Small businesses exist across industries, but lately, a new brand of entrepreneurship, technopreneurship, promises to be more than a fancy-sounding portmanteau as an answer to dependence on unsustainable industries.
Entrepreneurship by itself has been hailed as the key to unlocking a nation's potential; small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have been shown to spur job creation, productivity, and even social progress in many countries. Governments, recognizing the importance of these upcoming businesses, now offer different forms of support to entrepreneurs in an effort to encourage more ideas to flourish.
"There have been studies around the world that small and medium companies are some of the fastest contributors to the economy," Luis Sison, project leader of the Department of Science and Technology (DoST) - University of the Philippines (UP) Enterprise Center for Technopreneurship, said in an interview. "The growth is really in the SME."
For her part, Minette Navarrete, president of Globe Telecom-led Kickstart Ventures, stressed the role of start-ups in buoying the economy up in difficult times. Once largely driven by huge companies, economies all over the world now seem influenced by the pull of entrepreneurship.
"When you look at the larger global economy... and the economies that were deeply affected by the economic crisis, and you think about the ones that have managed to survive and pick up, one of the themes that you see is that when you've got a large entrepreneurial base that isn't necessarily institutionally corporate, there's a bit more resilience in a community," she said in an interview.
As for technopreneurship, San Francisco Bay's Silicon Valley is a prime example of how the technology sector may boost a country's economy. As far back as 1997, The Economist reported that technology accounted for 10% of the US's gross domestic product (GDP), and that the then-6,000-companies-strong region, which focused on the personal computer business and raked in more than $200-billion total sales a year, was already a huge contributor to this figure.
And despite gloomy predictions, the 1995-2000 dot-com bubble didn't mark the end of the tech industry. Just last year, the San Francisco Business Times reported that Silicon Valley had a GDP that was growing faster, at 13.4%, than those of both San Francisco and the US.
The recent initial public offering of Facebook, a company that went from Harvard dorm room project to social networking empire with around 900 million users, may have revived rumors about another bubble, but the larger tech sector shows no signs of stopping.
To boost its own gradually growing tech sector, could the Philippines learn from the Silicon Valley greats? One popular lesson is that even the top players started small.
"When you focus on the tech world, most of those did not start from big companies," said Ms. Navarrete. "You see a lot of value is created from innovation from the fringes. There's a reason for that. If you look at all the historical cycles of innovation — mainframes, personal computing, software, apps — you will see big disruptions. Disruption is caused by someone small, and the big incumbents that don't survive the disruption lose value."
Asian business culture is risk-averse and fears failure, but even this is slowly shifting under the thrill of venturing into technopreneurship. A recent Bloomberg report by Jun Yang and Sangwon Yoon, for example, noted that more graduates in South Korea have been inspired by the likes of Mr. Zuckerberg and chosen the riskier path of tech startups over the more secure and highly regarded Samsung Electronics route.
The Philippines could follow given proper education and support. According to Stephanie Orlino, Smart Communications public affairs manager for community partnerships, Filipinos' interest in pursuing tech-related careers is generally low as a result of a lack of opportunity.
"What moves a country forward is the creation of new ideas born from science and technology," she said in an interview. "We're actually lacking in that one. Not a lot of people here pursue engineering and technology courses."
A paradigm shift is also necessary to increase the appetite for risk. As in other fields, the possibility of failure shouldn't stop a budding technopreneur from setting up a business.
"Failure is not a stigma which you carry around with you," said Christian Besler, Kickstart Ventures vice-president and community engagement head, in an interview. "It's more like a scar on your shoulder — ‘I did it, and I went on to the next thing.' That's one thing I think we need to work on."
Getting an early start also hastens the process of developing that big idea and successfully carrying it out — and success can, after all, often overshadow past mistakes. Mr. Besler cited Mr. Jobs, a college dropout who was fired from his own company, Apple, Inc., in 1985 but still managed to become both its public face and one of the world's technology leaders.
Future technopreneurs must see that their dream is possible, and Mr. Sison emphasized the need to have these stories, including Filipino ones, told. "What's interesting is not what they [the successful ones] are now, but how they started," he said. "That's what we want to teach future technopreneurs."
Ideaspace co-founder and Vice-President Earl Valencia also stressed the importance of role models for aspiring entrepreneurs. "We have a lot of sports and entertainment idols, but we don't have a lot of technology-based models to look up to," he said. "We don't publicize them as much. A lot of times people think [technology] is too hard, but we have to show that it's rewarding."
Encouraging more technopreneurs can also prevent brain drain and even attract top talents to come back home. Mon Isberto, Smart public affairs head, claims that the country has no choice but to embrace science and technology.
"Until we're able to offer people a chance to make it here doing science and technology in whatever way, teaching it or making business out of it — we'll keep losing the best," he said.
An idea-driven economy will also promote a culture of meritocracy, which can further motivate Filipinos to look for ways to push their proposals.
"The Philippines is still very much kilala-driven (recognition-driven)," said Mr. Valencia. "What we're trying to do is look at ideas, not what your last name is or what school you are from — which is so pervasive in our culture."
To help Filipinos launch their ideas, business incubators such as the DoST-UP Enterprise Center for Technopreneurship, Kickstart Ventures, and Ideaspace have been equipping budding entrepreneurs with business skills as well as valuable mentorship. By funding chosen startups, the incubators also aim to eliminate the reluctance of many Filipinos to become entrepreneurs, because of the more secure promise of regular employment.
"There are very few Filipinos you will see who aren't helping one family member," said Ms. Navarrete. "Someone who wants to be an entrepreneur has to balance that with the need to generate a steady income. [Entrepreneurship] can then be a supplement, not a replacement."
These organizations are also optimistic about the future of technopreneurship in the country. "A lot of private angels have stepped up," said Mr. Besler. "Also, more foreign investors are coming in and feeling that the Philippines is a secure environment where their money is safe."
Business incubators are realistic enough to not expect technopreneurship to be realized immediately, but perhaps someday, Filipino kids can add "technopreneur" to their roster of ready answers when asked the age-old question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
"Start them early," said Ms. Orlino.
Ideaspace is managed by Ideaspace Foundation, Inc., of which MediaQuest Holdings, Inc. is a part. MediaQuest, a unit of the Beneficial Trust Fund of PLDT, has a minority stake in BusinessWorld.
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