Who Gets to be an Entrepreneur?
January 14th, 2019
By Natalie Pond
If you live in Seattle, chances are you cannot get through a single cocktail party without hearing the words “start-up” or “entrepreneur.” These terms aren’t just basic descriptors of employment. Over the last decade, they have come to define who and what Seattle is—in culture and personality as well as economic make-up. Around the country, other cities aspire to be like Seattle, like Silicon Valley: hotbeds of ideas, capital, and personnel, where the next great idea is percolating just below the surface. As evidence, take the bidding war over Amazon’s HQ2. Cities, counties, and even state governments around the nation were prepared to offer the company tens of billions of dollars in incentives to make their city the next entrepreneurial hub. Having Amazon in your city is supposed to equal prosperity, opportunity, cosmopolitanism.
Though Amazon is far and away from being considered a start-up, the personality of the Giant Tech Corporation has somehow come to define what entrepreneurship means in 21st century America. In his book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City, Brad Feld introduces several examples of “entrepreneurial” companies that inspire the fantasies of economic development so many cities are chasing after. He specifically names Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Zynga—all corporate tech giants. Feld’s book is essentially a self-help guide, offering any reader the tantalizing possibility that they too can create successful ventures with the entrepreneurial minds in their own backyard. Given the fight over Amazon’s HQ2, we can say that this is quite literally a billion dollar notion.
I want to take advantage of this opportunity to remind all of us, myself included, that billion-dollar techpreneruship is just one very particular iteration of entrepreneurship. This summer and fall, as part of my work with the World Affairs Council’s International Visitor Program, I worked closely with a group of sixteen young entrepreneurs from Latin America & the Caribbean. These leaders came to Seattle for a month as part of a four-week professional fellowship called the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI). YLAI is one example of a number of U.S. State Department exchange programs designed to enhance the leadership skills of rising social and business leaders, and to build a lasting network of business and civic leaders across Latin America, the Caribbean, and the U.S. While in Seattle, the YLAI Fellows were hosted by organizations and businesses where they contributed their expertise and perspectives while simultaneously learning new technologies, strategies, and building relationships with their American counterparts. The World Affairs Council has hosted four cohorts of outstanding YLAI Fellows to date.
This year’s YLAI cohort was no exception, and they were an incredibly diverse bunch: they work in education, construction, ecotourism, sustainability consulting, and food and wine (to name just a few industries they represent). I’ll admit—one Fellow, Daniel, leads a startup developing an app!—but by and large, these entrepreneurs represented something quite different than I am accustomed to seeing in my home city. My imagination had been so co-opted by the Brad Feld definition of entrepreneurship that I had stopped seeing restaurateurs, small business owners, and social sector leaders as “entrepreneurial.” What bothers me is that I don’t think I am the only person who has become ensnared by this idea—one that I believe dominates cities like Seattle and San Francisco with robust “entrepreneurial ecosystems.”
I was just at a networking event where a startup CEO told me that it was harder to find funding in Seattle than Silicon Valley – that if you go to San Francisco and have an app with a nice logo, you can get a million dollars. I knew he was being sincere, but it made my stomach turn over. What would a million dollars do for Pequeños Detalles Handmade Peru, YLAI Fellow María Gracia Farfán’s business allowing women to work from home making crafts to sell through a beautiful e-commerce platform? What would a million dollars do for Nativo Ecolodge, YLAI Fellow Sofía González’s El Salvador-based vacation destination employing local workers and supporting responsible ecotourism? What would a million dollars do for Bambou Facille, YLAI Fellow Jupille Facille’s eco-friendly construction company putting Haitian people to work and rebuilding the country’s infrastructure in a way that could withstand future seismic turmoil?
Spending time with the YLAI Fellows showed me something entirely old-fashioned about their enterprises (even those pursuing change through 21st century technologies and business models). There is something incredibly significant about doing work that is embedded in your place, your home. Take YLAI Fellow Cindy de León. Her marketing agency, El Coctel Creativo, connects Guatemalan artists seeking freelance work with restaurants in need of more impactful branding and graphic design. Cindy purposefully works with SMEs (small-to-medium enterprises). I asked her what she saw in her future, as far as growing her business and securing bigger accounts. “Oh no,” she told me. “I might expand geographically but I never want to stop working with smaller businesses.” The assumption behind my question is the assumption that drives so much of techpreneur culture: that growth is king, bigger is better. Put more users on Facebook. Sell more items on Amazon. Generate more LinkedIn profiles, more Tweets. Cindy has an entirely different vision of what it means to be successful—and it is based on working with other people, other small businesses.
In American culture, we have this narrative of the rugged individual: the person who pulls themselves out of poverty, the small business owner, the community figurehead who embodies neighborly compassion and civic virtue. To be sure, we still have that in Seattle. There are plenty of treasured local businesses and strong community leaders. I had just stopped seeing them.
The principle underlying an exchange program like YLAI is that by participating in these rigorous U.S.-based fellowships, young entrepreneurs can learn and grow. And moreover, YLAI is a two-way global exchange program: now that the U.S. based fellowships are done, the Seattle fellowship hosts have the opportunity to continue collaborating with their YLAI Fellow—this time in the Fellow’s home country. The fruits of these fellowships thus not only benefit Latin American and Caribbean communities, but support the ongoing learning and development of Seattle’s non-profit and business leaders. In fact, when I reflect on the time I spent connecting with the YLAI Fellows, I acutely recognize what myself—and a city like Seattle—can learn from people whose businesses grew up not exclusively filling a niche in the market or solving an inefficiency, but with the primary goal of serving others. I hope that even as globalization and multi-national corporations continue to rise, cities like Seattle are able to recall their roots—and embrace the hardworking small business owners and community leaders that call it home.
Who gets to be an entrepreneur? Someone who dreams of doing things differently, who will lead bravely, and who will stay humbly grounded in principles of responsibility. This is what I learned from this year’s YLAI cohort. I guess Brad Feld and I see the term “entrepreneur,” differently, and we’ll have to agree to disagree.
About the author: Natalie Pond is an intern with the International Visitor Program and an MPA Candidate at the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington.