Feature of the Week

April 8, 2012 10:19 pm

Lessons that cross borders

The word “entrepreneur” – empreendedor in Portuguese – only truly entered everyday language in Brazil a decade ago. A career as “a businessman” once carried negative connotations and it was frequently the occupation of villains in the country’s television dramas.

Traditionally, taking risks was frowned upon in Latin American countries; the stigma of failure was too great. This meant few people – particularly those without a hefty financial cushion – went on to start their own businesses. Today, however, a growing number of people are considering entrepreneurship as a career path.

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“You have to have the capacity to take that risk,” says Fernando Fabre, president of Endeavor Global, the non-profit organisation that is fostering a culture of global entrepreneurship in emerging markets. “It’s a lot easier to take risks in Silicon Valley where you have advisers, talent scouts and venture capitalists. Even if you fail, you will have people to hire you. Not to generalise, but in Latin American countries you were gambling your money, your house, your children’s education.”

Recently, however, countries such as Argentina, Mexico, Brazil and Chile have been trying to create entrepreneurship ecosystems that combine financing, training, mentoring and business networks. They have invested heavily in deregulation to make access to capital easier, a problem faced by many new entrepreneurs. Simultaneously, universities are creating facilities such as incubators to help businesses grow.

“It’s about building new role models for the next generation and creating mindsets about building a global company,” says Mr Fabre.

As well as helping to launch start-ups, those who promote entrepreneurship want to ensure that fledgling Latin American companies thrive in a competitive, globalised economy.

In one such initiative, Endeavor has partnered with Columbia Business School’s Chazen Institute in New York to offer a course on entrepreneurship and competitiveness in Latin America (ECLA). The programme aims to equip mid-career Latin American entrepreneurs with the resources to expand their ventures across new borders.

The programme takes on two people from each company – the chief executive and one other – and costs $25,000 per company. But many of the 17 companies taken on this year have been subsidised by donors such as Sovereign and Santander banks. Participants are expected to develop and implement a company improvement project with measurable results and impact.

“The course focuses on efficiency improvement, growth planning and internationalisation,” says Nelson Fraiman, ECLA director. “They have to show they can apply what we are teaching.”

Former participant Max Grekin, chief executive of e-learning website SKM, says the sales strategy he used in his home country of Chile was not suitable for the US market.

SKM’s sales strategy had to be “modified so that we sell through channels like mature US e-learning companies do. This was the change we needed to make online content products sellable in the US market, which was new to us,” he says.

Classes are initially held at Columbia before participants return to their home countries to put into practice what they have learnt. They then take part in a study tour outside the Americas.

“Belonging to a small country like Uruguay, sometimes we feel that we need to compete against multinational retailers, which are very well prepared and with talented managers,” says Silvina Leibenberg, co-chief executive of clothing company Lolita, who joined the programme last year.

The company hopes to penetrate the Chilean and Peruvian markets and to expand in Uruguay by improving its logistics processes, which affect inventory turnover.

Mr Fabre says Endeavor chose to partner with a US rather than a Latin American school for funding reasons. “Public undergraduate, masters and MBA programmes in the US are already very good, so all the extra private funding has gone into executive courses,” he says. “The best business schools in Latin America are spending more money on undergraduate studies.”

Columbia, which sees emerging markets as important for its future, is extending its reach outside the US. Faculty staff hope their students’ success will play a part in this strategy.

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