If there was one session at the European Business Summit that we would not miss for anything, it was the one on empowering young entrepreneurs. This roundtable was supported by Think Young and allowed us to hear views of five diverse professionals:
Andrea Gerosa – ThinkYoung Founder and “Chief Thinker”
Kim Baden-Kristensen – Brain+ Co-founder and CEO
Denis Terrien – Novartex Chairman of the Board, experienced founder and business leader
Andrea Kindler – Enterprise Europe Network Austria Project Manager
Rebecca Christie (moderator) – freelance journalist/writer, former Bloomberg Chief Correspondent
Mr Gerosa commented on a number of topics in his introductory speech. Lack of capital is for him not necessarily the main problem for young entrepreneurs – if you have got an idea, capital comes to you, he believes, and money travels, so you can have investors even from the other side of the world. Money becomes a problem in the scale-up phase, not so much in the start-up phase yet. He also presented two problems he sees in Europe: negotiation and selling skills for entrepreneurs, on which there is not enough emphasis here compared to e.g. the US, as well as our attitudes towards failure and risk-taking.
Mr Baden-Kristensen was 36 when he started his business. It was a childhood dream, but he had to mature and find the right idea first; it also took him a few years to get ready to accept the risk. His company is highly scientific, so he needed to find the right collaborators, get all the necessary competences in the team. When he started, he had a good idea of what he wanted to do, and “then you start working through everything, learning new skills” – you need to know how to sell to investors, and you have to keep doing that all the time, and then sell to your customers too. He is glad he got support from some NGOs who help start-ups, believes we need NGOs as a mid-layer providing advice and access to resources, and he would like to give back at some point.
Mr Terrien created a company 10 years ago, was one of the founders of Amazon in Europe, then started more, and is currently a Chairman of three companies, including one in Boston. He shared the four things he believes one needs as an entrepreneur: 1. talents – not just programmers, also mentors, Chairs, and everybody that helps you to start a company); 2. information – access to information on how to start a company and best practices, which is much less available in Europe than in the US; 3. capital – there is a lot of it in Europe, but not always where the talent and information is; and 4. a no-hassle structure and the right conditions to start a business – people sometimes end up moving to a different country with better conditions for them, and the place where it is the easiest to start a company is Estonia, as you do not even have to go there to start a company, like Delaware in ;the US.
Ms Kindler talked about her network of more than 600 partner organisations in more than 60 countries, helping young startups with their problems for 10 years now. They are funded by the European Commission. She loves working with young entrepreneurs who are passionate and put everything in their ideas and helping them navigate through the jungle and avoid mistakes.
Situation and conditions in different countries in and outside of Europe were discussed, as well as the relationship between the European level and the national level. Mr Terrien finds free movement, of talent and of information, crucial, and said he is “devastated” about Brexit. Mr Gerosa commented that Europe is much more risk-averse than the US, but you also have to “go local” – for example, a lot of innovation is now happening in Central/Eastern Europe, and we should go look for the risk-takers in areas we do not usually look. Failure should be embraced too – in the US, employers ask you about your failures; you need to know how to deal with them and benefit from them. He proposed that, in schooling, you should start on 0 points and if you succeed, you get an extra point, and if you do not succeed, you stay where you are – but in most countries, you start e.g. on 10 points and get them deducted for failures, creating a very negative perception of failure and a distorted image of growth and progress. Ms Kindler agreed that there is a stigma of failure and even if officials say that we should change this culture, it has not changed yet.
The first question from the audience came from the President of the Association for Professional Women, who wondered how the panellists would define success for an entrepreneur or a startup. In some European Commission statistics, for example, the number of female entrepreneurs who start a business is measured, but is starting enough? The question was followed by an extended debate not only about success but also gender in entrepreneurship and how to get more women into it.
Mr Gerosa said that a startup can be considered successful when, for instance, it becomes a “unicorn”, so gains a value over $1 billion. He believes that providing role models is one of the ways to get women into business more, and he provided examples of such role models, e.g. Coco Channel or the co-founder of Zara. For Mr Baden-Kristensen, inspiring women is one thing, but you have to put the idea in their heads early enough for this to be nourished and for the stories of role models to be picked up on – “the younger you are, the more you are inspired by stories” – so you have to engage with them very early, give them the feeling that this is something they can do as well. Also, in general, younger people are less risk-averse, so we need to get them motivated early. Ms Kindler commented that she could see no female role models in the 70s but things are improving slowly. Ms Christie believed that conditions should be made easier for women to be in business, such as better childcare. Mr Terrien concluded by encouraging each woman in the room to become a role model for other women.
More questions from the audience led to other topics being addressed, such as policies, selling skills and Brexit. YouthProAktiv also complemented previous discussions with a question on how exactly we can encourage young people to be entrepreneurial apart from giving them role models, what can parents, teachers and the society do that does not necessarily cost billions of euros but is more about shifting attitudes. Encouraging experimentation and risk-taking and embracing failure as part of the learning process were suggested.
Mr Baden-Kristensen advised that we should ask very young people to try and go out and make money – any small initiatives, such as a lemonade stand, and even if it is just a few euros they make – understanding money and having the direct experience of problem-solving, having responsibility and similar will be very beneficial.
Mr Gerosa said we need to find a way to change parental approaches, such as encouraging their children not to give up and keep trying hard – parents often let children give up too easily and tend to make things easy for them, which is not a helpful lesson for life. It should be hard to start a business later in life too – if a 20-year-old can very easily get access to 50 thousand euros, that is not right.
Mr Baden-Kristensen added that capital is always available, but you do not always get it easily: maybe the idea is not good enough, maybe you have not worked on the idea hard enough, or then you are not good enough at selling the idea.
Ms Kindler talked about open days at universities and other events for children and young people that exist in Austria where they can become entrepreneurs for a day, meet role models and others, and this seems to be working well, but it should be done on a much larger scale.
Mr Terrien, who was raised in the US for a while, said that young people there are encouraged to start working early on, and he would implement this too, to open the opportunity also for young children to get work experience and understand business – not just 1 day’s work experience when you are 16, but 2–3 weeks in a company when you are 14, and more insights even earlier.
The session was a lively one, with much interaction and food for thought to take away, and we at YouthProAktiv were very pleased about the level of interest in proactivity and entrepreneurship of young people and about the good practices happening. We left re-energised and optimistic and will keep working hard on improving the situation for young Europeans even further.
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