I participated in a Birds of a Feather session earlier, titled How can we make Lac Léman into an entrepreneurial hub? — I found it a little frustrating to start with, but it ended up really lively and interesting.
One issue that I’d like to insist upon is the cultural component of the problem. It’s easy to dismiss it as irrelevant, but I think it’s a mistake, because culture is the constraint within which we work. I’d like to share a few thoughts on the cultural differences between the US and Switzerland. I’m not a sociologist, so maybe they’re a bit naive, but I think they make sense and we should pay attention to them.
Not to say that all is impossible “because of culture”, but I do believe that there are cultural reasons this area is not “another Silicon Valley”. I don’t mean that it cannot become a good place for entrepreneurs. I hope it can, but if it can, it will be in a rather different way than the US, and taking into account the cultural differences between the two areas.
Let’s look at the heritage of Switzerland and the US.
Switzerland is over 900 years old as a nation, and the people living in these areas have been occupying them for a looong time. (There’s immigration, of course, proof typing these letters, but our culture has not been shaped by it in the distant past.) We are stable here. We don’t move. We are the decendants of farmers and mercenaries, and people who decided to “go alone” (Schwytz, Uri, Unterwald in 1291) besides the big political powers of the time. Face it, we’re a bit better than our neighbours and we don’t really need anybody.
The USA, on the other hand, is a young nation, founded by adventurers or pilgrims who set off to cross the bloody Atlantic to settle on a new continent peopled by savages (that’s how they must have seen things at the time). Many would die. It was risky. It was the land for innovators, for those who were not afraid of new things, who would try to do things differently. Dream a dream and make it come true.
These are (part of) our cultural backgrounds. Now, you can go against the grain, there are exceptions, but to some extent, we are prisoners of our culture, or at least, we must work within it.
I think that this historical and cultural heritage can help explain why the US is often branded as “entrepreneur-friendly” (what is new is better, and innovators and risk-takers are the kings) whereas in Switzerland, we are seen as more risk-averse. As we say in French, we tend to want to chop off the heads that stand out from the crowd. Don’t draw attention to yourself. I think the Swiss are less naturally inclined towards self-promotion, for example.
Now, these are cultural trends. An atmosphere. It doesn’t mean you won’t find risk-averse Americans, or extraordinary Swiss entrepreneurs. But I think these cultural traits end up being reflected in our institutions.
For example, during the session, Lucie mentioned how many administrative hurdles an entrepreneur needed to go through here to even get *close* to receiving money.
Another thing that came up which rings very true to me is that in Switzerland, we are really very comfortable. And as employees, particularly. Things like a mere two-week notice (what seems current in the US) would be unthinkable here (you get a month when you start, and it goes up to two and even three months after a few years of employment for the same company). We have incredibly good unemployment benefits (over a year at 80% of your last salary).
Now, I would not dare suggest we give up the security we have here in Switzerland. No way! But we have to take this into account when analysing the situation. If we want to improve things for entrepreneurs here, we need to identify the problem and offer solutions to it. And those solutions need to take into account things that we cannot change, like cultural settings.
So, what can we do?
It was pointed out during the session that there are lots of local initiatives to encourage entrepreneurs, but they tend to be stuck in silos. An index of all the “happenings” here would be a good start. It was also suggested to bring Venture to Suisse Romande on the years it’s not happening in Suisse Allemande.
Discussion participants wrote ideas down on a big sheet of paper at the end of the session, and Vittorio said he’s make something available from the discussion page on the Lift conference website. Keep an eye on there. Things are going to happen.