprise is a rising sector in Europe in particular, already representing 10% of all European businesses and employing over 11 million paid employees.[3] Latin America will host the Social World Enterprise Forum in Rio de Janeiro for the first time in October, 2012 focusing on supporting social entrepreneurs in emerging economies. It speaks volumes that Ashoka: Innovators for the Public – one of the first NGOs focused on supporting social entrepreneurship which began in 1980 with a meager budget and tiny staff – now has programs in over 60 countries, with 2000 fellows and a budget just over $30 million[4]. The enlightened entrepreneurial mindset has worked its way into the DNA of the next generation of entrepreneurs and with careful stewardship it will have an impact for decades to come.

A Tri-Sector Approach to Global Engagement — An Entrepreneurship Revolution Takes Root

As the numbers of enlightened entrepreneurs progressively grow, they are starting to see the power and benefit of banding together and engaging public, private, and NGO partners in a tri-sector approach to global engagement. Along with this new approach, a fresh entrepreneurship focused narrative is emerging on the global stage that will fundamentally shift how we view job creation, competitiveness, and economic growth for generations to come. Leading, successful entrepreneurs are now regularly speaking out, driving a global conversation where governments, NGOs and the private sector are engaged in a dialogue on how best to support and sustain entrepreneurs and the entrepreneurial eco-system.

As global unemployment rates remain high, uncertainty becomes the norm and access to funding is increasingly restricted, tri-sector engagement in supporting entrepreneurship efforts is vital for our collective economic security. This new form of global engagement is beginning to bear fruit.  Encouraging and supporting entrepreneurs, at every stage, in such a difficult economic climate is the first primary challenge. Giving them opportunities to learn from and be inspired by experienced entrepreneurs is essential. Leading entrepreneurship NGOs are providing more and more of these opportunities as well as leading the way in capturing and measuring best practices and developing practical tools, mentorship, and targeted training programs. One example of this targeted development is EO’s Accelerator[5], a high-impact, proprietary curriculum developed by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs which focuses on four key issues faced by first-stage entrepreneurs: strategic planning, sales and marketing, human resources, and finance. Accelerator gives practical tools, knowledge, and skills so entrepreneurs can grow their businesses to more than $1 million (US) in annual revenue.

Additionally, every year, EO champions the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards (GSEA)[6], an international competition for thousands of high school, college and graduate students who have founded and are operating revenue-generating businesses. In mid-November every year, Kauffman supports Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW)[7] which last year was recognized in 123 countries. GEW involves over 25,000 partner organizations which host 40,000+ events in a week-long celebration to drive awareness of entrepreneurship.

While there is much debate on the role of governments in supporting and encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation, there is little doubt that they should be at the table principally to ensure favorable policy environments, create supportive infrastructure and purposeful educational resources. At the G20 in France last November, the G20 Youth Entrepreneurship Alliance (G20 YEA) held a G20 Youth Entrepreneurship Summit (G20 YES) with over 400 young student entrepreneur delegates to draw attention to key areas governments should support and engage with entrepreneurs.  Additionally, consulting firms Ernst & Young and McKinsey & Company in partnership with NGOs in the G20 countries both issued ground-breaking research on youth entrepreneurship and youth unemployment at the summit that illustrated new strategies to support and foster the development of young business owners which are a core foundational element of the entrepreneurial eco-system.

The Ernst & Young Entrepreneurship Barometer: A Call to Action for G20 Governments had several key insights, which now allow the tracking and measuring of the long-term impact of the recommendations of the G20 YES. It will be repeated for Mexico’s G20 YES Summit in 2012. Some of the key findings of the G20 countries surveyed include:

  • Entrepreneurship is a key driver of economic growth
  • Governments play a crucial role
  • Measurement frameworks are necessary to foster and strengthen entrepreneurial eco-systems
  • Targeted education and training for entrepreneurs is sorely lacking and needs to be offered across more disciplines at every level of development

Additionally, E&Y outline how critical self-confidence is to long-term success. And even though America prides itself on historically being a breeding ground for entrepreneurs, ironically Canada was the only G20 country ranked high on the self-confidence index. The connection between job creation and entrepreneurship is real and often misunderstood. In the US, according to Wadhwa’s research, entrepreneurial businesses:

Represent more than 99.7% of all employers;

Provide 70% to 80% of the net new jobs annually;

Employee roughly 130 million U.S. workers.

The result of the 2011 G20 YES Summit was an “Entrepreneurs’ Declaration” submitted to the G20 leaders, based on the Summit’s founding principles. The G20 YES delegations identified more than 200 best practices successfully implemented by governments, associations and by the private sector that can remove obstacles to entrepreneurship and strengthen the three pillars which are critical for boosting entrepreneurship success: fertile “ecosystems”, specific financing vehicles for each stage of development, and an entrepreneurial risk-taking culture.

At the end of the day the conversation is really about job creation and building economic prosperity.    Entrepreneurs understand this better than anyone else because they are the ones generating growth and offering job opportunities.  According to the EO Global Entrepreneurial Indicator,[8] which tracks leading entrepreneurs around the world, there is cause for optimism. In June 2011, 62% of entrepreneurs globally reported a profit increase and projections for the first quarter of 2012 see 78% anticipating profit growth and 68% anticipate new hiring. Supporting and empowering high-growth, high-potential entrepreneurs, and giving them tools to succeed more quickly, will be critical in job creation and creating economic stability long-term.

Entrepreneurs at the Front Lines of Diplomacy

A sea change is underway. There is an emergence of an attitudinal change in how people think about entrepreneurship and how it affects the quality of life globally. In the past the sole focus has been on attracting investment, but now there is a conversational shift on how to engage leading entrepreneurs that can be the catalyst to create sustainable economic opportunities in the form of local jobs and products and services in the new global economy, thereby creating a lasting effect.

From summits and international forums with opinion leaders to recognition at the G20, entrepreneurs are now at the frontlines of diplomacy. They are the new currency of global engagement, breathing life into stale conversations and policies surrounding the global economic crisis, and creating new ways in which we look at encouraging youth development and education. Though government bailouts, tax incentives and corporate consolidations dominate the headlines, entrepreneurs may be the last best hope for a global recovery. Even the US military gets it, and has been developing strategies to seed and support entrepreneurship as they see the direct link between security, stability and enabling prosperity.  The countries that get it right and do everything they can to encourage, support, and where appropriate get out of the way of aspiring and leading entrepreneurs are the ones who will reap the security and economic benefits long-term.

Twenty-five years ago, EO hosted Steve Jobs as a speaker for one of their first events. Back then he was challenging everyone to “think different”. Looking back over his career, it is extraordinary what one entrepreneur was able to create in a lifetime. Imagine recognizing and supporting thousands, even millions of entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and what they could create if given the chance.

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FOR MORE INFORMATION

Kevin Langley is Global Chairman of the Entrepreneuers Organization (EO). He is the CEO and co-owner of Ellis Construction, Inc., a regional commercial contractor based in New Orleans. He also owns various other companies in real estate, construction, energy and new media.

Cari Guittard is Senior Associate, Global Strategic Partners and Adjunct Faculty at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and Hult International Business School, Dubai. From 2003 until 2010 she served as Executive Director of Business for Diplomatic Action


[1] http://www.kauffman.org/Section.aspx?id=Research_And_Policy

[2] http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-innovations/the-case-for-old-entrepreneurs/2011/12/02/gIQAulJ3KO_story.html

[3] http://www.focus-fen.net/index.php?id=n265765

[4] http://www.ashoka.org/facts

[5] http://accelerator.eonetwork.org/Pages/Default.aspx

[6] http://www.eonetwork.org/press/pressreleaselibrary/Pages/South-African-Social-Entrepreneur-Takes-Top-Spot-at-the-Global-Student-Entrepreneur-Awards.aspx

[7] http://www.unleashingideas.org/

[8] http://www.entrepreneurindicator.com/#

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