The Happiest Entrepreneurs Aren't Where You Think They Are

The following is a guest commentary for

Imagine a place where high-impact entrepreneurs are so pleased that they don't complain about not having enough access to seed capital, they are given more than enough special tax incentives for commercializing research and development; where young people are offered sufficient amounts of skills development to become successful entrepreneurs, and where risk-taking and personal initiative in one's career is the norm, not the exception.

Would those be entrepreneurs living in Silicon Valley perhaps? Not so.

If someone where to tell you that the happiest high-impact entrepreneurs were in China, India, and Kenya, would you believe them?

In fact, those are exactly the countries that ended up being described so positively in a recent survey of over 3000 high-impact entrepreneurs in 34 countries. The survey was commissioned as part of the 2012 Global Entrepreneurship Week events taking place November 12-18 , and is one of a series of Monitor Group initiatives on entrepreneurship, focusing on the context – economic, legal, institutional, and cultural – in which it flourishes.

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The survey results are aimed at providing policymakers wishing to promote entrepreneurship in their jurisdiction with insights to help them identify and address key challenges. The GEW Entrepreneurship Policy Survey does this by gauging and benchmarking the opinions and perceptions of high-impact entrepreneurs in multiple countries so that policymakers may compare the results and generate informed discussions.

Sound straightforward?

Actually, attracting, sustaining, and retaining high-impact entrepreneurs appears to be no simple task for policy makers. If it were so simple, we would likely see politicians in Washington and other world capitals come to quick and tidy conclusions on what works best for that coveted group of business leaders.

Rather, the savviest policymakers do the right thing and ask their high-impact entrepreneurs to rate their country's policies on a number of very specific dimensions. The politicians who end up listening to those opinions, like those in China, India, and Kenya have, are then the ones who ultimately create vibrant environments for entrepreneurs that lead to billion dollar global enterprises.

This is the case with the often misunderstood countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to survey results from high-impact entrepreneurs in Kenya and Nigeria, policymakers there appear to be configuring the right mix of policies and integrating local idiosyncrasies and unique strengths into their policy solutions. In fact, the survey results indicate that these countries have improved their policies to the point that they are now very often in the consideration set of places that highly successful, highly mobile entrepreneurs actively select as their next business address.

It's no longer a question of whether a high-impact entrepreneur chooses between California or Boston as their next home. Some are now thinking more broadly, and considering other locations beyond the usual suspects. According to GEW survey respondents, Shanghai, Bangalore, Nairobi, Lagos all appear to be the types of places that entrepreneurs like to operate in.

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Take Nigeria for example. As the most populous country in Africa, a number of its high-impact entrepreneurs are relatively well positioned to take advantage of a growing consumer base in that increasingly rich country, as well as in the broader continent of Africa [relevant factoid: did you know Nigeria is projected to have 730 million people by 2100, while China will have 300 million less than people than it has today? ] Many Nigerian entrepreneurs have taken advantage of that demographic shift, and of recent policy reforms, to create billion dollar plus enterprises. You only have to look at a recent spike of 650% in the number of private jets in Nigeria to tell you that high-impact entrepreneurship is alive and well in that country.

In contrast, some traditionally effective countries for entrepreneurs, like Chile and the United Kingdom, are surprisingly absent among the survey leaders. This likely means that politicians in those countries have failed to pay enough attention to the specific policies their entrepreneurs rated negatively. If they are to maintain historical strengths, they should look more closely at the GEW survey results.

This would include US policymakers. Even though US entrepreneurs perceived the US as having relatively positive entrepreneurship-related policies overall, there were some key policies that need to be improved, including those relating to government regulations as applied across industries and the way IPOs are handled to name two.

The big lesson here is that although the effects of entrepreneurship on economic progress are widely recognized, there is often little understanding of how best to promote it. Many policy measures are available, but there often is no agreement about which is most effective given specific circumstances. As a result, many governments at the national and regional levels are attempting to foster entrepreneurship in unproductive and uncoordinated ways, doing too many things at once or resorting to generic rather than specific, locally meaningful plans.

By paying more attention to the opinions of those who matter most—high-impact entrepreneurs—policymakers in the US and abroad can limit much of the confusion, poor policy making, and wasted resources too often seen in prior attempts to promote entrepreneurship.

That is the aim of the GEW Policy Survey. It would be a shame to let the opinions of the high-impact entrepreneurs who took it to go unnoticed. Just ask entrepreneurs in Greece. They will tell you.