This month marks the 10th Anniversary of Global Entrepreneurship Week (November 13-19., the world’s largest celebration of innovators and job creators, now observed with 35,000 events in 165 countries. But, what’s most fascinating is not the magnitude of the occasion but the interactions that it has stimulated within what has become a community of entrepreneurs around the world.
No matter what’s happening at the geopolitical level, where international relationships are becoming more complicated, there’s a grassroots global network of entrepreneurs that is collaborating and thriving, from which the United States and all participating countries benefit. Not only does it advance startup opportunities and ecosystems; it fosters international cooperation and understanding.
Entrepreneurship is even vibrant in countries where it might not be expected. In China, the startup community is essentially the nation’s R&D, experimenting with opportunities too small for the nation’s massive business enterprises. In Venezuela, amidst political and economic turmoil, entrepreneurship is evolving out of necessity. Even in war-torn countries like Syria, there are pockets of startups.
Global Entrepreneurship Week was launched in Kansas City in 2008 by the Kauffman Foundation to enable American entrepreneurs to learn from these global interactions. One of the lessons that we have learned over the years has become the Week’s mantra: catalyze; don’t organize. It’s key to the growth of the endeavor and to the interactions that it has spawned globally.
In every participating country there is a host organization, and that partner has the freedom to generate whatever celebratory activities best suit that environment. In some countries, the partner is a government ministry; in others, a small nonprofit. But, in all cases, it is an entity that can catalyze activity. Starting in 2009, those host organizations have come together for an annual Global Entrepreneurship Congress, initially in Kansas City and most recently in Johannesburg. The 2017 Congress convened more than 8400 entrepreneurial champions from 173 countries. The United Nations has only 20 more member states.
A second lesson learned from both events, which are now run by the Global Entrepreneurship Network, is just how porous national borders are both to innovation and to the startup culture. Entrepreneurs from different countries quickly discover how much they have in common. It’s as if any entrepreneur could drop a passport into a sack and pick out another and fit in immediately. It’s that ease of international collaboration that is so rapid, heartening, and promising. And technology makes it possible for that collaboration to unfold constantly throughout the year.
Also universal are the challenges to entrepreneurship. A first involves the relationship between the demographics of a nation and those of entrepreneurship. Often national demographics are undergoing dramatic shifts, yet the entrepreneurial population is not changing as fast. That leaves too many without the opportunity to start and grow a business. The challenge of youth unemployment is perhaps the best example. It’s now fueling entrepreneurship by youth, but a great deal more is needed to fill that gap.
A second challenge involves geography and the spread of entrepreneurship broadly enough. In the United States, the new map of entrepreneurship has two distinct characteristics. First, entrepreneurship is more and more an urban phenomenon, in part because the population is increasingly concentrated in urban areas, as is true in other countries. Second, entrepreneurial activity is growing outside of the largest coastal cities, and spreading to mid-sized metro areas. These geographical trends create an interesting paradox: The first condition — increasing urbanism — is driving geographical inequality. The second condition — moving beyond the largest entrepreneurship hubs — is driving geographical equality.
Increasingly, the global challenge is to enhance entrepreneurship in the less entrepreneurial areas. In the developed world, that involves a growing emphasis on smaller cities — what entrepreneur and investor Steve Case calls “the rise of the rest.” In the underdeveloped world, there’s still a major need to stimulate entrepreneurship in the largest cities.
A third challenge involves technology, which is creating a new nature of entrepreneurship in the United States and the world. In the past, as companies scaled their revenue, jobs scaled in an almost linear fashion. That’s no longer true.
In 1962, when Eastman Kodak’s sales first surpassed $1 billion — the equivalent of $8 billion today — the company employed 75,000 people. When Facebook reached similar revenue, it employed 6,300 people — 11 times fewer.
Yet opportunities are more widely available from platforms that lower barriers to entry — from Airbnb to Etsy. Opportunities also spread internationally more quickly than ever before. We’ve seen this through Startup Open, a competition during Global Entrepreneurship Week that recognizes startups with high-growth potential. The first winner was a startup from Accra, Ghana.
Global Entrepreneurship Week reveals exciting pathways to local, national, and global communities of entrepreneurs — as well as challenges to be addressed. It’s also creating a global vehicle for international collaboration that offers optimism that the challenges can be overcome.