Helsinki in the wi...

Helsinki in the winter? It is for a good cause

By Toni Kristian Eliasz

Last month, we returned to Slush, a global start-up conference in Finland. During a dinner discussion, a colleague from Boston Consulting Group mentioned that only a few years ago a C-level executive would have been considered an oddball among the mostly young start-up entrepreneurs. But today, one would need to justify why top management is not paying attention. The conference even chartered a plane full of Silicon Valley investors to join 17,000 other participants in gloomy Helsinki.

A similar trend seems to be happening among policymakers and government influencers. The president of Estonia came to encourage start-up founders at the official Slush pre-party. Prince Constantjin of the Netherlands joined a fireside chat to discuss “Do Start-ups Need Governments?” And Matt Krisiloff, a research director of the world's most successful start-up accelerator, Y-Combinator, sat on a tech conference panel to talk about basic income. By this point, you know that the private sector is serious about figuring out its role to solve tough development issues that have traditionally been discussed at the local parliament café.

Even the tongue-in-cheek style sign didn't stop over 17,000 participants from around the world from spending a few days in Helsinki and keeping up with the latest in technology and start-ups. © Petri Anttila/Slush Media. Even the tongue-in-cheek style sign didn't stop over 17,000 participants from around the world from spending a few days in Helsinki and keeping up with the latest in technology and start-ups. © Petri Anttila/Slush Media.

Having collaborated with Slush and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland last year, we returned to bring start-ups and tech hub managers from emerging markets to experience a world-class event while learning and mingling with their peers. I knew that this year we should continue the collaboration, but also expand it to include a tailored program for policymakers.

The idea behind the policymaker track is simple. In order to anticipate disruptive technologies and to enable the private sector to play a proactive role in promoting inclusive growth and reducing poverty, policymakers need to know what is happening and which boundaries are being pushed by today’s innovators. It’s one thing to read about what the private sector is up to from the mainstream news channels and another to remove yourself from the familiar office and hear one of the top investors in the world, Dave McClure, note that you need a critical mass of least 50 million people to set-up a national fund. And of course, the best conferences are those that provide participants “aha moments,” similar to what Derrick Kotze, the mLab Southern Africa CEO, experienced about the Trust Culture as the secret sauce to support innovation in Finland.

Slush was definitely one of the main start-up events of the year, even on the global scale. But according to a study by Slush and PwC’s Strategy&, only 11.6% of the 1,859 startups at Slush represented emerging markets, including Africa (2.0%), Middle East & Asia (8.3%), or South America (1.3%). Yet these markets provide some of the most attractive opportunities for the private sector, and it is only a matter of time before the first start-up unicorns from regions like Africa hit the news, which is why top CEOs like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg are familiarizing themselves with the ecosystem and visiting technology hubs such as World Bank-supported iHub.

Sangu Delle sharing at Slush 2016 “How Entrepreneurs Are Transforming the African Continent.” © Toni Eliasz/World Bank Sangu Delle sharing at Slush 2016 “How Entrepreneurs Are Transforming the African Continent.” © Toni Eliasz/World Bank

I think that as important as it is to expose our partners to topics like virtual reality, space technology, self-driving vehicles or other “moonshots,” it is our role to demonstrate to the global audience what is happening in the Global South, and what the possibilities are for entrepreneurs to build a scalable business and positively impact millions, or even billions, of lives.

As much as I’d like to host a delegation of new policymakers in Helsinki next year, I also hope to be able to facilitate a group of top investors, academics, and technology evangelists to test the waters outside of their comfort zone and take a look at what the entrepreneurs in Africa or Asia have to offer — and get them excited. Good ideas are dime a dozen, but we might just have something in up in our sleeve, so stay tuned.


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