Interviews

"Companies with women in senior positions work better"
Sean Williams
09/11/2015
Germn Sierra
Sean Williams
Sean Williams is a professor and fellow at the Clemson University Spiro Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership (South Carolina), adviser of the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship and a member of the Upstate Carolina Angel Network. He has been a guest speaker at the Workshop on Creative Entrepreneurial Venturing: Champion Strategies on the Creative Landscape, an international entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation seminar organized by IN3 in October. Williams, who worked as an IN3 researcher from 2010 to 2011, has discussed the myth of the hero entrepreneur in addition to outlining the principle activities that should be implemented in Southern Europe to improve its entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Why has the entrepreneur become a hero of our time?

Look at the amount of media attention they have received. Steve Jobs has built a culture around both himself and Apple that is respected by a lot of people. And he did it by using skills such as creativity, brand building and personal charisma. That is how many people see an entrepreneur's profile as being. They identify him with the figure of the entrepreneur, the great hero. But there are thousands of creative and innovative people doing very good work. As I said in my presentation: We cannot compare ourselves with Jobs, Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Amancio Ortega (Zara) because they are the exceptions to the rule. The real heroes are the people who start businesses and make them work because that is an extremely difficult task. Part of my job is to give advice to those everyday people. I believe that focusing on the heroes makes the idea of getting a business off the ground seem more difficult.

We are often aware of the leading figure, but not of the team of people they have behind them. Which is why you talk about individualism within networks.

Many entrepreneurs believe that their business or product is exclusively their work; let's say they are selfish, but in a positive way. But as individuals they have a network around them. One of the main motivating forces for entrepreneurs is having creative autonomy but, at the same time, and this is paradoxical, they all have to create an ecosystem to achieve their goals and make use of a network. Great successes are achieved through the work of a large number of people.

You also discussed the issue of gender and pointed out that women are more successful as entrepreneurs because they are better at working their networks.

Historically, entrepreneurship was male territory but, on the whole, there are now more women entrepreneurs embarking on entrepreneurial projects. In the USA, they are now beginning to surpass the men. Globally, female entrepreneurship has been based on need. Despite the difficulties, because in many places women have less access to education, finance networks or well-paid jobs, these women have started small businesses in order to provide for their families. Studies show us that many women are successful because they plough some of their profits back into their networks, those that initially helped their businesses take off. This creates a very profitable system of mutual support, which is self-reinforcing. While men focus solely on reinvesting in themselves or in the growth of the business. Another pattern has also been observed: companies with women in senior positions work better. Businesses rely on the convergence of two elements: social strategy and tasks. And women tend to strengthen this relationship and communication factor. Happy employees work harder and more work generally translates into greater profits.

What differentiates a business owner from an entrepreneur? Business owners have been around for centuries but the word "entrepreneur" as it is currently defined is relatively recent...

The point of difference is related to whether, as a business person, your focus is on growth or maintenance. There are two basic components involved in entrepreneurship: mindset and innovation. Many companies concentrate on maintaining their existing system and do not innovate. The school of thought in traditional management is that risk has to be minimized as much as possible, while the entrepreneurial philosophy aims to maximize return. Another factor is the attitude to risk tolerance. Many companies do not take risks, while entrepreneurship is based on the hypothesis: "I have an idea and want to try it". It's a way of acting in tune with the premise of "What if?". Returning to growth, start-ups have another characteristic feature: their scalability. They can undergo rapid growth, which is why one of the key factors in entrepreneurship is scalability. It is one of the most important elements in attracting investors.

You have first-hand knowledge of the entrepreneurial ecosystems in the Americas, Spain and China. Do the religious, political and historical backgrounds of these countries lead to differences in their entrepreneurial cultures?

The religious component is a key one. In the United States, entrepreneurship is part of our culture and is closely linked to the Protestant tradition: the way people demonstrated that they were chosen ones and that God was smiling on them was through generating wealth. We are also very focused on the future: I suffer today but my reward will come tomorrow. In Spain, the tradition is deeply rooted in Catholic culture and the social protection system that took care of people. Here people were told, "We'll protect you, don't worry," while, in the United States they told us, "You'd better find a way to get ahead by yourself". In China, as a very ancient country, there is a group focus. Individual success is always reflected back towards family and ancestors. At a Chinese university, you will find a statue erected in honour of the first person to graduate from there and, under that person's name there will be a list of fifty or sixty of their relatives. Their message: this person is successful thanks to their ancestors ? when things go well, think of the common good.

Does that mean that Spain is less agile in terms of entrepreneurship?

Yes, Spain is slow, there is bureaucracy, a suspicion of wealth and the wealthy and a lack of interest from those who have the experience and money with regard to passing on knowledge to those who want to join the entrepreneurial ecosystem, although that is changing and there are some interesting initiatives taking place in Barcelona itself. There is a vast network in place in the US aimed at supporting entrepreneurs, both in terms of advice and money.

Europe has an ongoing obsession with creating a European Silicon Valley. Is that a mistake?

Without a doubt. Silicon Valley is a unique place based on its history, geography, the people working there, the companies that have shaped it and the local policies from which it benefited. I work on a programme called Technology Villages in South Carolina. As a state, it is one of the poorest. Taking that as a starting point, we use each city's individual resources to develop companies that are relevant to the people living there: agricultural, nuclear, automotive, robotics projects. I'm mentioning that here because it is a case of something different working for each region. Boston also has a lot of intelligence and resources but they haven't tried to replicate Silicon Valley: they've specialized in medical equipment.

As a result of the crisis, many sectors began to argue that children in school should be educated from an early age in the entrepreneurial mindset, towards generating wealth, while other sectors, critical of this approach, argued that introducing children to economic realities so early on was not advisable. What is your position on the matter?

I think these suspicions stem from misinterpretation. Entrepreneurship does not mean making money. It is about problem solving, creativity and innovation. Spain's public sector needs entrepreneurs; education needs entrepreneurs, because they are defined by an attitude focused on problem solving and seeking opportunities to improve things. Obviously that is historically linked to making money. I believe that the early introduction of such concepts into the world of education can only be a positive thing because it acts to stimulate creativity.

Some of the most successful entrepreneurs not only gave up their university studies, they have also made it their trademark...

They are freaks. Just as we only have one Leo Messi, we only have one Steve Jobs. He is one in a million. For every millionaire who dropped out of university there are tens of thousands who did the same thinking they would succeed and they have ended up without qualifications and without much room for manoeuvre and really the only way to improve their prospects is by going back to university. There is a movement in the United States led by Peter Thiel, who was one of the founders of PayPal, which says: university is not important. Actually, the message should be: university must change. We should not lose sight of the fact that there is a strong correlation between higher education and income.

A change in the employment model has been seen in recent years, one that is likely to become consolidated in the future. It's not about looking for a job, but about creating your own.

It's a very familiar cultural change for us in the US but an extremely traumatic one for you in Southern Europe. It will lead to a stronger economy in the long term because individuals will be able to control their own destiny and it will result in increased innovation because innovation needs lots of people working on innovative projects. I also believe that it will create a more robust business creation ecosystem. In the short term it is difficult to digest: that's why I think that the more people that have a grounding in the concepts mentioned above regarding creativity and design thinking as part of their basic education, the better. We can also view it as a change in lifestyle: you decide when you work and when you don't. This equates to greater freedom, but also to greater responsibility.

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