As head of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center, I occasionally travel and learn about entrepreneurship on a global scale, gaining knowledge and perspective to help us be more effective in our mission at home. And a trip I just made to Romania belies the common assumption an innovation-based entrepreneurial ecosystem requires the presence of an “MIT-like” anchor university (Technion in Israel, Stanford in Silicon Valley, IIT in India).
In Romania, I found a country with a growing and vibrant IT entrepreneurial community – even though it lacks a single university in the top 500 in the world. As I met dynamic entrepreneurs and heard stories of their friends, a pattern emerged: Most have never studied computer science at a university and some did not even graduate high school. (They note that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg didn’t graduate from college, either). Because Romania is a poor country where life is often hard, people must be especially creative to get ahead. Necessity is the mother of invention and, in this case, entrepreneurship.
There is optimism in the air, partly a result of Romania joining the EU four years ago. That is helpful, but I’d like to focus on the “adjita” (an Italian-American word for stomach agitation) that drives things in this situation. The Romanians are learning programming without formal institutions to train them, which seems perfectly natural to them. They are driven and they have no choice. In my recent travels, I have also found thriving, robust entrepreneurship in Scotland and Finland. But if you ask people in these countries if they are good at entrepreneurship, their answer is “Oh, no.” This very humility and scrappiness is what gives these regional groups a higher propensity for entrepreneurship than their counterparts in, say, Germany, Russia, England, France, or Spain.
Should this surprise us?
Not really. As research by MIT Sloan Professor Ed Roberts has shown, immigrants in the United States are more likely than more comfortable, long-term American residents to start companies. As Eva Peron, who rose from the lowest levels of Argentine society and power to the very top, is described by narrator Che Guevarra in the immortalizing musical and film ‘Evita’, “Eva Peron had every disadvantage you need if you’re going to succeed. No money, no cash, no father, no bright light.”
So the moral of the Romanian tale is that while other factors, such as the presence of a world-class research institute close to MIT’s caliber is extremely valuable, never underestimate the importance of culture in creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem. Evita got it right.