Interviewing the Founder of the Global Entrepreneurship Network (GEN) – Jonathan Ortmans

Transcript follows


We’re here at the Global Entrepreneurship Congress, and I’m here with the Founder, Jonathan Ortmans.

Jonathan, we just saw African delegations come up and singing. We saw the Hong Kong delegation before that.

And I quote you, when you started out saying, “We wanted the world to know Silicon Valley didn’t have a monopoly on entrepreneurship and that we wouldn’t judge the citizens of a nation based on their geopolitics.”

What I loved about that was the follow up that “..the raw talent in Silicon Valley was not generic or unique. It was a combination of factors.” And this was your theory of change, that this was out in the world. How is it going?


Well, you know, it’s going very, very well.

I think we were totally surprised when we began asking people around the world if they understood what entrepreneurship was about.

Part of the result we got at the beginning was that people were shy about it or they affiliated it with behavior by corporations that had left people displaced or discouraged in the past. And so we needed to explain to them that this is something that can be built and grown from the bottom up. It’s about creating, forming teams. It’s about dreamers, builders. It’s about people who take risks and improve the lives of other people. When you put it in that notion of it being a creativity exercise and say it just requires a series of ingredients that could be found in any community, then all of a sudden we’re in a much stronger place to convince people that, as you said, this doesn’t just happen in Silicon Valley. And so it’s going great. We’re very excited. Over the course of these years, our programs are now in 200 countries, and we’ve deepened our engagement in specific countries.

There are countries that we go through periods, the pandemic really slowed things down that we were doing in China. Geopolitics always makes it harder for us to work in some parts of the world than others. For many, many years, I first started visiting and working in Russia, for example, in the nineties and for many years we were operating in 32-33 cities throughout Russia. But, a big war comes along. It’s very difficult. Lots of things change, funding changes often and the people change. And, at the end of the day, we stay focused on how can we help the entrepreneurs in the ecosystems in those regions and not who’s the flavor of the day or who’s not the flavor of the day in the eyes of the average person reading the headlines of the newspaper.


And what are these tenets or pillars or ingredients that need to be combined in a country?


The first thing to mention is, entrepreneurship is messy. People turn around and say, how do you replicate Silicon Valley? You can’t replicate Silicon Valley. These ingredients make up things like, first of all, confidence, the belief that actually you can do it. Secondly, empowering the younger generation in your society, we did actually go out to people and said, just go out and break something. Go out and be disruptive. Figure out, there’s got to be a better way of doing things. And then I think you need to make sure that you understand that innovation doesn’t occur like it did 20 years ago.

A lot of people recently have seen a movie called Oppenheimer where they talk about how the atomic bomb came into existence? In those days you had a big project, where it’s driven by war, security, pandemics, or just simply something exciting. Like we do a lot of work in Space. Governments would turn around and say, we’re going to throw a ton of money at something. In the case of that, we’re going to create a field and we’re going to put all these people in it and find the smartest people and tell them to go figure out the problem. That’s actually not the way it works. You have to plant all of these seeds and you have no idea which little Community Innovation Centre, Startup, Community, University or any other kind of institution is going to actually have breakthrough answers to that. So we have thousands and thousands of ecosystems. We connect them because we know that the true idea is at the intersection of those disciplines and cultures. And so the idea is you have to create a culture that people trust each other and allow those innovations to occur.

So those are some of the major things. I will say that at the end of the day, it’s not so prevalent in the United States, but, you have to have at least the bully pulpit, at least the moral support, at least the blessing of the government.

People often leave the government out. You’ll notice that here at the GC, we have a Ministerial. We have something called the Startup Nation Summit, which is all the government staff and policy advisors and research and experts. You know, Government sets the rules and incentives and you have to make sure you’ve got government at the table. But it’s not a top-down experience. Entrepreneurship is not something that you come up with a plan and you execute the plan and you got top to bottom. Here’s how you do it. You know, it’s not as easy as that. It’s gloriously messy, it’s fun, it’s creative, and it’s definitely global.


Just before the session, we were talking about the virtuous circle of stakeholder engagement and including what we want, what our social community wants, our stakeholders want, and also what the government wants and making sure we keep talking to all of these consistently. What’s something you’ve changed your mind about in the last year in relation to Entrepreneurship and the Congress?


I think one thing I’ve changed my mind about is that I thought we were further along than we were in terms of globalization and one global entrepreneurial ecosystem. We looked at the campaign we did at the beginning, which was to sort of rally communities across the world called Global Entrepreneurship Week, and that was targeted at going to every school and university and local organization we could find in every city. And to get the people who understood the word new firm or entrepreneur or creative person to say, okay, now got into your community and get a lot of people off the street and tell them at some point in your life, you too could be someone that could build something or disrupt something or work for someone that’s doing that.

And, we felt at one point we started to look at it in places like Singapore and Berlin. And we suddenly realized we thought maybe our job is done. Maybe entrepreneurship is truly accepted and loved around the world. And that maybe actually now it’s just a question of implementation. We’ve actually, as we say in the startup world, we’ve actually figured out the product and we’ve got the product fit and we’ve scaled it, now we just have to work out how to help the other people come along. I think the thing that I’ve changed my mind about is a little bit our work has lots of work to be done because the geopolitical tension, the clustering of countries, have created a new challenge for us and the challenge is we have to figure out how to allow innovation to occur, how to allow borders to be still porous to innovation, how to allow the builders and the creators to still form teams across borders while at the same time there are lots of their fellow citizens that will turn around never having visited a country, don’t know anything about the people there

But they’ll turn around and say, “Well, I don’t know. Why are we doing anything with that country? Aren’t they horrible, evil, nefarious people?” And we can look at that and then, there’ll be a story about Tik-Tok in the United States and suddenly every American’s like “I don’t know why we would ever do anything in China” or I could give lots of examples. I don’t want to pick that one out. So we maintain a very open mind and we just essentially say we’ve got a lot of work to do, though that’s something that I’ve changed my mind about. We’ve still got a lot of work to do to maintain the global characteristic of this innovation ecosystem.


Final question. I believe your father was the captain of the HMS Britannia, which was the royal yacht. He looked after the royal family. What did you learn through growing up in a military environment?


Wow, I didn’t know anybody.. I don’t know where you got that information, but it is true. Yes. My father was the captain of the Royal yacht Britannia. You know, he was a submarine captain. And rather unique, actually, because he was a Catholic and I think the first Catholic Captain of the Royal yacht. So, you know, traditions.. that was a tremendous experience for our family.

But I think the thing I walked away from it with was the true value of traditions, the value of leadership and traditions being in the hands of people, that you don’t give them all the power, but you give them all the respect. I think it’s easy if you’ve never had any interface with something like a royal family. We actually had a wonderful reception at Government House here in Melbourne and the governor welcomed us and it felt like we were going to Buckingham Palace, frankly. And I thought, you know, the certain traditions they were maintaining, but they didn’t put a ton of power in the hands of the governor, but they allowed there to be a long term continuity of certain basic traditions.

And I think that’s one thing that in the fast moving world, I mean, AI is a great example. AI is, as I said to someone yesterday, one day I come home from work and I’m talking to my kids and they’re showing me laughing. And the next day they’re saying, okay, we need new rules. Literally the next day, they are like “I just discovered that AI will do my coding for me. But there’s no rules on the website Dad, in the school as to whether or not I’m allowed to do that.” Well, it’s only 24 hours old, and ChatGPT just came out. We’re just about to roll out version six now. But the point is, everything on that happened so fast and the dramatic changes that some of these technologies in every aspect of our lives will have on the world.

I believe that experience that we had as privileged as a result of my dad being a Navy captain and having that great experience, it opened my eyes to the value proposition of there actually being some, you can call them titular head of government, whatever you want to call it, of maintaining some long term traditions in order to ensure that you don’t lose too much of what a culture is about. I will say being here in Australia, we absolutely loved the welcome to country. That was as much a part of it as anything is, remembering that, this is about a very, very long term game. And at GEN, we’ve got a very, very long term mission. We’re planning on doing this for 25 years. So we’ve got a long term vision and mission, but everything changes so quickly. I loved learning a little bit about paying respect to some of the traditions in society.


We’ve named our streets, King, William, Queen & Elizabeth just next to us. It’s baked in. – Thank you so much for your time! –


Thank you very much for having me.