Linda Rottenberg, cofounder and CEO of Endeavor, a non-profit that focuses on boosting entrepreneurship, suffers from the quintessentially American bug of relentless optimism. It is easy to get carried away by her upbeat outlook, to forget the depressing resilience of the Greek crisis and to dare believe that anything is possible.
“I’m very proud of what’s happening in Greece and the small part Endeavor has played in it,” Rottenberg tells Kathimerini. “The quality and number of entrepreneurs with global ambitions, but who are also totally committed to making a difference inside Greece, is growing exponentially. And the support of our board and the mentors is so genuine and open-minded that it fills me with enthusiasm.”
How was the decision made for Endeavor to expand to Greece in 2012, in the depths of the crisis? “This is exactly what my friend Andrew Ross Sorkin asked me on ‘Squawk Box’ [on CNBC]. I told him than when an economy is on its way down, that’s when entrepreneurship picks up. So if we could support some entrepreneurs who chose to stay in the country, or some who chose to come home and create something new, then this would have huge symbolic value. And what has impressed me since is that the project was so successful in Greece that it drove us to expand also to Italy, Spain, Ireland, as well as secondary US cities.”
Born and raised in Massachusetts, a graduate of Harvard and Yale Law, Rottenberg soon realized that she had no interest in practicing law. As she tells it, certain professors “took pity on me” and sent her to Chile and Argentina to oversee some new educational and publishing projects. “It was the mid-90s,” she recalls. “Steve Jobs was coming back to Apple. There was a lot of excitement around entrepreneurship in the US. And yet in Chile, Argentina and other countries in the region where I spent some time – Brazil, Mexico – no one was starting any companies. Their own hope was to get a government job.”
This all sounds very familiar to Greek ears, I note. “This is exactly what we’re hoping to change!”
Observing this waste of human potential – like university-educated engineers driving taxis – Rottenberg took action and cofounded Endeavor in 1997 “to support crazy people with big dreams, but want to execute too.”
How much easier is it to found a startup today compared to 20 years ago, with the new digital tools that the evolution of technology has made available to everyone? “From a technical standpoint, it is easier. You can start a company from wherever you are, you don’t need a lot of capital in most fields. But you still need the inspiration. Most people don’t give themselves permission to pursue their crazy ideas. That is why success stories matter for an economy. This is what we discuss with our Endeavor entrepreneurs – including those behind Workable, Hellas Direct, Blueground, Pollfish but also Ergon, on whose premises we are meeting today – the idea that it’s now their responsibility to tell their stories, mentor the next generation, invest in developing the local business community. This creates the multiplier effect that allows individual success to evolve into an ecosystem.”
However, the osmosis in a vital business ecosystem requires a crucial social virtue: trust. How can this be built in a country rated in Europe by most such indicators as a zero-sum pursuit?
“Look, 20 years ago teams came to us and asked us to sign non-disclosure agreements. I would say Endeavor would never sign something like that! First of all, it’s all about execution. Second, if you’re scared that someone is going to steal your idea, then you’re never going to trust anyone and you’re going to stay small.”
Endeavor, Rottenberg explains, gains the trust of the companies it works with by aligning its interests completely with theirs: the non-profit component offers mentoring services to guide as they scale, while co-investing in them whenever they secure funding above $5 million.
Endeavor specializes in scaling up. What dangers does a firm face as it emerges from startup status to major new player in its market? “Most problems started with the entrepreneurs themselves – they turn their companies into one-man shows, they create cultures in which it is impossible for those working for them to tell them they are wrong. For us it’s a fine line: we always support the entrepreneurs, the people whose ideas build the companies, but we are against their elevation to cult-like status, as it can be damaging for their company.”
Speaking of the pitfalls of the excessive association of a company with one person, Rottenberg gives the example of Uber, whose founder, Travis Kalanick, is “brilliant” but “created a terrible culture.” She also mentions Facebook and the multiple crises it is facing with its founder Mark Zuckerberg still at the helm.
How does she believe the so-called “tech lash” of the last few yours is going to evolve? Will the popularity of the apps and the services of the tech titans end up overcoming the current unease, or will there be meaningful changes? “The problem in the United States is that venture capital funds focused on a specific business model, the ad-based model, which is now coming under fire because of concerns around privacy. As AI continues to develop, these are questions which we will have to grapple with as a society,” she says.
“But what’s fantastic about the companies we’re seeing in Greece and elsewhere, is that they use technology to improve people’s lives or solve real pain points. Emerging market entrepreneurs have a lot to tech their US counterparts on this front. They are placing users and their needs at the center of the business model, instead of using them to further develop the technology,” she adds.