Policymakers and Grassroots Networks Find They Need Each Other for Smarter Ecosystems

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For a few years now, a global gathering of startup champions, investors and entrepreneurs called the Global Entrepreneurship Congress (GEC) has explored approaches to strengthening entrepreneurship around the world. Last March in Rio de Janeiro, it included dozens of events that turned the gathering into a festival for startups and those that foster them — connecting roughly 2,700 entrepreneurship leaders and supporters from 119 countries. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the turnout for the pre-summit event on public policy. It started to become clear that a new chapter in entrepreneurship has begun. Two worlds have come together driven by a profound awareness of the impact of entrepreneurship. Earnest governments, anxious to work out how to support the right program and pull the right policy levers, are now interacting and even collaborating with grassroots networks and communities that are driving the emergence of smarter ecosystems from the bottomup. It is this new dynamic in these ecosystems that will support the scaling of new high-growth firms across the planet.   

The Policy Summit at that event in Rio de Janeiro marked an unusual addition for a gathering that had started as a grassroots movement. Continuing then throughout the Congress, serial entrepreneurs and investors like Brad Feld, Dave McClure, and Jeff Hoffman shared thoughts with government officials from Israel, Singapore, Italy, Colombia, and beyond. Both sides discussed their perspective on opportunities and problems facing entrepreneurs as they seek to launch and grow new firms.

While they did not agree on everything, they did listen to one another. Feld, an early stage investor and entrepreneur who co-founded TechStars, told enthusiastic government leaders that the theme of their role in the ecosystem should be “do no harm” and many officials took note, based on entrepreneurs’ experiences, of the policies that they thought would not stand in the way.

From these conversations at the GEC in Rio, it turns out that policymaking to unleash new ventures demands new entrepreneurial thinking of its own. In fact, many top-down “planner types” said they are now engaging in the same iterative processes that many startups go through: experimenting with policies and programs to find out which are most effective at promoting defined objectives for economic growth and job creation. Further, like today’s generation of startup creators, policymakers are looking to the global stage for ideas and expertise, seeking best practices and bridges to other nations that are successfully nurturing entrepreneurship ecosystems. For example, Chile is not only importing entrepreneurial talent to fuel local startup communities through Start-Up Chile, it is now also importing capacity to help connect universities and industry, as explained by Conrad von Igel, executive director of InnovaChile, during the GEC Policy Summit.

In Rio de Janeiro, all startup ecosystem players shared a common platform for the first time. This shift in the frontier of the entrepreneurship field should be celebrated. It has not come easy, but rather through the aggregate efforts of thousands of entrepreneurship champions around the world over the past few years. The Kauffman Foundation hosted the first Global Entrepreneurship Congress in Kansas City in 2009 precisely to support the grassroots startup champions behind the Global Entrepreneurship Week movement.

Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW) is the largest entrepreneurship festival in the world, where 20,000 events and activities attract 7.5 million attendees during a one-week period each November in more than 135 countries. At GEW competitions, global collaborations of creative minds turn ideas into real-life ventures: Startup Open identifies the most promising new startups from over 60 countries; the Cleantech Open Global Ideas Competition finds the best new green firms in 22 countries; and Startup Weekend boot camps churn out hundreds of founder teams to launch new ventures in more than 100 cities. Thousands of small gatherings are held in classrooms or under village trees, in addition to larger-scale events in football stadiums and convention centers. One can hear speeches by heads of state, talks by entrepreneurs, and thousands of pitches from ordinary people with ideas and drive who are raring to go. The most potent vision of GEW is simple: the enormous promise of today´s nascent entrepreneurs for innovating right through the world's toughest problems. These entrepreneurs have more than commercial consequence. People once dismissed in past eras as “dreamers trying to change the world” are today’s creative thinkers who, with the support of their peers, are using the marketplace to make their mark.

Yet much more has been accomplished through the synergies formed at each successive GEC. For the second edition of GEW in November 2009, several top government leaders extended their support. Each subsequent year has brought fresh assessments of entrepreneurship promotion efforts, new opportunities for collaboration, better-targeted programs through discussion of best practices, and even new data for better-informed policies. That is the legacy of the Global Entrepreneurship Week initiative and the annual Congress.

The growth in awareness has been central to the blossoming of the field of entrepreneurship among government and the grassroots. As these efforts continue, they bring clarity to the field of entrepreneurship, fostering productive discussions that reveal additional strengths — as well as weaknesses — in entrepreneurship ecosystems that yield important insights for more targeted and better coordinated efforts from both sides.

However, there is still a paucity of data to support decision-making. Now, the disciplined work of testing and selecting effective interventions — policies and programs that have beneficial impact — must begin. This calls for better and continuously updated data as well as rigorous analysis and evaluation. The Kauffman Foundation announced in October 2013 the creation of the Global Entrepreneurship Research Network (GERN) to take on this important task. Through this network, the World Bank and other major research organizations will align their efforts to: establish better and more uniform data collection; develop a repository of research and evaluations; and translate those findings and insights into better policies and programs to support entrepreneurs. GERN will help connect all stakeholders in the entrepreneurship ecosystem, those involved in top-down policy efforts as well as the bottom-up startup communities, to fight side-by-side in the battle to gain sober insights into efforts so that all sides can fine-tune initiatives strategically.

More data analysis done to truly understand entrepreneurial growth can only result in better policymaking. Now all eyes are on the next global gathering of leaders in this space that is scheduled to take place in Moscow from March 17-21, 2014. More than 140 nations are expected to participate — this time with an opening day dedicated to the policymakers who are anxious to be better helpers to their entrepreneur-led startup communities. Not only will the GERN meet there in Moscow, but a new coalition of startup-savvy policy advisors who make up a group called ‘Startup Nations’ will gather to discuss promising approaches and listen to early conclusions from the researchers. This all contributes to building better startup and scale-up ecosystems at all levels to best support those who bring new ideas to life.

Jonathan Ortmans is President of Global Entrepreneurship Week and Chair of the Global Entrepreneurship Congress.

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