Hace unos días, el equipo del programa portugués Escolas Empreendedoras INAVE, que tiene como objetivo potenciar el emprendimiento entre los jóvenes estudiantes, visitaba Barcelona con un grupo de alumnos y profesores para conocer y aprender de su ecosistema emprendedor.

En BLE tuvimos la oportunidad de compartir experiencias y opiniones sobre los diferentes modelos de soporte al emprendedor en Barcelona y Portugal. En esta entrevista, Alexandre Mendes nos explica su experiencia y sus vivencias en la capital catalana:

You have visited Barcelona with a small group of young students and teachers that are having an important role on entrepreneurship promotion in your region. How was the experience?

Visiting Barcelona was enlightening. I’ve already visited other famous ecosystems in Europe, but I was curious about the sunny Barcelona. In a few days, we were able to visit public initiatives and private projects that are boosting Entrepreneurship around the city. From Barcelona we’re bringing a very strong impression of a number of teams that are tackling entrepreneur’s needs and developing specific projects toward a strong community.

What have you visited in Barcelona?

We met Makers of Barcelona, Fab Café, Wayra, BLE, Valkiria Hub Space, Barcelona Activa, Impact Hub. I would highlight ‘focus’ as the most impressive lesson from Barcelona. I mean, across all teams we’ve met at Barcelona seemed to exist a clear focus (and agreement) on the mobile cluster, even though other sectors like aeronautics and space, biotech or design are also strategic. This concentration of efforts isn’t easily achieved and we always have to praise focus and leadership.

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What has surprised you most?

We found Barcelona Activa very surprising since it developed competent responses for a huge variety of people (from entrepreneurs to unemployed professionals). It’s 30 year experience and subsequent track record is inspiring. It has to be great having such a public strategy and tactic backbone. On the other hand, the crew from Impact Hub was very impressive, they are really keen on making ‘it’ happen and, of course, I personally found BLE very interesting since it’s rather unusual to have an informal group pinpointing solutions, spotting opportunities and acting as a free spirit thinking critically is a wonderful symptom of passionate citizenship toward a permanently better ecosystem.

What is your opinion on the entrepreneurial ecosystem of Barcelona?

We’ve stayed for only a few days, so it’s premature to deliver an accurate opinion on Barcelona as an ecosystem. Nevertheless, it’s widely known the buzz around Barcelona, mostly due to some international events, business schools, the worldwide spanish-speaking community potential, startups and some investment fund’s moves. I found Barcelona a fertile city. All the right ingredients for an prosper ecosystem are there and first results are appearing… I guess we’re all counting with Barcelona to team up with London and Berlin.

But…

In the end, tax laws, labour access and cost will play a definitive role on the growth… but also the competence to attract international talent to maintain effervescence on the innovation/entrepreneurship pipeline. On the other hand, engaging big brothers – companies that were once starting on Barcelona’s ecosystem – is crucial. We all benefit from role models and besides keeps the community close to each other. I’m pretty sure there will be more ‘home runs’ – big money investments – soon, and Barcelona has some unfair advantages when competing with other destinies: Barcelona is sexy, artistic, cosmopolitan and… sunny.

 What similarities and differences have you found with the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Portugal?

It isn’t possible to look at Portugal like an unified ecosystem. Different cities have different strategies and different value propositions. Lisbon, for instance, is leading. Political power made it a priority and either public institutions or private projects are cooperating and it’s safe to say that, Lisbon made it to assemble a very competent ecosystem in a very few years. Porto, Coimbra and Braga are also implementing strategies to harness entrepreneurs but entrepreneurship here has been happening mostly due to strong universities that are anchored in these cities. Five years ago, we could say that we were having too much university for too few civil initiatives. Then came the crisis tsunami and from this ‘black hole’, entrepreneurship started to flourish all over and it became an undeniable movement that institutions had to follow.

What about Braga?

In the North of Portugal, in Braga region, we have (like in Barcelona) good schools and Universities, especially in key areas like engineering, medical and bio tech related sciences. We also host the Instituto Ibérico de Nanotecnologiaa joint venture from our two countries that is delivering some encouraging results even though it isn’t working at its full potential. Also like Barcelona, we have historically developed a very competitive textile cluster and most of the industry in the country is based around here. Our workforce is comparatively young, skilled and cheap that’s why we’ve been dealing with a huge emigration rate. No wonder. Our professional’s education allows them to fast become top performers on international settings.

The trip was part of an educational project. Can you explain this project?

Our trip to Barcelona was part of Escolas Empreendedoras INAVE, a great project that the Comunidade Intermunicipal do Ave organized – this institution is an association of eight municipalities that cooperate to promote entrepreneurship and the economic development on the region of Ave. Escolas Empreendedoras INAVE consisted both on an education program that delivered tools, concepts and a curriculum for teachers and facilitators to work with students. Pairing with the education goals was a challenge for teams to apply those concepts to ideas or problems to be solved. Each team competed at first within their cities, and then the selected teams competed in a final event with representatives from each of the 8 cities of the network.

How were the results?

In 2014 have been the first edition and results were pretty impressive, on the number of high-school students applications, but also on the teacher engagement, the quality of the projects and mostly the buzz that this initiative brought to school life. We believe that Escolas Empreendedoras INAVE was a great first step toward student education on entrepreneurship frameworks. It was also a leading effort from a public sector institution that, I’m sure, will inspire many others.

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How Portugal is working to encourage young people to entrepreneurship?

We’re working on two major axis: structural support and cultural development. By structural support I’m referring to all the players within an ecosystem: incubators, funding, mentors, accelerators, networks, education programs to meet ups and so on.On the cultural development side, I’m referring to a major cultural legacy that doesn’t promote entrepreneurship. This debate is quite close to psychotherapy but, we have already spotted some major factors: we lived under a dictatorship where we had to behave like sheeps. We have developed low risk tolerance and lost any incentive around our initiative. In the last 25 years, the European Union funded us pretty much without criteria and, all of a sudden we lost a significant part of our industry. With 2008 crisis and it’s subsequent unemployment wave, people had to deal with severe realities.

And entrepreneurship can be part of the solution…

Entrepreneurship started as a theme and turned very fast in a magical solution for every problem in the country. Enthusiasm was so high that from one day to another being a founder or a CEO was sexier than being a DJ. With this enthusiasm all sort of communities started to appear: coworking, makers, entrepreneurship gurus, teachers, incubators, business angels, whatever… The harsh reality was that we were inexperienced and we had to learn fast and solve problem problems even faster. Many people got disappointed because somehow the message around entrepreneurship was maybe of some easy-entrepreneuship (people were forgetting that to start whatever project you have to work really hard). Nowadays, both our culture and structural support are more mature. We have achieved some synchronization of both formal and informal teams.

Can you highlight some initiatives?

I would like to highlight the public incentives to entrepreneurship: Portugal Ventures is a venturing fund designed to boost the internationalization of some startups in selected business areas. Albeit this high visibility fund i would select Passaporte do Empreendedorismo as one of the initiatives that had a profound impact as an economic enabler for early-stage entrepreneurs. Passaporte do Empreendedorismo is actually a pretty generous political decision. It consists on ~700€ monthly wage given to entrepreneurs that want to test their ideas, design a working and repeatable and scalable business model and all those benefitting from Passaporte could also have mentor to follow their projects… All that was needed was to do is fill an online application and work. Acceptance criteria consisted of the usual preference for innovative products or services and international ambition.

It’s sounds interesting…

It was really pretty generous, considering that it started during the hardest times of the economic crisis and we were more used to violent cuts on income than to opportunities. Of course, it also benefited some applicants that saw in Passaporte an easy way to earn some money but it is true that it was also an effective enabler for many graduates start their businesses. The actual version of Passaporte do Empreendedorismo is now betting on more tight selection criteria and in training program putting specialists side by side with entrepreneurs. On the other hand, desinstituitionalized teams started to develop their own solutions with great success. Startup Pirates, for instance, is a benchmark and a clear success. Startup Pirates events are now spread allover the world, from Barcelona to Pakistan. It’s also fair to refer the impact of coworking spaces as epicenters of entrepreneurship Factory and Cowork Lisboa were clear players nurturing this community. Finally, I would also like to pinpoint the role of many universities both educating, harnessing and accelerating entrepreneurship.

 Are ou involved in other entrepreneurial projects? 

I love to work with entrepreneurs, artists, dreamers, game changers and any other misfits. I love this energy of co-creation and the empowerment from mobilizing skills to deliver solutions to someone’s problem. I studied Psychology and I was a psychotherapist for a couple of years then I started my own business, a lovely video company called Os Tais (do vídeo). From then on I’ve been an active agent on my country trying to find solutions for common problems. At first, i worked on knowledge transference from universities to the surrounding community. Three years ago, Factory kicked off and i joined a very creative community. One of our most powerful projects was So you Think you can Pitch, a sort of American Idol for the job market. It shook the status quo and introduced a number of new concepts like: pitching, value proposition, CV boredom… Factory is really an epicentre, we’ve organized all sort of meet ups and tested many formats like Startup Weekend or Global Design Thinking Jam.

Interesting… 

As a Chief Knowledge Officer I’ve been also spotting crucial knowledge for us, that is why we started to travel to some destinations both for training and networking. I’ve also been working with Alex Osterwalder on Business Model Design & Innovation. For this reason I’m a common guest speaker at universities, hackathons, education programs, etc. Lately, I co-created Creators School that is trying to tackle web-developers and web designers’ scarcity through an immersive training program. Fortunately, we’ve been collecting great support from big companies in Portugal and most of our alumni managed to get a job on a web related company. I am honoured to be a mentor of some startups on Passaporte do Empreendedorismo, a specialist in startups in the new Startup Braga, a consultant for entrepreneurship and innovation on some Municipalities Board’s and a guest author on the American blog Frontend Innovation.

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What does the future of Portuguese entrepreneurship look like?

I believe our ecosystem is flourishing. We still need to improve a number of conditions being most of them legal and taxation issues. International networking and cooperation must be reinforced. I personally believe in building clusters beyond national borders to better compete on the international scene. I’m expecting a decrease in the excitement around entrepreneurship in 2014’s second semester since next European funding is raising a lot of noise around entrepreneurship. Too much noise doesn’t make entrepreneurship attractive. On the other hand, I’m looking forward for more impact on less startups since quality is being better over time. Disclaimer: I’m a pragmatic pessimist used to tune the reality up whenever we spot any opportunity to be better, so, in a bipolar way, I’m also an enthusiastic optimist.