A Way of Life in Medellín


Last month, an international selection committee picked Medellín, Colombia, to host the Global Entrepreneurship Congress in March 2016.  Ahead of my visit there later this week, it is easy to see why.  Medellín stands out not just as a city with an entrepreneurial mindset but as a place where new firm formation is a way of life.

The idea that innovation is a key part of a city's identity is not new, but as I have discussed previously, startups are beginning to be a top focus of cities across the globe. City policymakers worldwide seem to be more nimble than national governments at, for example,  adapting startup-friendly policies like direct citizen procurement or implementing experiential education programs and initiatives.

In Seoul, for example, city authorities are focused on the sharing economy as a basis for urban planning, forming a committee, which meets four times a year to discuss how entrepreneurs can foster and flourish from this strategy. In Eindhoven, the Netherlands, mayors are leveraging the job-generating power of the creative economy. The city of Medellín is partnering with civil sector organizations and entrepreneurs to accelerate the rise of the city’s entrepreneurial economy by focusing on plugging the city to the global startup community – hence its successful bid with national, regional and local stakeholders for the 2016 Global Entrepreneurship Congress (GEC) winning against strong bids from Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Compared to Chile and Brazil, Colombia is a latecomer in promoting startups.  Many were surprised when, in 2012, the Wall Street Journal and Citigroup announced that their finalists for the most innovative “City of the Year” contest were New York, Tel Aviv, and Medellín. This feat alone put Medellín ahead of some of the most popular global cities for startups. When Citi finally announced Medellín as the winner, I think mayors around the world were emboldened – realizing that smart cities anywhere in the world could clearly leapfrog to success.  

While the national context cannot be ignored, in too many locations around the world it has failed to translate into the same degree of energy we see at the local level. Colombia’s strong Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW) campaign led by Endeavor Colombia and its partner iNNpulsa Colombia has kept its focus local, despite the fact that iNNpulsa is a national policy tool institutionalizing entrepreneurship as a national priority. The public agency has been offering local training and subsequent seed money to new entrepreneurs, all while raising the profile of new business creators as key economic players.  Colombia has also enacted a law to specifically promote an entrepreneurial culture in an effort to set the tone for the nation embracing entrepreneurship.

Money follows ideas, and this is no exception in Colombia. While Brazil still accounts for nearly half of the region’s venture capital industry, according to the Latin America Venture Capital Association (LAVCA), Colombia now follows in weight alongside Chile. The national development bank, Bancoldex, is looking at the trend closely and looking toencourage growth of startup capital, including angel investment money. 

The recent OECD Development Centre’s Startup Latin America analysis also highlights what the GEC selection committee figured out, namely how critical it is to see the involvement of Colombia’s regional government in supporting startups to promote growth. Antioquia, the region of which Medellín is the capital, has engaged not just government but also universities. In fact, the Vice Chancellor at Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana was a part of the Colombian delegation to the 2014 GEC in Moscow last March where Colombia won the bid. The strategy reflects strong links between academia, entrepreneurs, industry and government around creating a map of ecosystem stakeholders that includes rock star entrepreneurs, iNNpulsa Colombia, entrepreneurship centers at universities, the city of Medellín, banking enterprises, industry associations, the Colombian Promotion Agency (Proexport), Endeavor Colombia, and private sector consultants and advisors to the government, such as entrepreneur-guru Luis Florez, who represents Colombia in the global  Startup Nations network.

Clearly, Colombia’s entrepreneurship ecosystem is not afraid of partnerships between new and traditional players such as business chambers and universities. In the case of Medellín, rather than managing the emerging of a new startup economy, its leaders simply focus on making it attractive for entrepreneurs. The city’s improvements in infrastructure are visible, with new modes of speedy and reliable public transport, schools that exude 21st century energy, and revived spaces with incubator and technology centers, like the public-private “Entrepreneurship Park”, and Parque E which leverages the University of Antioquia as a key knowledge partner in its innovation pipeline. The city has also recruited seasoned private sector actors with an entrepreneurial mindset, like Luis Felipe Hoyos as its Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, Science & Technology, Innovation, Internationalization and Public-Private Partnerships.

My visit to Medellín this week is the beginning of a two year lead-up to the GEC in 2016 during which I hope to learn a great deal and find new ways where both the city of Medellín and members of the Global Entrepreneurship Network that attend the GEC can mutually benefit from an exciting week of projects together in the city. 

Today, the city’s global image, once dominated by the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, has already changed to one about entrepreneurs as the stars of its present chapters in economic, political and social history.  The next three years will be about how this translates in practice to more new starts that scale to compete in the global marketplace.


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