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Uruguay’s Entrepreneurship Fast-tracking

Jonathan Ortmans, President, Public Forum Institute

Jonathan OrtmansOn my recent trip to South America during Global Entrepreneurship Week, I cast a mournful eye over Uruguay where, were it not for problems with flight schedules I had hoped to visit. Uruguay, the South American nation nestled between Brazil and Argentina, is trying to take the fast track toward becoming a startup economy.

The government of Uruguay has long recognized the importance of entrepreneurs to its small economy. It began programs to promote entrepreneurship in the early 1990s and has matched those with technological literacy programs. In 2009, Uruguay became the first country in the world to provide every child (and their teachers) a free laptop through the One Laptop per Child Program, managed by the government-owned, privately-run Uruguayan National Technology Laboratory (LATU). Due to the country’s advanced telecommunication infrastructure, primary school students from anywhere in the country are able to access the Internet, which opens the doors to knowledge gathering, networking and idea sharing for potential entrepreneurs. Today, Uruguay has the highest internet, broadband and PC penetration in Latin America.

The digitalization policies were much needed in Uruguay, where the IT sector needs a larger talent pool in order to grow. Although the economy is largely based on beef and wool exports, software has been gaining export market share (Uruguay exports more software per capita than any other country in South America). Of course, due to the country’s small market of 3.5 million people, competing globally is a must for Uruguayan startups and companies. However, as Pablo Brenner, owner of a venture capital startup in Uruguay, told VentureBeat, for entrepreneurship, “being small is an advantage.” Think of Israel, “where the domestic market for numerous well-reputed tech companies is a mere afterthought.”

What the government needs to address now is the entrepreneurship culture and education. Although three-quarters of Uruguayans believe that their city is a good place to start a business, Uruguayans tend to value stable career paths in large companies more than the risk of starting new business. Despite this sticky trend, however, entrepreneurship has grown in the country, as Uruguayans detect new opportunities. No wonder Endeavor picked this market to implement its high-impact entrepreneurship programs.

During 2009, Endeavor Uruguay hosted Global Entrepreneurship Week with great success. It organized 84 activities across 10 cities, collaborating with 46 partner institutions, to encourage the 3.5 million Uruguayans to promote innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity and to inspire the young to think big. This year, the excitement in Uruguay was no less perceivable with award ceremonies, summits on entrepreneurship and more. Participants in the National Contest of Videogames and Educational Simulation exposed their ideas during the Week. The Congress titled “Yes, it is possible. They made it!” offered participants the opportunity to learn from three young entrepreneurs who expanded their businesses internationally: Agustín Napoleone from Dvelop; Gonzalo Frasca from Powerful Robot; and Sebastián Lateulade from TodoTVmedia. Of course, IT had its place.

Entrepreneurship education throughout the year can give young Uruguayans the tools to build up their economy. I encourage the Mujica government to leverage Uruguay’s investments in IT literacy through entrepreneurship education and regulatory reforms that will ease the path to starting and operating a business (e.g. starting a business today takes an average of 65 days, compared to the OECD average of 13.8 days).

Uruguay: the entrepreneurs of tomorrow will be your best allies to fight the considerable emigration among professionals and boost growth not just in the IT sector, but in many others, some of which are yet to be born.

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Jonathan Ortmans is president of the Public Forum Institute, a non-partisan organization dedicated to fostering dialogue on important policy issues. In this capacity, he leads the Policy Dialogue on Entrepreneurship, focused on public policies to promote entrepreneurship in the U.S. and around the world. In addition, he serves as a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation.

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