Erdogan's Play

Jonathan Ortmans, President, Public Forum Institute

During the “Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship” hosted by President Barack Obama in Washington, DC, in April 2010, it became clear that the seeds of entrepreneurship as an economic development policy and diplomatic tool had been planted. Today, I send in a quick report from the Second Global Summit on Entrepreneurship in Istanbul which has brought together approximately 1200 successful entrepreneurs and leaders from Turkey and across the world for idea sharing under the general theme of “Entrepreneurship, Values and Development: A Global Agenda”. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hosted the event and US Vice President Joe Biden spoke yesterday.

The Summit is a timely event for the region. Turkey has the potential to become a model for all Muslim countries as it grapples with quickly absorbing the renaissance underway in this region—namely in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. It has a strong economy that has flourished in the post-2008 crash following strong fiscal discipline. However, while a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem is challenging anti-risk taking thinking and top-down planning, with more than 12 million youth aged 15-24 entering the workforce over the next five years, Turkey will need to create millions of new jobs in order to achieve a 70% employment rate. That is going to require a lot of home grown entrepreneurs. But, as Rob Salkowitz put it in his recent blog on FastCompany.com:

“Turkey is in the midst of an uprising. Young people, united and empowered by technology, are pounding at the gates of the old order and demanding that their country's elites make room for their new ideas. No, they are not taking to the streets like their Arab and Persian neighbors, despite sharing some of the same young demographics that many believe are driving the revolts in places like Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Bahrain. In Turkey, a stable democracy with a distinct history and close ties to Europe, policymakers are looking to the power of entrepreneurship--not only to create prosperity, but to provide a creative outlet and employment opportunities to a burgeoning young population. And with the support of government, NGOs, big businesses and indigenous role models, Turkish entrepreneurs are rising to the top."

I am witnessing the same here this weekend where I chaired a gathering of dozens of organizations—all of them committed to developing a strong culture and support systems for new startups. Endeavour Turkey, which has been combing the country since 2006 for entrepreneurship potential and breeding networks of entrepreneurs and investors, partnered with TOBB (Turkish Union of Chambers) to host Global Entrepreneurship Week Turkey (GEW). With GEW just over, some the visual campaign for the Week still colors Istanbul. Although a strong campaign already last year with penetration into universities and primary and secondary schools across 20 provinces, and with strategic partners such as Junior Achievement, there are still many hurdles to conquer.

Turkey is a large country. According to TOBB, only five out of every 100 people in Turkey are entrepreneurs, and compared to nearly 1.8 million male entrepreneurs, there are approximately only 80,000 female entrepreneurs in the country. Moreover, a major challenge for startups here is financing—85 percent of respondents participating in a poll recently conducted in Turkey considered money as the sole impediment before them.

The interest of the government in supporting entrepreneurship helps in spreading an entrepreneurial spirit to every corner. Organizations like TUGIAD (Young Businessmen Association of Turkey), a network of 21 to 45 year olds, are helping to put an entrepreneurship ecosystem on the agenda throughout the region.

Then there is the newly established Global Entrepreneurship Program-Turkey, born out of a U.S. State Department initiative. GEP-Turkey is helping fill some gaps, including the promotion entrepreneurship education. The program will match a number of select Turkish universities with American counterparts for syllabus sharing, mutual criticism and professor exchanges for entrepreneurship courses and conferences. It will also conduct a study on enabling policy for university-based business incubators.

Policymakers and thought-leaders in Turkey have been responding to the vote of confidence by organizations and foreign governments and entrepreneurs in the country’s entrepreneurship potential. Judging by my conversations over the weekend at the Summit, they very clearly understand the importance of new business creation to future growth. Vast resources have been committed to encouraging entrepreneurship through contests, new curricula in secondary and higher education, and cultural outreach, are they are more than paying lip service to a young population demanding a larger role in the future of the nation. As the host for the Second Global Summit on Entrepreneurship, while there were some government officials on the program, the Turkish government reaffirmed its interest in letting entrepreneurship flourish by offering most of the time to young entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial support organizations.

Not too long ago, entrepreneurship was less of a focus with governments, except, of course, when talking about bureaucratic and legal barriers for startups. Now it has a considerable place on the agenda of governments, not to micromanage the building of entrepreneurship ecosystems, but to allow countries to tap into global resources for entrepreneurship similar to those on display here today. Let’s hope the region and the world in turn finds in Turkey a model for entrepreneurship-based opportunities for growth.

While in Istanbul, Vice President Biden expressed his commitment to respond to interest from other governments in hosting such a summit annually by announcing that the summit will in future be convened as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week and that the next one will be held in the UAE in November 2012. It seems Istanbul has already begun to lead the region in smoothing out the path for entrepreneurs.

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