During Global Entrepreneurship Week 2015 (GEW), I had the pleasure of participating in a conference hosted by Meath Enterprise and supported by GEN Ireland.
As we walked amongst the booths in the conference hall, we came across a group of young men who were selling socks they had acquired and that bore coloured stripes matching different Irish football teams. My wife has extended family in County Cork (and my five-year-old loves socks), so I purchased a pair with red and white stripes from them.
For a region or country to foster a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem, it needs stories like this to happen over and over again. It needs those young men to move on from selling socks to starting a textile company or a new retail chain, and then move on from there to further entrepreneurial ventures. Their businesses should spawn other companies, too, from former employees. This kind of recycling creates an “entrepreneurial genealogy” that ripples through time and across geographic space, and it’s the core of growth, innovation, and an entrepreneurial culture.
Ireland has its share of entrepreneurial stories, of course. While at GEW, I spent a delightful afternoon in the company of Pat Cooney, a serial entrepreneur who is in the process of starting a new distillery in the Boyne Valley. But Cooney and the sock lads can’t do it all on their own—they need a supportive environment that applauds their efforts and doesn’t get in the way. Entrepreneurs specialise in overcoming obstacles, of course, but an organisation dedicated to entrepreneurship—and independent of any particular agenda or funder—can assist them.
A new Foundation for Entrepreneurship in Ireland (INFE) has been unveiled and such a Foundation supported by multiple funders including government, could play that role by focusing in particular on research and policy. Those may not sound relevant to entrepreneurs, but they are critically important for a vibrant ecosystem. Academic and applied research can be needed to understand what works and doesn’t work in entrepreneurship education, for example. Policy matters along numerous dimensions for entrepreneurs, and an independent foundation can help identify areas of policy that could be improved. Ireland already benefits from policymakers, such as Damien English, Minister for Skills, Research and Innovation, who is committed to supporting entrepreneurship.
Most importantly, a foundation dedicated to entrepreneurship can speak for a constituency that is, by definition, not represented. Economic growth requires, in the words of American economist Robert Lucas, a “million mutinies”—people doing things differently, trying new ideas, running into dead ends and trying again. That’s what entrepreneurs do. It can be uncomfortable for policymakers to align themselves with mutinies, but that’s what any society needs. An independent foundation can help ensure that mutinous entrepreneurs are supported.
Ireland’s entrepreneurial ecosystem will get a further boost from the rollout of GEN Ireland, with an array of research, policy, and startup initiatives and programmes that will bring together all the various entrepreneurship efforts in Ireland. I look forward to seeing the impact of these initiatives, both GEN Ireland and the new INFE in helping to shape Ireland’s environment for start-ups in the coming year.