When I was very young, my great-aunt Sarah tried to get me to eat my vegetables by telling me how lucky I was to be an American, since the kids in China and Egypt and Russia (where she had been born) weren’t fortunate enough to get such delicious food to eat. It didn’t work; I’m still not a big fan of peas or lima beans. But I thought of Aunt Sarah last week while attending the first-ever World Entrepreneurship Forum in Evian, France.
The Forum, sponsored by French business school EMLYON and management firm KPMG France, brought together academics, politicians, and entrepreneurs from all over the world. It was extraordinary to talk with, listen to, and learn from this group. It was eye-opening as well. Many entrepreneurs from other countries are fighting battles that American business owners fought and won several years ago. And some are struggling with issues we Americans are lucky to never have faced.
One entrepreneur, a female management consultant from Cameroon, talked about the image problem entrepreneurs (both male and female) face in her country. She explained that in Cameroon the perception is essentially that entrepreneurs are “losers” who start companies because they’ve failed at their jobs. Hearing this reminded me of a study of American entrepreneurs conducted over 20 years ago, which said that the group entrepreneurs most resembled were juvenile delinquents! The shared traits? Apparently, both entrepreneurs and “juvies” don’t like to follow orders, like to do things their way, and dealing with them is like trying to fit a square peg (the business owner) into a round hole (life).
In many foreign countries, entrepreneurial women are at a stage we American women went through 15 or so years ago. They’re fighting just to be taken seriously.
Access to capital is apparently a global problem. While we here in the U.S. know how hard it can be to find expansion capital, at least we have choices. In Morocco, there is no such thing as angel capital.
Another issue Moroccan entrepreneurs face is the social stigma against failure. While Americans have long struggled with this issue (the embarrassment of failing), I actually think we’ve made great strides in the last decade. We’ve come to accept that we’re not all going to succeed the first time out, that we might strike out a few times before we hit that home run. In Morocco failure is not an option. Many Moroccan business owners keep their failing businesses open (costing them even more money) rather than publically admit to failure.
All that said, there are things going on in many nations that we here in the U.S. could learn a thing or two from. The Japanese recently changed their tax laws to encourage angels to invest in entrepreneurial businesses. In the Netherlands it is now mandated that women will make up 30 percent of corporate boards by 2015. Many foreign nations take what’s called a “coordinated” approach to entrepreneurship. In a “Coordinated Market Economy” the government and other institutions of a country work with the market forces to help small businesses succeed. This is more commonly seen in Western European countries such as France and Germany.
By attending the World Entrepreneurship Forum, I came to understand how lucky we are to be entrepreneurs here in the U.S. We’re not fighting a daily battle against corrupt government officials, our colleges and universities have embraced the formal study of entrepreneurship, entrepreneurial role models are abundant, and successful business owners often are thought of as national heroes.
I also learned so much from the people I met, which I’ll share with you in future columns. The central argument of the World Entrepreneurship Forum is that entrepreneurs are “the creators of wealth and social justice.” An interesting premise to be sure, and one that deserves further exploration. I’d love to know what you think about that. Please e-mail me at email@example.com and share your views.
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