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A Lesson Learned in Travel

Thom Ruhe

I spent much of Global Entrepreneurship Week traveling. It’s one of the things I love most about my work at the Kauffman Foundation. I have the privilege of visiting countries around the world to soak in and learn from their startup culture and share with them the much desired entrepreneurial education programs and research and policy findings we have to offer. I certainly miss Kansas City (and Cleveland) while abroad, but in my own way, I had a little taste of home in crowning Toby Rush, Kansas City native and founder of EyeVerify, winner of Get in the Ring: The Investment Battle in Rotterdam. Toby was a clear front-runner from the beginning so it was no surprise when he and his startup, which replaces passwords with eye print verification through smartphone cameras, took home a plethora of prizes and the chance to secure $1.4 million from potential investors. (There’s a great write-up on Toby’s win on the Kansas City Startup Village site.)

Get in the Ring in Rotterdam demonstrated, as was obvious for the 700+ in attendance, the United States is without equal in producing equity investable startups. This ability we’ve developed to start and support these types of high-potential businesses is a great advantage for the U.S., competitively speaking. But it is also an indication of the great efforts required if we are to have a genuinely global startup economy and culture. I’ve learned from my travels that entrepreneurship transcends borders and languages—but it is deeply impacted by culture and policy.

The United States is lucky to have been built upon a culture that embraces innovation (we’re still working on the policy side). But not every country’s culture promotes innovative thinking. In Scandinavia for example I learned of this cultural notion known as Janteloven. Roughly translated, it is a societal pressure to not recognize achievement, to keep your head down, to be mindful that you are not special or better than anyone else, and that any success you may have is likely attributable to luck. While this ‘heads down’ concept might instill a strong work ethic, I can’t imagine anything more pernicious and contrary to entrepreneurship.

Policy can carry just as much weight when it comes to entrepreneurial success. A prime example is alive in Greece. In speaking to many new friends and attending several meetings with the U.S. Embassy, it is clear that this country is in need of entrepreneurial intervention on the political side. The severe austerity measures precipitated by the economic crisis are having bizarre political manifestations. For example, last year the tax code laws were changed nine times in one year. Even worse, Greek entrepreneurs live under the threat of jail time if arbitrarily determined tax obligations aren’t paid.

There’s a lot of work to do. As countries and their political powers continue to grapple with ways to stay economically competitive, one notion is certain and uplifting: the world—from Copenhagen to Rotterdam to Greece—is hungry for entrepreneurship. And with that kind of passion, and powerful tools like Global Entrepreneurship Week that unite the world, I think every country has the ability to overcome their obstacles, embrace innovation, and support entrepreneurship in ways that allow it to transform their part of the world.

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