Colombia is the fifth-largest economy in Latin America in terms of GDP. The country boasts one of the best coffees in the world, rich natural resources, abundant gold and emerald production, and a relatively educated populace. And despite its international reputation for drug cartels and violence, the latest Doing Business 2011 ranking suggests things could be improving. Colombia is ranked number 39 among 183 countries in terms of the ease of doing business.
According to Endeavor Colombia, the strong positioning in the World Bank´s Doing Business ranking is due to the fact that over the past four years the Colombian government and the private sector have worked on simplifying and reforming processes that promote entrepreneurship and new business generation. Consistent improvement in processes related to starting a business, dealing with construction permits, paying taxes and trading across borders made Colombia the #1 reformer in Latin America and #8 worldwide in the 2009 Doing Business report.
Endeavor has also observed that the Colombian government and academia are committed to fostering entrepreneurship in the country. As a result of recent initiatives, schools and universities are now required to include entrepreneurship courses in their curriculum. Some universities also participate in international entrepreneurship programs to further develop the talent of Colombians. For example, Universidad de los Andes partnered with the World Resources Institute and New Ventures to create New Ventures Colombia, a program that matches companies with local consultants and mentors to improve and sharpen their business plans, and also put together their pitches to present them to potential investors.
Beyond universities, several other approaches are taking root, including a new focus on incubators . Incubar , for example, works with young entrepreneurs developing businesses from knowledge exports, simulation and analysis to contemporary packaging. Then there are the partner organizations of Global Entrepreneurship Week / Colombia, such as the Asociación Colombia Soy Yo, the Young Americans Business Trust (Jóvenes Empresarios de las Américas) from the OAS, Devi SAS, Estrategia 10-26, and TecnoParque Colombia.
The media has also reacted to the power of entrepreneurship. Teleamiga, a local television network, broadcasts “Embrión” (embryo), a program which showcases new developments in entrepreneurship and innovation through interviews and success stories. Several channels have also covered the stories of the more than 300 activities in 80 cities during the recent Global Entrepreneurship Week last November.
But of special interest has been how many Colombians are capitalizing on any unique knowledge they have and creating new ventures that address the particular challenges faced by their country. Even where most see only chaos, entrepreneurial solutions have emerged. Think of Miguel Caballero´s product: bullet-proof fashion . This forty-something entrepreneur dresses presidents, government officials, businesspeople and celebrities in stylish bullet-proof vests, blazers, leather jackets, tuxedo shirts and even pajamas. His idea emerged from the brutal violence engendered by revolutionary movements, drug cartels, private militias and street gangs in Colombia. Today, he fills orders from around the world and showcases his products in boutiques in the major capitals of the globe.
Caballero defies all odds. According to two Cornell researchers, the violence plague in Colombia directly affects entrepreneurs’ ability to prosper by deterring entrepreneurs from networking and even from innovating. Their research revealed that the level of violence affects the likelihood that entrepreneurs introduce new products or services, or try to expand production or sales to new locations, even when most entrepreneurs in their sample did not experience violence directly.
Other entrepreneurs here are exploiting the potential of advanced technology to improve conditions in their country. In January 2010, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) selected the Colombian DUTO Engineering Company as one of the winners from among more than 150 proposals from 22 countries for its contest titled A World of Solutions: Innovations for People with Disabilities. DUTO represents a successful transfer of technology from university labs to the market. The company was created from a thesis project at the Universidad Tecnológica de Pereira. Its IRIS system allows children to use vibrations in their hands to identify shapes and colors in a computer.
Clearly, the country’s entrepreneurs, civil sector and government have been laying the bricks of an ecosystem of support for new ventures. I hope Colombia continues to show the world how entrepreneurs can look at the unique opportunities learned from their local market and become that force for peace and stability.
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Jonathan Ortmans is president of the Public Forum Institute, a non-partisan organization dedicated to fostering dialogue on important policy issues. In this capacity, he leads the Policy Dialogue on Entrepreneurship, focused on public policies to promote entrepreneurship in the U.S. and around the world. In addition, he serves as a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation.