Global Entrepreneurship Week, hosted by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and United Kingdom-based business coalition Make Your Mark, kicks off its second annual celebration of entrepreneurship today. The event brings together thousands of young people and successful entrepreneurs from all over the world to encourage entrepreneurship through conferences and competitions.
Combined with the United Kingdom's Enterprise Week, the joined events take place in over 75 countries and are comprised of an estimated 25,000 events and activities—1,500 of which will be held in the United States this week. Some of the featured speakers and mentors are Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS Shoes, Stephen Hanson, founder of B.R. Guest Restaurants, and rapper Snoop Dogg. We spoke to Thom Ruhe, director of entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation, about the purpose of Global Entrepreneurship Week and his desire to inspire entrepreneurship in the next generation.
What do you hope to achieve through Global Entrepreneurship Week?
We want to elevate global recognition of the importance entrepreneurship has to the economy. For too long, entrepreneurs have really been the white noise of our economy; toiling away in obscurity because there hasn't been a special interest group, pact, or trade union that has lobbied on their behalf. We hope to redefine what entrepreneurship means. I think, for too many people, the terms "entrepreneur" and "small-business owner" are synonymous. Not that there's any problem with small businesses – that's the bread and butter of our economy. But we're really focusing more on the traditional [definition] of the entrepreneur – that individual who sees a unique opportunity in the marketplace and puts some personal risk at stake to go ahead and exploit that opportunity.
So how does Global Entrepreneurship Week aim to bring that out of the participants – the desire to venture forth and try something new?
We find that one common characteristic of entrepreneurship is that it tends to be a lonely path to follow. Typically, if you're going where others have yet to go, you're doing that alone. What we do with Global Entrepreneurship Week is bring the thousands, if not millions, of people that are contemplating this lonely path together, to say, "You're not alone. There are others that share your creative spark and share your passion."
The Obama administration seems to be putting out the message that it is embracing entrepreneurship and small businesses by, among other things, raising limits for SBA loans. Is that something you're going to touch on at Global Entrepreneurship Week, gaining access to capital and funding?
That's something we're really pushing, in addition to urging the private equity markets to rethink how they've been addressing the industry. With the economy being in the tank as it has been, I think it has affected the mentality of investing. [Investors] are using the leverage of the bad economy, and saying, "Well, three years ago, your idea would have been worth a million dollars or $10 million, but in today's market, it's half of that." And we would argue that, well, it isn't. Great I.P., or intellectual property, is worth what it's worth. It doesn't fluctuate and it's not necessarily relative to where the economy is. This is the time where we should see greater yield and greater valuation.
You have some successful entrepreneurs, such as Blake Mycoskie of TOMS Shoes and the rapper Snoop Dogg, participating in some of the events. How did you go about approaching them, and others, to lend a hand?
It's kind of funny when people ask, "How do you make that connection with Snoop Dogg?" I can't figure out half the stuff my teenage daughters are interested in, but somebody has, right? Likewise, Snoop Dogg, or Russell Simmons, or anybody that's in any market, has seen a market opportunity and then created a product to sell in that market. And another universal characteristic that we see in entrepreneurs is that they tend to be incredibly generous people, because they appreciate the journey that they've been on. So you'd be surprised when you approach them and ask, "Will you share your message," how eager and how willing they are to do that.
Global Entrepreneurship Week strives to have a significant international impact. How do you think the idea of entrepreneurship is perceived in participating countries and how do you hope to change that perception in some cases?
There will be events happening in majority Muslim countries where there is gender inequality. They will get to see women in leadership roles. There's an organization that focuses on promoting female entrepreneurship in those types of countries, called Bpeace (Business Council for Peace). They've been working for years now in Rwanda and Afghanistan, and their research has shown that women are very good stewards of capital. They tend to use it more wisely than men do in some of these countries. That's why, if you can start a movement in enabling and empowering women to at least have a shot at doing something entrepreneurial, you're going to find remarkable things happening.