My blog post last Monday on disrupting entrepreneurship education prompted several people to reach out to me with comments about progress being made in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (recognized officially by some as FYROM and others simply as Macedonia) – somewhere I had not previously viewed as bastion of entrepreneurship. As part of our ongoing discussions about the region leading up to the GEC2 in nearby Croatia, I decided to dig further into what Macedonia is trying to test for the Balkan region.
The Republic of Macedonia gained its independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991. Since then, policymakers in its capital city of Skopje have achieved a considerable degree of political and economic stability, such that accession to the European Union is on the table. The Macedonian government has also been working on a top spot globally in terms ease of doing business.
From 2008-2011, the country simplified and updated its one stop shop to make it easier to start a business. It now ranks among the top ten places worldwide for the ease of starting a company, as reported by the World Bank. It also ranks among the top three in the world for the ease in getting credit. However, as we all know, building it does not necessarily mean they will come. An unemployment rate of 31.3 percent in a country of only 2.1 million people is driving some deep thinking in terms of talent and the education system.
The Ministry of the Economy has been trying to both change perceptions of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship as well as help Macedonians hone the skills needed for detecting opportunities and evaluating risks for starting businesses. The Agency for Promotion of Entrepreneurship of the Republic of Macedonia (APERM) was established as far back as December 2003 under the Ministry of the Economy in accordance with a new law calling for a national institution to support entrepreneurship and small business development.
Experts on the ground remain unconvinced, or at best unsure about the real impact of this institution. Entrepreneurship policy seems more associated with the Ministry of Education and Science. Igor Nikoloski, advisor to the Minister and member of the Government Committee for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, has been recognized as a leader behind capacity-building efforts and coordinating regionally with the European Training Foundation (ETF) and the South East European Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning (SEECEL). Through these knowledge exchanges, the Ministry has incorporated Life Long Entrepreneurial Learning (LLEL) into the National Strategy for Macedonia.
Macedonia has also requested bilateral cooperation for its entrepreneurship quest. In 2009, the National Centre for Development of Innovation and Entrepreneurship Learning (NCDIEL) was established with financial support from the Austria Development Cooperation (ADC). The Centre is located at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering of the Saints Cyril and Methodius University, and operates as a not-for-profit and non-government organization for working with innovative, technology-based for-profit orientated ideas.
It is not surprising that the tech community is credited with most of the impact to date in terms of the most recent startup waves. For example, DoxOut, G6 Solutions, Cosmic Development, and Tesseract Interactive have emerged as successful ventures in recent years. DoxOut, launched in 2012 as a cloud-based office suite program, has been featured in international media platforms, such as on TechCrunch and GigaOm.
CEO and co-founder Ivan Ivanovski of Tesseract Interactive, a game-development studio, outlined how they began as an incubated project at the Bulgarian seed and acceleration fund LAUNCHub. They then used events like the Macedonian Code Camp in 2012 and the Balkan Venture Forum Game Corner to drive their startup development.
Responding to the demand for early-stage support systems, the Youth Entrepreneurial Service (YES) Foundation has opened the YES Business Incubator with a focus on young entrepreneurs in the IT sector. In addition, the YES Foundation offers a plethora of activities for startup entrepreneurs, such as Start-up Kids and Venture Out. Along with another independent accelerator, SuperFounders Start, the networks at the Macedonian Chambers of Commerce and the Macedonian Enterprise Development Foundation (MEDF), YES is offering valuable resources to a nascent entrepreneurship ecosystem in Skopje.
Promoting entrepreneurship in the education system remains the primary public sector focus and the smart bet for Macedonia. As evaluated by the Global Entrepreneurship and Development Institute, the country scores well below global and regional averages in opportunity perception and risk acceptance. Moreover, an entrepreneurship mindset could multiply the economic impact of its rise in new doctorate graduates and population aged 30-34 with completed tertiary education.
A mindset shift will be key to avoid brain drain. The latest Gallup Balkan Monitor Report (2010) said 58 percent of Macedonians surveyed believed that better opportunities could be found abroad, and a third would ideally like to leave their country.
There are of course many other policy areas that intersect with entrepreneurship, and it will take a lot more work for Macedonia to make systemic conditions favorable for entrepreneurship. The positive start on the educational front risks being undercut by lingering weaknesses and corruption, which particularly plagues procurement, the protection of property rights and the overall judicial system. In a 2012 report, the European Commission noted the lack of significant progress made on judicial independence, impartiality, and competence. Furthermore, labor codes also discourage dynamic job creation, according the Index of Economic Freedom. The government would be wise to address these areas in parallel.
Nonetheless, the fact that the country has decided to build cultural capital for entrepreneurs through entrepreneurial education is a step in the right direction. We expect Macedonian representatives at regional discussions of the GEC2 in Dubrovnik on September 24, 2014.
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