Young European Entrepreneurs Facing Diverse Challenges Benefit from American Mentors
Being an entrepreneur is not easy. You live and breathe your work, and often put your personal finances on the line. But it is part of the fabric of the everyday business culture in the United States, and for many it is the American dream.
In Europe, entrepreneurs tend to face additional challenges in the shape of regulatory and cultural pressures, which can make it difficult to get a business off the ground. The Young Transatlantic Innovation Initiative (YTILI) fellows are looking to the United States for guidance.
Challenges from Cultural Norms and Access to Capital to EU membership
These young leaders are smart, driven, and inspirational. Take 2018 YTILI Fellow Cristina Condrea, an entrepreneur in Moldova, where she exports dried, organic fruit. The deck is stacked pretty high against her. Government corruption and a culture that does not place much value on entrepreneurship make it hard to start a business. Since her business relies on exports, Condrea also faces the challenge that Moldova is not part of the European Union (EU).
Another challenge is being a woman. Condrea credits the mentorship from past supervisors in her career at a French telecom company for her drive, confidence, and experience. “I was lucky; I got to see how it could be,” she says. “Things are not going to change anytime soon, but I hope they do eventually.”
2018 YTILI Fellow Emerald de Leeuw also finds a challenge in being a businesswoman. A data-protection expert, she feels she has had to work extra hard to be taken seriously. She found validation after placing second in an Irish pitch competition and winning the European Young Innovator of the Year in 2017 for her work on data privacy issue. “That award changed everything for me,” she says. “I felt like I had to play on a more global level and this gave me the initial step I needed. I went to Brussels and people immediately understood the importance of what I was doing.”
Ireland is very supportive of up-and-coming entrepreneurs, particularly through a government program called Enterprise Ireland, which provides early-stage funding and support. But, while the government is taking steps to support people like de Leeuw, there is still a critical financing gap. “I think there is real opportunity for venture capital in Dublin,” she says. “It’s kind of like a mini Silicon Valley right now.”
And what about the do-gooder type of entrepreneur – those running social enterprises? This concept is more developed in the United States than in Europe, says Emanuele Musa, founder of Babele and 2018 YTILI Fellow. “In Europe, the government is more responsible for social programs than in the United States, where many problems are solved through entrepreneurship; for example, an organization like the United Way does a lot that welfare programs in Europe do.”
Musa is helping to build this scene in Europe by helping budding social enterprises and “social intrapreneurs” – sustainability leaders within large, established companies. Organizations like Ashoka, which identifies and supports social entrepreneurs, are opening offices in Romania. “Romania is a young and fresh and fragile democracy,” he says. “The welfare program doesn’t have as much time and room to catch up to more developed countries like Sweden so there is an opportunity for social entrepreneurs.”
It is helpful to be doing business in a country that is part of the European Union. “There is an invisible layer of trust for countries that are part of the EU,” says Musa.
2017 YTILI Fellow Bardh Kadiu sees this challenge first-hand while running his IT outsourcing startup business out of Kosovo, which is not in the EU. “Building trust, building the country brand, and changing perceptions is the challenge,” he said. “Most people still think of Kosovo as a post-war country and think it’s not safe to come here, but it is safer than many places in Europe.” He has partners in Germany that help him bridge that trust divide. It is also getting easier for entrepreneurs in Kosovo, not in small part because popular singers and soccer players are helping to change the country’s image.
More than half the population of Kosovo is under 30. “We are trying to prevent a ‘brain drain,’” Kadiu says. As part of a new generation working to support business growth and opportunity, he helped found the first and so far only innovation center in Kosovo, which provides business incubation for startups, mentoring and coaching, and access to venture capital companies. The center has had 150 startups in the past six years and some have taken off, such as Gjirafa.com and Solaborate, both of which got over $2 million in investment. “It is a trend now, being an entrepreneur,” Kadiu says, noting that the business community is especially keen to invest in female entrepreneurs.
Coming to America
The 2018 YTILI fellows gathered in Lisbon in June for an orientation into the program. They met their American mentors and learned from experts about the U.S. entrepreneurship ecosystem, venture capital, and how to pitch their business ideas. In October, they will head to the United States where they will be placed in nine cities for a week of networking and learning from companies and social enterprises – in Austin, Texas; Boston, Massachusetts; Charlotte, North Carolina; Denver, Colorado; New Orleans, Louisiana; Phoenix, Arizona; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Seattle, Washington; and Washington, DC.
“It is intentional that we are not sending the YTILI fellows to Silicon Valley and New York,” says Geraldine Gardner, director of Urban and Regional Policy at The German Marshall Fund of the United States, who manages the YTILI program. “Just as the entrepreneurial situation varies across Europe, it varies across U.S. cities as well. We want to give them exposure to diverse and interesting models and approaches that people like our mentors are taking to building businesses and ultimately guide them to success.”
Americans participating in the program benefit too. Many have traveled (and will travel) to Europe to visit their mentees in their home countries. There, they can see firsthand what the YTILI fellows are facing, and also learn about the business culture and markets there.
“In many ways, the YTILI fellows represent the future of business in Europe,” says Meghan Rauker, the Bloom Lab manager and advancement specialist at PeopleFund in Austin, who is serving as a mentor to the 2018 YTILI fellows. “They are learning and growing and as they meet continued success, they are going to be the ones who will pave the way for future entrepreneurs. They are changing the culture and could affect Europe’s regulatory and government approaches to entrepreneurship.”
The YTILI Fellowship program, implemented by GMF in partnership with the U.S. Department of State, selects young European and Eurasian entrepreneurs and innovators and over the course of one year provides them the tools, networks, and resources they need to turn ideas into action and grow successful enterprises. Fellows are carefully placed with U.S. organizations and mentors for a ten-day immersion that can directly support their growth as entrepreneurs and make important connections that would allow them to expand in their home countries and possibly in the United States.
To learn more about the YTILI program, visit http://www.gmfus.org/ytili-fellowship.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.