Jonathan Ortmans is the president of Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW), and was among its founders when it launched in the United States in 2007. GEW is now held in over 115 countries including Lebanon. He is also chair of the Global Entrepreneurship Congress, senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation and president of the Public Forum Institute. Ortmans spoke with Executive from Washington, DC on the changes in the global entrepreneurship scene, the role of policy makers, and the responsibility of entrepreneurs in creating a dynamic ecosystem for entrepreneurship.
What have been the most recent developments in entrepreneurship on a global level?
What’s changed now is that you have a global class of start-up communities all over the world. If I were to draw a picture for a magazine I would draw a flat world, with thousands of start-up communities and no national boundaries. A world where technology and communications has made it very easy for people in start-up communities to know what other start-up communities are doing, and what other methods entrepreneurs are using to try to scale ideas.
Many entrepreneurs in Lebanon get investment from family and friends or are bootstrapping to create their own start-ups, and most are still waiting to turn a profit. How hopeful should we be that initiatives such as these will be successful?
I think you can be very optimistic about that. Some of the ventures that started 2-3 years [ago] were often given advice to try to get outside capital. At the Kauffman Foundation, we advise entrepreneurs to hold out as long as you can [while] bootstrapping [your] idea because you have to focus first and foremost on getting the idea right. Too often entrepreneurs were taking out capital too soon, which was the case in Lebanon. They didn’t have the chance for failure.
The most important thing is to have more people forming teams, testing formulas — trying to find a way of making the business venture work.
How important do you think policy initiatives are for fostering a start-up ecosystem in a country like Lebanon?
Traditionally, start-up community leaders and entrepreneurs have chuckled and laughed when it comes to the government trying to help. They’ve tended to think of the government as a hindrance. First, the government sets rules and incentives, so you can’t ignore them. But I think the government is important in a new way. When President Obama opened new research, it showed that all new jobs over the past five years have come from companies less than five years old — compared to older companies, which were shedding jobs.
That’s turned government on its head. What it’s done is it’s made government start looking at entrepreneurs in a different way. Now they’re thinking: “How do we help new firms? What do we do to make it easier for them?”
In lieu of government policies, are there any other actors who can take up the role of devising policies to create a coherent system of entrepreneurial support institutions in the ecosystem?
I don’t think another entity can do it, unless they’re implementing rules and regulation. The best way to create cohesion is to form an entrepreneur-led board for the entrepreneurial community. You need to have that. You need to have people talking to local authorities. And you have to have the traditional business leaders helping. And increasingly they want to help. Sometimes entrepreneurs disrupt some of their companies, but I think the best way to get cohesion is an entrepreneur leading with businesses and universities. And that’s what we want GEW to be in Lebanon.
What role should stakeholders in the entrepreneurial ecosystem play in creating a support infrastructure for entrepreneurship?
There is a big challenge: you need to find people from within the start-up communities and you need to invite them to work for the government and help advise. To figure out what are the things that we can do. Our biggest problem in the US is that we get all this talent [from overseas] who come to the best universities, have ideas, but then the US government kicks them out. Every country has got specific paradoxes which are going to be unique. You need to start with a fresh look. The Lebanese government needs to just talk with entrepreneurs and look at the biggest problems they’re having.
I don’t think there’s necessarily a need for all of it to be neatly organized. Entrepreneurship is messy and we should let it be messy. I think when there are authorities that are implementing rules and regulations any of those kinds of institutions should be working together. This is actually the role of GEW. To get Lebanese citizens thinking about joining this community of people.