Why we need more founders and entrepreneurship in Baden-Wuerttemberg

Last weekend I had the pleasure to keynote at the Yeeha! Gründungskongress in Stuttgart. An event organized by Enterpreneur Talente e.V. – a foundation focussing on motivating young people to consider an entrepreneurial career. I used this opportunity to talk about my own entrepreneurial journey so far – with all the personal and professional ups and downs.

I believe that this kind of initiatives are very important and even more so in the Baden-Württemberg region. I was born here and I had the opportunity to grow up in this stable environment with a strong economy and lots of well-paid jobs.

My father moved here in the 60ies coming from Greece to create a better future for himself and his family. At the age of 17 he arrived here from Rhodes, Greece, where back then there was nothing to do for a youngster like him. All he brought with him was an extra shirt and a pair of pants. Thats’all. He literally started from zero. Growing up in 8-person house hold with just a mother who lost her husband far too early and struggling to feed her children in the rural area of the island – he had no other option than to leave his home and to look for a better alternative somewhere else. Later on, he went back to fulfill his military service duties in Greece, married my mom, whom he knew from school, and they returned together for just a few more years abroad. Fast forward 50 years – my parents are retired now and look back at a “rich” life, 4 sons and hopefully a few more decades to live. I wish that we will have many more years together.

You can imagine that my upbringing was based on certain values: get a safe job, work hard, save money and make sure to stay in this comfortable environment for the rest of your life. My parents wanted all of us to succeed and build our lives based on maximum security – something they did not have when they were young. They enabled us to get well educated and find decent jobs with great perspectives. They were right from their perspective.

However, this was not exactly what at least I had in mind for myself. I always played around with business ideas, always pondering how customer experiences I had could be better, I also invested in internet stocks in my teens side-by-side with my older brother, but I could not understand exactly what I was doing and chasing. It took some time to understand what my purpose  is and to “free” myself and create clarity about what I wanted. Today I know that I was trying to be an entrepreneur. I did not have a role model around me who could open my eyes sooner. Certainly, the values of my family were a good place to start from, but not what I wanted to be for the rest of my life. Family, society, friends, etc. have a huge impact on us – especially in our youth when we are still trying to find out who we really are and what we want to accomplish. In the retrospective it all makes more sense.

After completing my bachelor degree in Business at the university of cooperative education (BA) and working at Daimler AG/ smart GmbH for several years – I finally decided to move on and do my own thing in late 2010. Both my studies and my work experience would be useful for everything that followed. But leaving my job was obviously a big drama for my environment and especially my family who didn’t want me to take risks and leave the secure path I started on. Fast forward a few years I am still self employed, doing consulting work for several clients and I have founded my second startup 2,5 years ago. I have also made some investments startups in last couple of years. It was not easy for me to break free and actually follow this path. I know that there are lot of other young people out there who struggle to make the leap. I feel obliged to show them that there are different ways to succeed in life and that everyone can decide herself which way to go. We do have options!

Looking back at my experience as a young person growing up in Baden Württemberg in a house hold of immigrant workers I know that entrepreneurship is a concept which has been neglected in this region. There are simply not many entrepreneurs around here. Most youngsters do not know that it is possible to do your own thing because all they see around them is people working in pseudo-secure jobs at one of the big companies: Daimler, Porsche, Bosch, Stihl, etc. are all located in the greater Stuttgart area. Don’t get me wrong – these corporates are in many cases great workplaces with good working conditions and they have come a long way. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. But as much value as this companies create in terms of jobs and economic power, they also lead to a lack of entrepreneurial acitivity in our region. I coined it as the “graveyard of entrepreneurs” during an recent interview. They have created a massive comfort zone for our society. There is no pressure to “do” something new, youngsters are brought up chasing a career opportunity within one of these corporations. The number of young people who are willing to found or actually founded a startup is decreasing every year and although the big coporations have been a startup one day – most youngsters do not see that tackling their own ideas, founding a startup and living their dream is an actual option. All because of a lack of real role models around them and because all they see is people being employed and playing it safe.

I know that not everyone will and can be an entrepreneur, but we have to show young people that there are alternatives to being employed, that there are opportunities they can tackle and that some of them can found their own startup today or one day. We need talent that dares to follow their passion and unique gifts. For some of them this will mean that they should choose to become entrepreneurs.

I do believe that this region has the best preconditions to create its own startup culture and eco-systems. We don’t need to be a better Berlin or a second Silicon Valley, but we can be the Neckar Valley with its very own identity, strengths and initiatives. Imagine if we could combine the established powers with innovation and impulses coming from hungry and fresh minds. If we started investing in new ideas and opened the doors for collaboration between the old and the new economony to happen. In order to achieve that we need to grow the next generation of entrepreneurs who are willing to chase their dreams and see self-employment as a valid alternative to a secure job at a big corporation. But this means that we have to do something about it. We should stop educating the next generation of disciplined workers and consider growing an army of entrepreneurial talent instead. I think that it is the more experienced entrepreneurs themselves who can make the biggest difference in this matter by encouraging more people to dare more and by sharing their experiences with new entrepreneurial talents like I did last Saturday. We are role models these youngsters urgently need to understand that there is more than a paycheck to work for.

In the last 5-7 years alone I have seen a lot of movement and some first steps into the right direction have been made. Some really promising initiatives have been started, e.g. Startup Stuttgart, Accelerate Stuttgart or Startup Campus Stuttgart. But this is certainly not enough. We need to do more. It is our repsonsibility to ignite more fires within the younger generations. Therefore I hope to see more initiatives like the one manage here which will inspire entrepreneurial activity and drive the change required to allow more people to walk this path.

Part of this is also that we start to accept failure as necessary step towards growth. One has to willing to make mistakes in order to succeed. Every failure brings us one step closer to knowing how to do it right. It takes several attempts to become “lucky” as we’ve seen in so many autobiographies of sucessful people. I believe that this region has a bright future ahead – if we claim it and start combining the best of both worlds: experience with curious minds.

Let’s give ourselves the chance to be lucky again like the founders and innovators who build the foundation for the prosperity we live in today.

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