The Forum on the World Economic Order welcomed an international delegation of experts in November for a seven day study tour focusing on developments in entrepreneurship around the world. During the program, which took place in Washington, DC and in Seattle, WA, the delegation met with over 25 entrepreneurship and startup practitioners in the U.S. from the private sector, NGOs and non-profits, think tanks, academia, and federal government.
The discussion in Washington, DC centered on how to best foster entrepreneurship in society and develop ways to eliminate some of the technical and legal barriers to entrepreneurship, particularly for underserved portions of the population. Although access to capital can pose a challenge for some, more often the issue is a lack of knowledge on how to engage in the entrepreneurial process beyond one specific idea. With this in mind, many accelerators have chosen to place equal emphasis on helping startups develop entrepreneurial skills more broadly in addition to product development, with mentorship and guidance beyond just the duration of the program. With new venture competitions at the university level, this could mean awarding not just a top prize, but providing either capital or technical support to multiple students who show entrepreneurial promise. Because it is often not the first, second, or even third venture that succeeds, the discussion partners were unified in their belief that developing a startup ecosystem with long-term resource investment goals was the best way to develop a thriving community of entrepreneurial-minded individuals, rather than benchmarking by immediate success or failure.
In order to cultivate such long-term engagement, a startup culture which allows entrepreneurs to exist in a collaborative atmosphere must be in place, thereby allowing rising entrepreneurs to utilize the knowledge and experience of those around them. This synergetic approach to entrepreneurship creates valuable partner- and mentorships that fosters best-practice sharing and knowledge transfers beyond a specific venture, keeping the community alive and innovative as new ideas are created and bounced off one another. Coworking spaces have become a way to organically foster these connections, with informal layouts that encourage a sharing of ideas in an open floor plan rather than cramped cubicles, or over a drink at the built-in bar. The idea that entrepreneurship is a culture and a mindset, rather than just a profession, has contributed significantly to the dynamism of the ecosystem, encouraging entrepreneurs to explore new pathways to success as part of a broader innovative community.
The discussion in Seattle echoed many of the points made in Washington, DC, namely the need for a collaborative startup community and an emphasis on knowledge transfers rather than just providing capital. While access to capital is a necessary part of getting a venture off the ground, throwing money at an idea will not replace the skills and understanding needed to make the leap to a successful product. In order to bridge this skills gap, one discussion partner acts as both a mentorship program and a lender, particularly for low-income minority entrepreneurs. In order to guarantee the readiness of their clients, the organization requires a certain amount of training hours with the individual as collateral, thereby putting their stock in their own model as well as the entrepreneurs themselves.
In addition to knowledge transfers and a collaborative network, an important aspect of entrepreneurship is the freedom to experiment. Labs in particular are a valuable resource, allowing aspiring and established entrepreneurs alike to test out new prototypes and refine their products before bringing them to potential investors. This willingness to try and fail is the foundation of the entrepreneurial mindset, and has become a major driver of innovation with impact far beyond the startup community.
Courtney Flynn, Program Associate, Forum on the World Economic Order, Friedrich Naumann Foundation