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Entrepreneurs Rule the World

What was the TEDGlobal topic in Edinburgh this morning? The $10 trillion market of street vendors and traders, the second-largest economy in the world.

Jennifer Lum, co-founder & president, Adelphic Mobile


At TEDGlobal in Edinburgh this morning, author Robert Neuwirth displayed a series of slides that should have changed the way everyone thinks about the global economy. Not skyscrapers and shopping malls, but street vendors, garbage dumps, and umbrella stands.

This informal economy--which Neuwirth dubs "the stealth of nations"--is worth $10 trillion. That makes it the second largest economy in the world (after the United States). Neuwirth estimates that it may in fact overtake the American economy, that first place will be ceded not to China but to the combined mass of street traders.

The streets of Delhi and the alleys of Lagos are where you'll see it flourishing. But its reach and impact are immense. While 15% of Procter & Gamble's revenue comes from WalMart, 20% comes from market stalls and independent, unlicensed vendors without shopfronts or marketing budgets.

What this shows, among other things, is how widespread and, I'd argue, innate entrepreneurship is. It doesn't take business schools or even (dare I say) venture capital. It takes ingenuity, need, and resourcefulness. That isn't to say that education and capital don't matter, only that entrepreneurship flourishes even without it.

What I found inspiring about Neuwirth's insights is the degree to which this is not the economy we recognize or refer to when we discuss globalization. It isn't a market most entrepreneurs consider when they want to export. But it is a growing market that large corporations have learned to work with and benefit from. So why not the rest of us?

While it's a big challenge for entrepreneurs because the market is hard to see without guides like Neuwirth, and because it doesn't operate the way that formal markets do, it's also rife with possibilities. I'd suspect entrepreneurs are able to speak to entrepreneurs more successfully than anyone.

Last updated: Jun 27, 2012


Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur and author. She has been chief executive of InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation, and iCAST Corporation. In 2014, she published her fourth book, A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better Than the Competition.

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