Graeme de Bruyn, Head of Programmes at the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, recently visited the renowned Babson College in Massachusetts, USA, to attend an entrepreneurship course entitled ‘Driving Economic Growth Through Entrepreneurship Ecosystems’. Babson College is ranked the number one entrepreneurship educator in the world and has held that title for two decades. Graeme’s course and weeklong trip to the States was as a result of receiving the Foundation’s CEO Award for Significant Impact.
The course stems from an article published in the Harvard Business Review by Daniel Isenberg, professor of Entrepreneurship Practice at Babson Executive and Enterprise Education. In the article he discusses the need for and characteristics of an environment in which entrepreneurs flourish, asserting that they are most successful when they have access to human, financial and professional resources and can operate under favourable and safeguarding policies. All these facets of support make up what is called an entrepreneurship ecosystem.
Isenberg’s thinking around an entrepreneurship ecosystem is based on the various projects he has conducted in numerous countries to help with the creation of policies, structures, programmes and climates that foster entrepreneurship. The prevailing question asked by the public leaders is why throwing money at the problem is not working. A case in point is the Saudi Arabian government whose investment of 100 million US dollars over one year resulted in the emergence of less than 40 entrepreneurs.
In its most basic form the idea of an entrepreneurship ecosystem is very similar to what we find in nature. Just like there is no one factor that makes plants flourish, so also there is no one intervention that can bring about a surge of new entrepreneurs. In both cases there is a fine balance between nourishment, exposure and adversity. And, albeit counterintuitive, this notion of adversity is key here. Just think about the South African protea and how fire actually has a rejuvenating and propagating effect on them. In the same way entrepreneurs can benefit from not having rain and sunshine all the time. Or put differently, it is possible that providing entrepreneurs with too much support can turn out to be a hindrance to their entrepreneurial development.
Besides encouraging the idea of an entrepreneurship ecosystem, the course highlighted the need for adjusting expectation and, more importantly, the need to reconsider the definition of ‘entrepreneurship’. By Isenberg’s definition, a business endeavour should be growth-oriented before it can be considered entrepreneurship. This definition disqualifies the bulk of what is considered entrepreneurship nowadays. As Graeme puts it, “if one digs deeper, you’ll find that what is often touted as ‘entrepreneurship’ is in fact self-employment.”
These are valuable points to consider in any kind of entrepreneurship development programme. In order to measure success, there should be clarity regarding the expected outcomes – men and women who become self-employed or men and women who establish businesses in a constant state of growth.
Graeme was able to identify many similarities between Isenberg’s approach and the Foundation’s operations. For the last ten years the Foundation has been running on an ecosystemic basis, offering Candidate Fellows a range of training and capacity building opportunities before and after starting business ventures. They include a mindset programme called iShift, mentorship, post-Fellowship support in the form of the Association of Allan Gray Fellows and E2, a Foundation partner set to provide venture capital to Fellows’ qualifying business ideas.
The experience – having all that exposure to thought leaders, evidence from actual cases and supporting as well as contradicting literature – has left Graeme with a lot of questions. While intensely preoccupying, these questions are in no way disconcerting. Instead they have allowed him to think about pertinent issues in the Foundation and in our country in an altogether different way. Or as he puts it, “what this course has done for me is really flip the script.”