A New Mood in Moscow As It Readies for March

I ended Global Entrepreneurship Week 2013 last week in Moscow just in time to see a GEW-themed bus driving around different universities, schools and gatherings while testing young peoples’ entrepreneurial skills and engaging them in the world of founding businesses. Skeptics in the international community might want to take a closer look at what cities can do – even in environments where there are persistent national barriers to new firm formation.

The Center for Entrepreneurship (CFE), one of the leading forces for advancing entrepreneurship in Russia, partnered not with the national government but with the Moscow City government. Taking the lead in conducting GEW across the capital this year, the city government catalyzed more than 200 activities in Moscow alone. Mayor Sergey Sobyanin’s team offered some remarkably effective city-level leadership in support of new businesses creation and growth.

While I was there I saw something for every stakeholder in the local entrepreneurship ecosystem. The CFE international conference on November 21st, for example, focused on entrepreneurship education in high schools – something you might not have seen as recently as five years ago. In partnership with Skolkovo Open University, the Moscow Central House of Entrepreneurs even offered an Entrepreneurial Film Festival throughout the weekend.

Led by Alexei Komissarov, an entrepreneur who now heads the city’s Department of Science, Industrial Policy and Entrepreneurship, Mayor Sobyanin’s team prioritized the promotion youth entrepreneurship and has been leveraging top global resources and platforms such as GEW, the G20 Young Entrepreneurs' Alliance and, in 2014, the Global Entrepreneurship Congress (GEC).

Mr. Komissarov is personally engaged in these initiatives, including last week’s official GEW closing ceremony, which to my surprise was far from a formal event but rather a youthful festival of entrepreneurship. Held at the Nagatino Co-working Center, the event was a show of entrepreneurial energy, color, sound, technology and excitement for the future. Pictures of youth working on their innovations and ventures decorated the hallway leading into the party. A glance at them explains why the city government is so inspired to give those people a chance.

Of note was how focused the startup entrepreneurs—who came from across the region to receive awards at the closing ceremony—were on the global aspect of the party. I had a number of questions about connecting with the global startup grid. Meanwhile, other communities from around the world sent videos to encourage more collaboration and cross border cohesion around their ideas. 

The local media too received an award for its role in awareness campaigns. Russia kicked off GEW 2013 with a multimedia press conference in one of the largest news agencies in Russia (RIA Novosti) that was supported and attended by government representatives as well as entrepreneurs and opinion leaders (see video here).

The Muscovites I met last week acknowledged that there is a long way to go. In a radio interview I did with Ilya Kopelevich, editor-in-chief of 87.5 Business FM, I was reminded that unemployment in Moscow is less than 1% which makes it difficult for leaders to support entrepreneurship on the basis of job creation. But I would report that the attitude was there—not in terms of disruptive political views but in terms of disruptive innovation that is welcomed by all economies no matter their political systems.

The city now brushes away winter blues and prepares to convene the next Global Entrepreneurship Congress (March 17-20, 2014) in the historic Moscow Manege—mere steps away from the Kremlin. It is getting ready to prove that Moscow can be as powerful as San Francisco or Berlin in terms of a vibrant startup culture and that the capital of one of the world’s “strong government” economies can work to reconcile a tradition of top-down government control with a recognition of the importance of bottom-up, organic startup communities.

The GEC each March is by far the largest annual gathering of the global entrepreneurial ecosystem—from self-professed coding “geeks” to startup-savvy policymakers. The Congress connects advanced and developing economies keen to leverage the power of entrepreneurs and their new firms. So the commitment from Moscow to host the next GEC is no small feat—it is great proof of a growing self-confidence in the potential of its own entrepreneurship ecosystem. That ecosystem is one where leaders are not shy to call practitioners from around the world to emulate their efforts in promoting a new venture creation. The Nagatino Co-working Center, for example, was inspired by similar spaces in Rio de Janeiro and Washington, DC. By the next GEW, every floor of the building will be open with startups and its very façade will be an invitation to explore the entrepreneurial path.

Moscow is not alone. Other Russian regions were also very active during GEW, with more than 700 events reported from across the nation to date. As a Center for Entrepreneurship board member—as well as a member of the global entrepreneurship community—I was pleasantly surprised with the progress on the ground in Moscow and throughout the country. I invite those who remain skeptical to show up show up in March in support of Russia’s entrepreneurs and their efforts to join the global startup community.


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