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Creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem

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The following article is recounted by Nicolas Shea.

Nicolas Shea is a Chilean entrepreneur, former innovation and entrepreneurship advisor to the Chilean Minister of Economy (20102011), and founder of Start-Up Chile.

An unexpected call

It was February 24, 2010. I was working in my home away from home in Stanford, California, when a Skype call popped up on my computer screen. It was none other than Juan Andrés Fontaine, Minister of Economy of Chile for the new government of Sebastián Pinera, and one of the best-known macroeconomists in the country. He was calling to invite me to join his staff as “Innovation and Entrepreneurship Advisor.” Due to my commitments at the time (company and family) and a strong scepticism of whether I was suited for the job, I could not accept right away, but I agreed to meet him soon after that in person. In the meantime, I agreed to put together a preliminary innovation plan for the next four years, regardless of my final decision.

On the eve of February 27, we received word that a magnitude 8.8 earthquake—the fifth largest recorded earthquake in history—had devastated Chile. Being in California at the time, it was impossible to determine the size of the catastrophe and the impact it would have on all our lives. The next morning, we got an email informing us that two tsunamis that came right after the earthquake had swept away miles of coastland, causing hundreds of deaths—among them, two children of a very close cousin. Right then and there the decision was made: My wife and I knew that we had to go home and help in whatever way we could.

Inspired by immersion

Inspired by the way Silicon Valley has attracted entrepreneurial talent from across the globe, I reached out to some of my friends in the area. Jim and Marian Adams, as an important part of the Stanford community, were determined to help. When I told them about my new appointment and that I was working on an Innovation Plan, they immediately arranged meetings with some of the most brilliant and supportive people on campus.

In my conversation with Jim, he asked if I had any ideas in mind for my new job. In fact, I did. Over the past year, I had been mulling over the problem of the challenging visa and immigration status of foreign entrepreneurs in the United States, an issue that affected many good friends from Stanford and thousands of others around the country. This is a widespread and common problem for foreign entrepreneurs who would love to start their companies in the United States, especially in Silicon Valley. The problem is, it is nearly impossible for a foreign graduate to get a visa due to America’s stringent immigration and visa policies. As a good American friend says, “How smart is that? We spend billions of dollars subsidising these unbelievable colleges and institutions that attract and select the best and brightest worldwide, and shortly after graduation, we kick them out of the country!”

So my big idea was this: What if we could motivate some of them to move to Chile, at least for a while? If the plan were successful, we would not only be able to ignite a similar open and collaborative environment to that of Silicon Valley, but we would also be able to jump-start our economy and, in the process, connect ourselves, through these entrepreneurs, to major innovation hubs and markets around the world.

It sounded naive to think that entrepreneurs who had made it to Silicon Valley would agree to move to Chile for a while, but as a bootstrapping entrepreneur myself, I know the feelings around starting a business from scratch and how great the need for financial, intellectual, and emotional support can be. I thought that this crazy plan just might work. So did Jim and Marian.

Jim introduced me to their close friend David Kelley, founder of IDEO and the d.school at Stanford. In a one-hour conversation he told me, “If you want to unleash a wave of innovation, you have to focus on the individual, something simple, concrete, and visual that you can try and scale quickly.” That same day I met with Charles Holloway, my former professor of Entrepreneurship at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, who immediately offered his full support. As he liked the immigration idea, he referred me to Steve Ciesinsky and Emil Wang at SRI International. I met with them before flying down to Chile. When I told them about my possible new role in the Chilean government, Steve’s advice was, “Before you land in Chile, you must read this book,” and he handed me a copy of Start-Up Nation, which tells the story of the entrepreneurial revolution in Israel and highlights the fundamental impact of immigrants after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This book was not only an important source of inspiration and validating evidence for the project, but it lead us to create a great brand.

Among other things, Start-Up Nation explains the “Israeli miracle.” Of the many factors to which this is attributed—attitude (chutzpah), serving in the military, hyper-networking, and horizontal hierarchy— the most relevant variable is high skilled immigration. Since 1948, 3 million Jews from over 90 countries have arrived in Israel. In the 1980s and 1990s alone, 850 thousand came from the Soviet Union. As Gidi Grinstein says, “Immigrants are not averse to starting from scratch. They are by definition risk-takers. A nation of immigrants is a nation of entrepreneurs.”

So the dots began to connect: We were going to create a reverse brain drain from the United States, and after that, a flow1 of talent between Chile and the rest of the world. In a beautiful, safe, fun, and business oriented country like ours, we were going to apply the lessons from Silicon Valley and the Israeli entrepreneurial revolution, and we were going to use the power of the government and the sense of urgency and purpose that came with the earthquake to leverage what was needed to launch this bold venture.

Our idea was fairly audacious. If you think about it, granting taxpayer money to foreigners from rich countries who don’t even have a vote is the exact opposite of what a traditional politician would do—i.e., spread money wisely among people who do vote. We knew it would be a hard sell. That said, we had a perfect argument to support our idea.

In the mid-nineteenth century, thousands of Europeans migrated to Chile, motivated by the government’s offer to grant them land and permanent residence. Today, many of the most successful entrepreneurs and leaders in Chile are descendants of those immigrants and Chileans all know the outcome of that progressive public policy. The positive impact our immigrants have made, both intellectually and culturally, is unquestionable.

NOTES

1         Notice “flow,” not “stock.” Entrepreneurs appreciate the freedom come and go as they wish.

This is an edited extract from Planet Entrepreneur: The World Entrepreneurship Forum’s Guide to Business Success Around the World, published by Wiley, RRP £16.99

About the author

Steven D. Strauss, often called “America’s leading small business expert,” is an internationally recognised author, lawyer, and speaker. His USA Today column is one of the most highly syndicated business columns in the world. The author of fifteen books, including The Small Business Bible, he is also the President of The Strauss Group, Inc., a multi-media content creation business. For more information, visit www.TheSelfEmployed.com