Its the end of the first full day of the European Confederation of Young Entrepreneurs here in Athens, and we’ve certainly been treated to a packed and varied programme so far.
The series of speakers has included a Dutch teenager who launched their first company at the age of 9 and a Dane for built his own rocket and is determined to fly to Mars. The panel discussions have looked at subjects from how entrepreneurs should bounce back from failure to how 3D printing will change business forever.
From all of these discussions it is clear how important entrepreneurs can be to the economic future of the UK and Europe as a whole. The minister responsible for small businesses in the Greek government highlighted how the creation of 10,000 high growth businesses is needed to address the unemployment crisis in his country. A similar number may be necessary in the UK.
It is clear from this conference that such goals are most definitely achievable in Europe. Ann Mettler, the Chair of the Lisbon Council think tank, powerfully challenged the idea that Europeans are too “safe” to be successful entrepreneurs.
15% of EU citizens are self employed she said, and this corresponds very closely to levels in the USA. Europeans also dream of pulling themselves up by their boot straps.
As someone who works in that infamous village located in SW1, my first thought has been how can politicians help entrepreneurs on their way. The message I’ve heard clearly is that the old division of big state versus small state is no longer the issue. European entrepreneurs want an enabling state, which creates an ecosystem where they can thrive, and then leaves them to do just that.
So how would this space look? Well three common themes seemed to have emerged so far.
Firstly, entrepreneurs need to be given space to innovate. There was acknowledgment from almost all the speakers that successful entrepreneurs have special qualities, which set them apart. Nonetheless they still need space to hone and practice these skills. Very few, even if they are born with the right drive and talent, can succeed without experience. This can come through learning from failure in a society, which does not see one business failure as an ultimate disaster. It can also come from being networked into people with similar ambitions but different skill sets, so that different entrepreneurs can share skills and ideas.
But most of all, many people at the event agreed with Candace Johnson, a successful entrepreneur from Luxembourg, who argued that Europe needs to shout more loudly about its business success stories to show more young people what they can achieve.
Secondly, many participants noted that government can provide the platform for young people to learn entrepreneurial skills early in their school careers. Britain’s Nathaniel Peat emphasised how business ideas can be integrated into the current curriculum and how this will inspire children to learn. Teach a child that 1 + 1 = £2 and you will have a captive audience. This was certainly the case with teenage entrepreneur Bastiaan Zwanenburg who spoke about his success, which came despite not having a huge interest in academia.
Labour’s Waltham Forest Council are already placing a designated “Enterprise Governor” on the board of each school in their Borough to achieve just this. This conference made me realise what an important idea this could be.
Thirdly, it was evident that high level commitment is required to produce a more entrepreneurial society. The Greek Manifesto, a set of ideas to improve the standing of entrepreneurs, which was launched at the conference, demonstrates this. Many influential figures from the world of business and government have signed up to this vision, making it far more likely it will be delivered.
Many speakers spoke about the need for the voice of entrepreneurs to be heard at the heart of government, and we particularly heard about Romania’s new Minister for Enterprise and Enterprise Mayor’s in Brazil. Labour wants to introduce a British Small Business Administration, staffed by business people, not civil servants, at the heart of Westminster to do just this. It was great to see this idea being discussed by Alex Mitchell from Young Brits at one of the panel sessions.
So a huge amount was covered today, and I’m sure tomorrow will be just as busy and interesting.
We’ve reached the end of the third and final day of the European Confederation of Young Entrepreneurs conference in scorching Athens. Today’s discussions built on many of the topics previously discussed, but at the same time took these talking points in new and interesting directions. The panellists for today’s sessions also seemed to come from even further and wider than before!
Education was again a hot topic, but where the conference had previously focused on the need to give very young children exposure to entrepreneurial ideas and values, today much talk was given to getting business education right at university.
Nadia Cheng a successful entrepreneur in the field of robotics, who flew all the way from the states to attend the conference, highlighted how effective a strong partnership between academia and start ups can be in the high tech sphere. However, she warned that ground rules must be laid down at the start to prevent the academic or institution claiming too much of the credit and profit. Members of the UK delegation indicated that this had also been a problem back home.
A second American panelist, Maxim Lobovsky, spoke about the successful start up culture at his university, where most students were preparing to start their own business whilst they studied and assumed the course they were studying would equip them to become successful entrepreneurs. This may be an attitude lacking in UK higher education.
At yesterday’s sessions, a running theme was the need for high level policy influence. During a keynote address, a former Obama Campaign staffer, Michael McGeary, talked about how he had achieved this by setting up “Engine” an advocacy group, which lobbies on behalf of start ups in the States.
He recognised that start ups usually have little time to slip away from their business to lobby politicians and policy makers. But if each of these contributed just a small slice of time, their combined voice could be huge. This is where “Engine” step in, as professional political strategists, representing a membership of tech start ups from across the 50 states. They have seen some large successes such as measures contained within the JOBS Act.
McGeary was particularly positive about the potential for a similar organisation in Europe. He noted that politics is not as directly influenced by money in Europe, and so a start up voice would not inevitably be drowned out by big spending corporates. Likewise, the existence of the single market allows lobbying of supranational institutions which could consequently make it far easier for European start ups to branch out and export.
The subject of finance was again discussed and it was repeatedly emphasised that money must come with mentoring and other networks of support, or it will be squandered. If there was one key message of the conference it would be around the need for ecosystems of entrepreneurs
Attendees got to try this out for themselves. Two representative from the European Commission gave delegates the chance to have their say on how a new huge pot of 79 billion Euros would be spent on future tech and infrastructure products. Many ideas were given from using the funds as prime inducement to solve issues like tax avoidance and over fishing, to using it all for tax cuts instead!
It certainly has been a fascinating three days in Greece which has really sketched out a direction of travel for any government, or potential government, who seeks to unleash their domestic entrepreneurial talent.