The Global Entrepreneurship Congress (GEC) began this week in Melbourne, Australia. Thousands of entrepreneurs, investors, ecosystem supporters, policymakers, researchers, and others from around the world have congregated in the city this week under the theme, “Transform Your World.”
With a plethora of outstanding sessions to enjoy, here are some takeaways from policy-focused discussions, including in the Startup Nations Ministerial meeting.*
These Meetings Really Do Matter
It’s tempting—at any conference, really—to conclude that such gatherings are merely talkfests that accomplish little. Especially if they’re convenings that involve government officials. Does anything actually get done?
As it turns out, yes. More than one government official—from Cambodia, Cameroon, Azerbaijan, and more—noted that they had taken several lessons from the 2022 GEC (in Riyadh) and applied them at home. During today’s Ministerial meeting, they were excited to offer updates on progress to their colleagues from other countries. “Since Riyadh, we have … ,” is how several policymaker comments began.
Additionally, multiple governments pointed to the value of GEC for their entrepreneurs and noted that they had brought startups along with them. For the startups, GEC is an opportunity to connect with other founders (which, as Startup Genome has shown, is an important success factor), meet investors, and get exposure to global markets.
Entrepreneurship is Existential in Many Countries
It’s a tried-and-true talking point in the United States and elsewhere that entrepreneurs are economically important. This can take the form of job creation claims regarding young and small businesses, or anecdotes about prototypical entrepreneurial companies (Amazon, Tesla, etc.). The economic role of entrepreneurs is true everywhere, of course. But in many countries, entrepreneurship is viewed in a much more fundamental way.
Whether it’s in Sri Lanka, struggling with the effects of an oppressive debt burden, or South Africa, seeking to address many social divides, entrepreneurship in many countries is treated as central to the future of national identity and stability. The role of public policy in these contexts also differs. Here, we frequently speak about needing to reduce barriers to entrepreneurs and alleviate burdens on their abilities to innovate. Those are absolutely issues in other countries, too. As one government minister noted today, “it was the non-simplification of bureaucracy that held back growth in” our country for so long.
But the nature of the challenge calls forth a different policy framework, beyond just reducing barriers. There are market access issues. There are funding issues. There are social acceptance issues. And so on. This, again, underscores the important role such meetings can play.
Scaleups > Startups
A consistent theme in the policy discussions today was about the need to encourage and promote more high-growth firms. Several officials noted that their governments were focused on encouraging more scaleup firms. Scaleup firms, as JF Gauthier from Startup Genome showed with findings from their 2023 Global Startup Ecosystem Report, have greater economic impact than firms that do not scale. And there are actions that the public sector can take to help produce more scaleups.
This is not the same as “unicorns,” privately-held companies valued at more than $1 billion—and a typical benchmark of startup ecosystem success over the last decade of Startup Fever. One minister noted that his government was focusing more on scaleups but that “unicorns aren’t everything.” Growing firms can come from nearly any sector.
The Future of Global Entrepreneurship is in …
Africa. And India. And Southeast Asia.
India currently holds the presidency of the G20—two weeks ago it hosted the G20 summit. Discussions at the G20 usually revolve around large-scale issues: macroeconomic challenges, geopolitics, etc. You could probably count on one hand the number of times that “entrepreneurship” has been uttered at G20 summits. With its presidency, however, India launched Startup20, an effort to embed startup policy in the G20 DNA, as it were.
The language of Startup20 may strike many as the same old diplomacy-speak: “communique,” “consultative process,” “governance framework.” The substance, however, couldn’t be more different. India’s move with Startup20, as a government official described it today, is a “significant policy step.” Their ambition is to raise startup investment, build global connectedness (that key ingredient noted above), and, most refreshingly, “measure the efficacy” of government efforts to help startups. Here’s betting that Startup20 is not just another empty diplomatic initiative.
Complementing the Indian official’s discussion of Startup20 were comments from the charismatic South African minister. The entire African continent is undergoing change and its global role will increase, if only because of demographics. Most African countries are in the early stages of a demographic dividend, with growing populations and very large populations of young people. This, the minister said, could position Africa as the “home of huge global demand.”
The continent’s potential, however, will only be realized if digital inequities are closed and if “there is a shift in policy to put innovation and entrepreneurship at the center.” Organizations such as the Innovation for Policy Foundation are helping lead a “startup act movement” across the continent and addressing the barriers that currently hold back entrepreneurial activity. Yet “ecosystem coordination” is also needed across countries—and for that, “we need platforms like GEC and Startup Nations” to share lessons.
*I am a Senior Advisor at the Global Entrepreneurship Network, which puts on GEC.