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Entrepreneurs Are Redefining Relationships with Russia

Jonathan Ortmans

Spending a few days in Moscow last week where I spoke at the G20 Young Entrepreneur Alliance Summit, I found a dynamic and outward facing city with startup communities as vibrant as any in Europe. I check on things in Russia on the eve of this Thursday’s St. Petersburg International Economic Forum and on the heels of an announcement yesterday that Russia will convene the next Global Entrepreneurship Congress (March 17-20, 2014) only a few yards from the entrance to the Kremlin in the historic Moscow Manege.

Like so many of you, yesterday I called my father honoring that wonderful tradition of stopping to take the time to say thank you to our dad. As I arrive home from Russia, I am reminded that for him the Soviet Union was a Cold War enemy. Had he been with me last week, how he would have been surprised to see clean renovated historical landmark buildings side by side with modern glass skyscrapers, a thriving market-based economy and local and national government leaders hosting entrepreneurs and international business leaders from all the G20 countries.

Last October, I talked about Moscow’s still developing startup scene. While that still holds true today, the decision by Mayor Sergei Sobyanin and Alexei Kommissarov, an impressive and thoughtful entrepreneur who now heads the city’s Department of Science, Industrial Policy and Entrepreneurship, to welcome the Global Entrepreneurship Congress to the heart of Moscow next March is significant. The capital of one of the world’s “strong government” economies has until recently been grappling with how to reconcile a tradition of top-down government control with a desire for bottom-up organic startup communities. It appears Moscow is ready to show to the global entrepreneurship community its progress and eager to help its aspiring startups engage with international networks.

The GEC is now the largest annual gathering of the global entrepreneurial ecosystem—from startup junkies to government leaders—connecting big and small economies keen to leverage the power of entrepreneurs and their new firms. It not only brings in the practitioners behind the latest programs that help startups and scale-ups, but it examines future opportunities and threats to global entrepreneurial communities along with ideas for addressing them. For example, as I mentioned in a guest post for Forbes last month, with the expansion of programs and accelerators to help high impact firms comes a responsibility to more effectively analyze their performance. The GEC next year will look into the methodologies for mapping communities in an effort to identify strengths and weaknesses as well as identify the right strategies in response. It will also build on the global policy summit initiated in Rio last March by inviting government leaders to join researchers and policy experts in brainstorming smarter ways for strong, engaged governments to set the right rules and incentives to foster healthier startup communities and increased new firm formation at home.

By hosting the next global gathering of entrepreneurship, it appears that Moscow is taking its entrepreneurship ecosystem to the next level—from one famous for its strong scientific and engineering talent pool to one with enough capacity to leverage this talent to innovate and create high growth enterprises. Skolkovo Science Park is only two years old and therefore mostly a virtual concept but it has been dubbed as the future “Russian Silicon Valley.” The G20 Youth Entrepreneur Alliance Summit I participated in this weekend was held in their excellent new facilities at the Skolkovo Moscow School of Management. And last month, Russia’s first Annual Youth Entrepreneurship and Innovators Conference and “Startup Village,” an ambitious new startup conference intended to be held annually, took place there. With 2000 startup companies and founder teams from the Russian regions and abroad, 320 investors, 260 partners, 150 journalists, hundreds of students, representatives of large corporations, the government, and other entrepreneurship supporters, Startup Village speaks well for the potential for the Global Entrepreneurship Congress next March.

With all the recent political distrust about Russia we should be encouraged by the possibilities entrepreneurs offer us for building lasting bonds and a mature marketplace. Indeed, Russia and the United States do not see eye to eye on how to calm troubled waters in nations like Syria and both nations also disagree on whether certain means justify the end when it comes to how a strong government system gets things done. But recent progress with enabling entrepreneurs has been remarkable for a nation that only adopted a market-based economy 20 years ago. Our communities of entrepreneurs are reminding us how very far we have come as economic partners walking the same road in pursuit of broadly similar dreams. The entrepreneurs and city officials trying to help them that I saw last week were no different to New Yorkers doing the same. The cobbled streets and converted storage buildings on the river bank that housed Digital October and the soon-to-open API Moscow accelerator could have served as a movie set for a story in Brooklyn about New York’s bohemian startup scene. And the kindness and warmth offered to the foreign delegations that showed up from every G20 nation this last weekend was as welcoming and earnest as the gracious southern hospitality in the United States. It is time we let our entrepreneurs lead, inspiring us to be better by focusing not on our differences but the great things we can do together. The G20 Young Entrepreneurs Summit this week and the peer-to-peer engagement and policy conversations at the Global Entrepreneurship Congress next March in Moscow will enable entrepreneurs do just that. Who knows, perhaps after all they are today’s strongest force for world peace.

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