Can Europe Become an Entrepreneurial Society?

Richard StraubPosted by

In his landmark book Innovation and Entrepreneurship, published in 1985, Peter Drucker described the tectonic shift that he perceived in its early stages—the move from an employee society toward an entrepreneurial society. This shift was, and still is, being driven by unstoppable forces such as changing demographics and ever-hastening advances in information and communication technology.

As Drucker lays out what this new society should look like, he builds upon another great thinker of Austrian origin, Joseph Schumpeter, who had positioned the entrepreneur at the heart of capitalism – as the life force of a market-based, competitive, dynamic and wealth-creating economy. The question for Europe is: Has this sea change happened? Have we seen enough “creative destruction” to meet Drucker’s vision? Have we seen enough new companies and industries emerging from Europe during the past 50 years and taking leading positions in global markets? Regrettably the answer is a resounding “no.”

With an overblown social protection system and a state that has become in a number of countries obese and suffocating, it has become more difficult for entrepreneurs to develop and sustain their businesses. France provides a sad example of a nation that adheres to an anti-business and anti-entrepreneurship attitude, with a president who does not like those who were successful and hence may have made some money; “les riches” are despised and insulted by media and large parts of the public.



In a recent seminar for the Board of the European Institute of Technology and Innovation  -the first broad-based entrepreneurial venture to receive seed funding by the European Commission – the challenges for an entrepreneurial Europe were laid on the table.


Broad consensus appears to have emerged that the way beyond the current financial crisis will not be achievable only with austerity. Something positive and constructive is needed. And this is where entrepreneurial attitudes and capabilities come in, be it starting up new businesses, “intrapreneurship” in large organizations, new ways of independent working such as freelancing and contract work – in short everything where individuals take responsibility for their lives and pursue opportunities to create value.

In order to move toward a new paradigm where entrepreneurs are appreciated, celebrated and supported two major areas must be addressed.

First, man-made obstacles for entrepreneurial action must be eliminated. Among them: crippling tax regimes, rigid labour markets, absurd laws where bankruptcy is treated as a criminal offence of sorts, excessive red tape and lack of access to finance, again due to mistrust in risk-taking. Interestingly enough, the Eastern part of Europe seems to be showing the way in the right direction while the Western European countries appear to be trapped in the anti-entrepreneurship and anti-business cultures. Remember former U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld talking about “old” and “new” Europe?

It’s important to note that entrepreneurialism does not mean abandoning social security. Rather, it requires finding better and more targeted ways to support and protect those who are truly in need.

The other fundamental area of change that’s required lies in the field of capacity building. While there may be quite a number of born entrepreneurs, Drucker rightly observed that there are just not enough of them. This is all the more true given that the need for entrepreneurial capabilities is not confined to business; it is just as important for non-profits, for health, education and even for public services. Hence, we need to form and educate entrepreneurs, and we must cultivate a deep and systematic understanding of the discipline of entrepreneurship.

As a discipline, entrepreneurship must be taught in the classroom as well as learned from experience and enhanced constantly by research. Colleges and universities—and high schools, too – should make the study of management and entrepreneurship mandatory, and not only for those interested in pursuing careers in business.

Dan Shechtman, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2011, has been a teacher for technology entrepreneurship over the past 25 years. Like others who studied at Israel’s Technion (Dan received his doctorate in materials engineering from there in 1972), he was exposed throughout his education to a strong entrepreneurial spirit – one of the keys, undoubtedly, to Israel’s innovation miracle. We are proud to have Prof. Shechtman as the opening speaker at the 2012 Global Peter Drucker Forum on November 15 in Vienna.

We have lost too many good years to make our European societies future-proof; unfortunately, more pain is on the way. But it is still not too late. We require lighthouses and role models. The EIT, with its focus on the Knowledge Triangle (Education, Research and Business), seems to be a step in the right direction.

The huge challenge for European Governments and policy makers at all levels is to “get it.” One of the most important tasks is to enable entrepreneurship as a foundation for innovation,  growth and as a consequence for employment. This is the time to stand for values and principles that may not have the majority in the opinion poll of the day. Are our politicians ready for that?


  1. Its all about getting them young in my view.

    The natural result of programs like , where self directed learning is the focus, is an increase in self determination and application.

    Europe needs to encourage self application rather than the current trend towards safety and security by avoiding risk.

    1. I agree, we need a culture where entrepreneurship is being accepted and fostered. The school system is too much focused on knowledge on not enough on skill development. And practical application of the competencies is usually not part of the curriculum! Therefore you can teach about entrepreneurship in class, but you can not develop entrepreneurs in class! The whole education system from elementary school to university can learn a lot from the dual education system combining apprenticeships in a company and vocational education at a vocational school in one course. Coderdojo seems to follow the right track!

      Entrepreneurship is a human ability to take ownership of an idea, to organize the necessary resources and to implement it. Entrepreneurship is one of the core human competencies. It can be deployed way beyond just economic activities. But it requires perseverance, zeal and passion. Entrepreneurship is about taking initiatives and responsibility. It requires skills like: Capturing opportunities and taking charge; resourcefulness; convincing others; finding creative solutions; reaching results
      We have been developing over 15’000 entrepreneurs in Poland during ten years based on real, actual cases of the participants. Our company helps companies to develop business cases for innovation based business development since twenty years. It is evident that innovation is composed of three core elements: creative solutions, business case and entrepreneurship. Lack of entrepreneurship is one of the reasons why Europe is not more innovative!

  2. This article points out why we are falling back as a result from our centralized, regulatory government as well as accreditation organizations who impose their control on all of our institutions. For example, public education is controlled by state regulations while non-government educational institutions are controlled through self-organized boards. This type of structure prevents free thinking from gaining a foothold, because collectively, the people running these two types of educational institutions decide on the policies and establish the requirements for students. This is a major reason why changing public education and gaining acceptance for reform is so difficult.

  3. This is an excellent question. Of course the enabling structures for entrepreneurship have to be in place and constraints removed but it seems to take much more than that to develop an entrepreneurial society.

    The evidence from the past is quite clear: enterprises are conceived in passion and born in communities of trust and practice. Some degree of stress also seems to be essential. Although the European recession seems to be providing that stress the responses to it may not be channeled in the right directions.

    In the past these communities have often been fringe communities of faith that were typically egalitarian and were in rebellion against what they saw as an oppressive, hierarchical establishment.

    Historically the best example is this of the Quakers and other Nonconformist communities in England during the 17th and 18th Centuries. Nearly 50% of the entrepreneurs during the 18th Century had Nonconformist roots. The Quakers pioneered the apprenticeship system and they prized learning-by-doing over what they called “head knowledge”. They were also the founders of human resources and marketing.

    Modern examples would be:

    Israel (See Senor and Singer, “Start-up Nation”) where the army and national service supply a social pressure cooker, where people from all walks of life bond together. The relationships formed during national service in the army under continual threat of war plus the technical focus on intelligence, encryption and a host of other technologies supply the seeds and the soil for enterprises.

    The Basques of Spain, especially in cooperatives like Mondragon, seem to have been much more resilient and innovative over the years. See

    The Mormons of America and the kind of training and experiences that they give to their young missionaries offer an excellent example of what is possible if young people are inculcated with virtuous habits and placed circumstances of modest stress.

    So the question is: Where in Europe are we seeing the formation of similar communities of trust and practice that offer paths to self-discipline and the ability to learn by example from excellent practitioners? What should governments be doing to supply bonding experiences for young people – reintroduce some form of national service that requires work in communities on really “wicked’ problems?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.