Expert: Eastern Europe ‘way ahead’ in entrepreneurship education

The new EU member states have been far more successful in integrating entrepreneurship and business teaching into their national education, Caroline Jenner, CEO of JA-YE (Junior Achievement-Young Enterprise) Europe told EURACTIV in an interview.

Caroline Jenner is CEO of JA-YE (Junior Achievement-Young Enterprise) Europe, who last night (7 May) launched their ‘Your World, Your Business’ video in Brussels.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

Tell us why last night’s event came about in the first place, and why you believe it is a necessary exercise?

Last night came about because of the need to do something concrete about our goal of bringing public, private and community actors together. 

The idea is to provide people with an example [of successful young entrepreneurs]: what does that look like, what does that feel like? 

Secondly, what is the larger meaning of this? How is it going to resonate and be picked up, by the media and other multipliers? We’ve been teaching entrepreneurship for years and years, it’s our bread and butter, and it’s old news to us, but this event allows us to fit with the times. 

Your ‘success story’ entrepreneurs, including JA-YE ‘Young Entrepreneur of the Year’ Oscar Lundin in an interview with EURACTIV, repeatedly emphasise that not enough is being done in European schools to promote entrepreneurship. Do you share that view? 

Yes. I think Europe suffers tremendously from its old socialist fears that we shouldn’t let business anywhere near our young, innocent minds; that we shouldn’t be manufacturing capitalists. 

The teaching profession is one of the worst proponents of this mindset in many parts of Europe. 

That’s one of the main reasons why these ideas of entrepreneurship haven’t entered the education system yet. 

Do you think the measures currently being taken at the EU policy level are addressing these shortcomings? 

Absolutely. I really think that the EU has taken ownership of this particular issue, particularly in the way DG Enterprise has. 

They’ve been very successful, not because they’ve come at it from a business perspective but because they’ve gone out into the field and checked what’s going on. Therefore, they know and understand, as we do, that the solution is to bring business and schools together, and expose kids to enterprise at a young age, and in a safe environment, where they can fail and take risks. 

That policy is working. When I first started the Ja-Ye office in Europe in 2001 and met with the Commission, we had 800,000 students in all of our programmes. We now have 2.9 million per year. That is because the weather map has changed in Europe. That’s not only down to the Commission, of course, but they were a large part of it. They helped to put us on the map. Policymaking has had an influence here, there’s no doubt about it. 

Let’s return to the idea of the European ‘socialist’ mentality you mentioned. A recurring theme at last night’s event was ‘social entrepreneurship,’ i.e. businesses that benefit society and communities. Is it possible that the socialist or social democratic logic that underpins so much of EU policy thinking can make the EU a world leader in social entrepreneurship? 

I think Europe’s years of thinking about how you marry prosperity and society is extremely important and will be a lead for the world. 

However, I think it’s a fallacy to think that there’s any disconnect between entrepreneurship and society. I think it’s funny that people have to say ‘social entrepreneurship’ – all entrepreneurship is social! 

We need to be careful in Europe about talking too much about social entrepreneurship and excluding ‘traditional entrepreneurs’. The term encompassing all these should be ‘responsible entrepreneurship’. We should avoid separating the two – all entrepreneurs should be thinking about society. 

I also think we should talk more about NGOs. These make a legitimate contribution to our GDP, it’s not just people who want to wear jeans and T-shirts. They provide a service: it’s real work, it’s real business. 

A speaker last night said that a recession is the best possible time to start a company. Based on the research that you do and all the young people you meet, what are the motivations that drive young European entrepreneurs in the 21st century? 

It’s mostly the case that (a) someone has a good idea, and (b) they then realise they can commercialise the idea. 

A recession might well be a context in which an idea can be commercialised where previously it couldn’t. Look at ourselves, as a company and an NGO, we are finding that this recessionary climate means we can commercialise the concept of entrepreneurship education. 

We are seizing the opportunity in the recession. This time last year, we would have probably have talked ourselves blue in the face trying to get people to talk about education as well as entrepreneurship. 

This is European SME week. You previously mentioned that you believe EU policies for entrepreneurship and SMEs are moving in the right direction, yet small companies unquestionably face a difficult time at present. How will SMEs fare in the long run as positive policies try to overcome a negative global business climate? 

I think the EU should emphasise more precisely what SMEs are doing and what they are contributing, rather than emphasising the structure and the system. 

The EU is not promoting enough the kinds of SMEs that exist out there, and the kinds of problems these SMEs are solving. 

Actually, I think it’s a mistake to shoebox all these companies into the bracket term ‘SMEs’. It really annoys me, I hate the word! There are start-ups, and there are companies. Anyone working in a SME does not see themselves as a SME, they see themselves as a company. 

What happens in Europe is that once you’re a SME, you’re always a SME – you stay there forever. In the US, you’re a startup and then a company. I think the EU might be shooting itself in the foot here. They should be showing why these companies have growth potential, why they are contributing, how they can solve our problems, and I don’t think they’re telling that. 

All they’re doing is saying how many people SMEs employ, which is over 95% of the workforce, and the only thing I ever hear is the struggle they have to raise capital. 

The discussion around business and entrepreneurship needs to shift to one about values and adding value, rather than one about employment and productivity. We are doing a disservice to entrepreneurs by making all the discussions around them too ‘business-ish’. 

We should emphasise all the other reasons why people create enterprises in the first place – values – and what makes those enterprises grow: that they add value in some way. 

Describe, from your experiences, European attitudes towards business creation. 

I think the issue is that not enough people in Europe who have the potential to be entrepreneurs take that risk. 

Society in general has a negative attitude towards entrepreneurship because of Europe’s attitude to security. The entrepreneurs at last night’s event describe their idea of security as having freedom: freedom to innovate, to manoeuvre, to make things happen. 

By contrast, for most Europeans, security is not having to worry about where your next euro is coming from and having everything organised for the next 30 years. 

This is the downside of Europe’s beautiful system. It has taught people to expect that someone else – not themselves – will take care of them. 

How can these attitudes be altered, then? 

You start young. You bring much more of a sense of ‘responsibility of opportunity’ to young people, insist that they take initiative, tell them to go out and do ‘X’, then tell them how great it is that they’ve done it. 

If they encounter a problem, tell them it’s their responsibility to solve it. 

All this has to happen in the education system, and parents have to be informed of the positive reasons for teaching children in this way. 

Could you provide us with a best-practice example of a country or region in Europe where they have succeeded in marrying education and entrepreneurship? 

All of the new EU member states (the 10+2) have made entrepreneurship education a key part of their education strategy, way ahead of their colleagues in Western Europe and despite the many economic difficulties they face. 

There are some shining examples in Western Europe, too. The Flemish government in Belgium is excelling, Norway is outstanding – probably the best in Europe – and I think the rest are just catching up.