Last week in Cordoba, Argentina, I had the privilege of speaking at the 6th Annual Endeavor Entrepreneurship Conference. The event gathered nearly a thousand people interested in creating or growing their businesses, and some of Argentina's most successful next-generation entrepreneurs were on hand to cheer them on from the stage.
In North America, such an event would be unexceptional. But in Argentina, every one of these gatherings represents an important step forward in the maturation of a more diverse, robust and self-sufficient economy that the entrepreneurs and their allies in academia and the global NGO community are striving toward.
Argentina is one of the best-resourced countries in Latin America. The capital, Buenos Aires, physically and culturally resembles the great cities of Europe. The literacy rate is close to 100%, and the country is proud of its history of technological innovation dating back to the early years of the 20th century, when the U.S. and Argentina were roughly comparable in per-capita GDP and industrial capabilities.
Despite all that, organizations like the Endeavor Foundation and Young Americas Business Trust are necessary in Argentina and other promising emerging economies because entrepreneurship requires an ecosystem and social support—and that is only slowly developing in a culture haunted by a legacy of economic and political instability.
"Some people here still have a negative opinion of business in general," said Martín Migoya, CEO of Globant, one of the most successful Endeavor-backed enterprises. "They think that if someone is getting ahead, then they must be cheating or doing something wrong." In addition, families of young people with the talent and aptitude for entrepreneurship are rarely encouraging, preferring that their kids take the safer path of stable employment.
Endeavor is trying to reverse that dynamic by promoting companies who combine economic success with a commitment to broader social prosperity. "We are looking for high-impact entrepreneurs with the potential to become global leaders in their industry and inspire the next generation with their story," said Alejandro Mashad, Executive Director of Endeavor Argentina, when we spoke at his office in Buenos Aires last week. The Endeavor program is designed to nurture promising businesses and connect them to the resources they need to move quickly through the "valley of death"—that crucial stage of scaling up from 50 to more than 250 employees.
Those that survive the arduous selection process to be named Endeavor Entrepreneurs benefit from mentoring, networking, and the vast resources of a global organization invested in their success. "We build bridges and open doors to connect our entrepreneurs with people, know-how and the world" added Mashad.
Entrepreneurship is gaining traction among traditional educators as well. Professor Silvia S. de Torres Carbonell runs the Center for Entrepreneurship at the IAE Business School, one of the most prestigious programs in Latin America. Her graduate seminar in entrepreneurship teaches an international group of students the basics of planning, managing, marketing and growing a new business. The day I visited her class, the students were presenting their business plans in industries ranging from retail to fashion design to e-business.
"There is incredible interest in this program," said Carbonnell. "Young people are increasingly interested in entrepreneurship as a career, and they are looking for the skills and discipline they need to succeed."
Few people had kind words to say about the government, but did admit that the administration was making the right kinds of public statements and tentative steps toward promoting entrepreneurship. Still, concerns about inflation, political interference, and the "inevitable" next financial crisis keep optimism in check. Bona fide venture capital is starting to appear, but it is not a game for the faint of heart, because institutional safeguards and transparency are still weak relative to other markets.
In the meantime, events like the Endeavor Conference serve an important function. These events are repeated every year in different cities of the country. They provide the social glue and esprit-de-corps that unites a community of potential business leaders still struggling to find their voice. They also provide a great way for those who have succeeded to reinvest their knowledge and resources to make the ecosystem stronger, perpetuating a cycle that they hope will continue to lift all of them higher in the global economy.