World Entrepreneur Society summit 09 – don’t miss out on a good crisis

The 2009 edition of the WES Summit was once again an extraordinary and thought-provoking mix of socio-economic radicalism and practical advice for budding entrepreneurs.

25th March 2009 at 11:26 am

Capitalism as we know it is dying. Even the rays of hope offered by clinically insane social entrepreneurs are being engulfed in the restorative flames of change.

But things will get much worse before a Phoenix Economy rises from the ashes of what is a very significant moment in history.

Not your average starting point for a conference on entrepreneurship.

But then the grandly titled World Entrepreneur Society (WES) summit is not your average event and John Elkington, doyenne of corporate-responsibility and sustainability for the last 30 years, is not your average speaker.


Challenging - John Elkington of Volans

John, famous for coining the term ‘triple bottom line’ and founding partner of social innovation consultancy Volans, delivered the above economic outlook in one of two opening keynotes, the other offered by Microsoft’s European Chairman Jan Mühlfeit.

Over the last six months, I’ve witnessed several high profile social entrepreneurs incite revolution, jubilant at the mess left behind by the crisis in the global banking system.

This is a crisis too good to miss. And like any good entrepreneur, many a social entrepreneur can sense an opportunity.

As Big Issue Chairman Nigel Kershaw asked one panel, are you reformists or radicals?  One sensed that reform might not be the preferred answer.

So, the challenging, revolutionary zeal of John was perhaps as unsurprising as the dismissing of the ‘capitalism is dead’ shtick by Jan Mühlfeit, born and educated in communist Czechoslovakia before working his way to the top of Microsoft’s corporate greasy pole.

Other panels during the day oscillated between realism, fear and entrepreneurial optimism in the face of recession-based business opportunities.

With practical sessions running in parallel it was impossible to get to everything.  But for me one of the most inspiring parts of the day, was learning more about initiatives in Africa designed to stimulate entrepreneurship, creating real, sustainable economic value, rather than an addiction to aid.

Jean-Francois Ruhashyankiko of the Rwanda Enterprise Investment Company, for example, was building sustainable businesses for locals by spotting opportunities linked to aid-based flows of money.  For example, an irrigation company built to support charitable investments in agriculture.

Entrepreneurial education was also a major part of the plan for Jean-Francois, as it was for another delegate who had recently won a contract to support and develop startups in Sierra Leone.

Carlo Tortora-Brayda Di Belvedere of Alchemy World was also inspiring, but realistic about the political challenges faced by his social enterprise in Ethiopia.

Mobile communications are playing a big part in the development of business across Africa and it was no surprise to find that two UK entrepreneurs, one social and one AIM listed had an eye on developing opportunities on the continent.

The day ended with a session from the inimitable Oli Barrett and David McQueen.

Playing balloon keepy-uppy with the senior economic adviser to the Rwandan government was a touch of surrealism I hadn’t expected, but it was certainly in keeping with the day as whole.

Earlier one panelist quoted Andre Gide:

One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.

There were plenty of moments when WES09 felt like it had set sail.  Whether you smell the whiff of economic revolution in the air or not, we’re all certainly in uncharted waters right now.

And ultimately Gide’s quote embodies what so many entrepreneurs face and what the conference last week celebrated.

An appropriate thought to hold in your mind whether or not you consider your own entrepreneurial journey an act of insanity or the way to make a real difference.


Alex is the founder and editor of SmallBizPod, the UK's first podcast dedicated to small business, start-ups and entrepreneurship. Alex writes about topical small business issues, entrepreneurs and anything else that catches his eye here on the small business blog.

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