Singapore pushes 'entrepreneurial nation'

By Saira Syed
Business reporter, BBC News, Singapore

Image caption,
Can Singapore overcome cultural barriers and spur entrepreneurship?

The team at Jobs Bolega, a start-up from India, is hoping to transform the way workers find jobs in developing countries.

Jobs Bolega, which means "Jobs will now talk", is aimed at people in the lower-income brackets who may not have access to the internet, but have a mobile phone.

"Using mobile voice technology, essentially we are getting employers and employees in a network like LinkedIn to get them a job," says Krishanu Dutta, a founding member of the team.

"We are creating a voice resume (CV) for them."

Krishanu and his team have come to Singapore as part of an accelerator program for start-ups from around Asia to develop their business ideas.

Jobs Bolega, and the other start-up teams from around the region, have 100 days in which they receive mentorship from experienced entrepreneurs and specialists, after which they will pitch to investors.

Image caption,
The team at Jobs Bolega hopes to create mobile "voice resumes" for low-income workers looking for jobs

The programme is run by Singapore-based Joyful Frog Digital Incubator (JFDI) in a partnership with a subsidiary of one of the region's biggest telecommunications companies, SingTel.

"I see Singapore as the technology and start-up capital of South East Asia, not unlike the US where you recruit from around the world and get them to come into Silicon Valley," says Wong Meng Weng, who helped to start JFDI, taking inspiration from the likes of TechStars and Y Combinator in the US.

'Entrepreneurial nation'

There is a growing ecosystem to support entrepreneurship in Singapore, which gives it its hub position in the region. A lot of it has to do with the infrastructure available here, the business-friendly environment and an active push by the government to remove regulatory barriers.

In 2003, one of the recommendations a government economic review committee made was to make Singapore an "entrepreneurial nation willing to take risks to create fresh businesses".

Less than 10 years later, Singapore ranks number one in the world for ease of doing business and number four for starting a business, according to the World Bank.

Universities and polytechnics now have entrepreneurship programs, as well their own incubators, and private players such as Founders Institute are seeing the opportunity to mentor young people starting out in new businesses.

Angel investors and venture capital funds alike are noticing start-ups coming out of the region.

It is considered a gateway to South East Asia, being a smaller market of five million people which investors use as a place to park their money but then invest in much bigger markets in the region such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

'No right answer'

But Ron Mahabir, founder of Asia Cleantech Capital, says the entrepreneurial landscape still needs time to develop, and resources alone are not enough.

His company invests in and develops clean technology projects in the region. It's a sector the government is eager to support.

Asia Cleantech worked with government agencies to bring the first electric vehicles to Singapore.

"While the government has done a great job of loans and grant programmes, culturally it's very difficult to push entrepreneurship very quickly," he says.

One of the reasons for that, he says, is that in Asia failure is just not acceptable yet.

"In California, if you fail that's not necessarily a bad thing," says Ron, who moved to Asia from the US to explore clean energy opportunities.

"But in Asia if you fail, it's tough to turn around from that."

Hugh Mason, chief executive of JFDI, agrees that fear discourages young people from the inherent risks involved in going it alone in business to the point where most won't even try.

"The emphasis traditionally here is on conceptual learning, and being smart sometimes weighs against entrepreneurship," he says.

"You're taught in school, it's all about getting the right answer - well, in early stage business there is no right answer."

Local heroes

There is a move towards changing that, and a growing number of people in South East Asia are willing to take on that uncertainty and high-risk environment.

"There are people right next door who have said to their parents: 'I'm going to disappoint you. I'm not going to be a doctor, I'm going to go start my own company,'" says Meng, pointing to the JFDI workspace, or the "jungle" as they appropriately call it.

Image caption,
One of the founders of a Singapore-based incubator says the region needs its own success stories

Ask the aspiring entrepreneurs who they look to for inspiration and they name the usual suspects: Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and other Silicon Valley stalwarts.

But some say what they really need are success stories from this region to emulate.

While there have been successful "exits" by local companies who have sold their businesses to bigger international players, there are few with the kind of star power that would get people to take the leap.

"Once the heroes do appear, and it's only a matter of time before they do, the stories will change, the greed will kick in and everybody will know that you can do a Facebook in Singapore," says Meng.

Perhaps one of those heroes will come from this room.

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