Insight from 20 Years of Boosting Entrepreneurs

For over two decades of nurturing and networking at Entrepreneurs' Organization, Dean Lindal has had a close-up view of entrepreneurship around the globe.Lindal, former vice-president of global business development for the nonprofit, left this month to take a job with a real estate management company in his hometown of Victoria, B.C.The 42-year-old spoke recently to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein about changes he's seen over the years and the challenges entrepreneurs face today. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Karen E. Klein: You were involved with EO in its early days when it was YEO, the Young Entrepreneurs' Organization. Describe its trajectory.

Dean Lindal: We started out with a few hundred members. There were no formal membership dues but a lot of passionate, innovative, risk-taking people who agreed to check their egos at the door and help each other. I traveled to about 30 countries setting up YEO and then EO chapters and meeting entrepreneurs from all over the world. Now we have close to 8,000 members and chapters in 45 countries.

What did you see consistently in your work with entrepreneurs?

Entrepreneurship is an international language that cuts across all cultural and country and religious barriers and stereotypes. Japanese entrepreneurs and Thai entrepreneurs are trying to make payroll and manage their cash flow just like entrepreneurs throughout the global community, and they can connect with each other as like-minded individuals. I've seen it time and time again.

The other thing, the beauty of entrepreneurship really, is that it is so positive. You can't be a negative person and be an entrepreneur, whether your country has had an earthquake or a famine or civil war. The positivity is infectious no matter where you go, it really is.

It sounds like you've been inspired by your work.

I would have done this job for free if they decided not to pay me. Over the last 20 years, I've seen hundreds or probably thousands of entrepreneurs go from up to down and back up again. I've seen them battle back from bankruptcy. So many of them are simply not afraid of failure.

What would you say has changed in the past two decades for entrepreneurs?

In the early days, I think there was an appetite for risk-taking and innovation that isn't quite as strong today. Generally speaking, I believe entrepreneurs are more risk-averse today. That could be a function of how the global financial crisis has shaken people.

And somehow, in the early '90s, I think entrepreneurs didn't take themselves so seriously. There was an emphasis on crazy, chaotic innovation back then. It could be a function of how everything's so fast-paced now with new technology.

You've seen firsthand how much technology has changed the way we do business.

Oh, we were faxing and doing snail mail when we started. E-mail and technology makes everything so much simpler, but I think it's a two-edged sword. Certainly I think technology is dumbing down the human, face-to-face connection.

Another thing that's changed is that even startup companies today have to be thinking about emerging economies and the global marketplace. And governments are waking up now to the importance of entrepreneurship. Back in the early '90s there were a few countries that recognized it. Now it's almost universal.

What countries did you find were not as supportive of entrepreneurs?

Our initial launch of YEO in London failed. I went over there in about 1999 and gave a speech. But the government was not supporting entrepreneurship and there was no media for entrepreneurs, so people did not know about the amazing stories and role models. We found out that a lot of the networking was done through families and steeped in aristocratic tradition.

When we came back about three years later, we went in more aggressively and found there were two or three new magazines for entrepreneurs. That alone gave entrepreneurs more of a high profile and the government had started a small business ministry. That and the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year competition helped us start to gain traction in the U.K.

One place we have had no receptivity is France. We tried, it started out great, we had a couple of nice dinners, but at the end EO didn't take off. People told us the government is not a key proponent of entrepreneurship. But that was a decade ago and I think EO is looking to relaunch there soon.

What places were particularly receptive to the idea of an entrepreneurs' organization?

One market that embraced entrepreneurship completely was Malaysia. It was unbelievable how friendly and welcoming they were. They got it, big-time, and told us "We want to be part of this global community."

One thing I'd say about taking a concept global is that it's not one size fits all. Everywhere we went, we found we had to customize to the local marketplace. For instance, we launched in Japan early on and we took the time to understand and respect Japanese culture. Our mentor there told me that it would be very important to go around to all 50 people attending the launch and exchange business cards with every one of them. Some of my best friends to this day are from that launch function.

Some recent studies have shown that the most vital areas for entrepreneurship are in some of the less developed countries around the world. Did you see that?

I'm a big fan of Thomas Edison. One of his principles is that limitation is the springboard to greater creativity. I think in some of those countries the people are almost forced to be entrepreneurial because there are so few other opportunities.

I went to South Africa in 1997 and the entrepreneurs there were just on fire. The limitations in that country had forced them to think outside the box and innovate.

What things could change in the U.S. to improve the lot of entrepreneurs?

Entrepreneurs, any time you ask them what's the difference between succeeding and failure, will talk about mentors. I'd like to see an easy, streamlined system to allow those who want to mentor to be connected with entrepreneurs who need mentors. There are some organizations doing that and doing a great job, but we need more.

Better access to capital is another thing we always heard about. The banks just put too many strings on entrepreneurs. Over the last two to three years, I've seen some very vibrant alternative financing models pop up, in the angel stage mostly, to help support startups.

Why leave EO now?

You work for a nonprofit for 20 years and eventually it's time to move on. I have five boys and I got a chance to work with a company in my hometown, which is a great place to raise kids.

I also found an opportunity that is aligned with my values, rekindling a partnership with Brien Biondi, who was chief executive officer of YEO for seven years in the '90s. And it's in an industry that I'm quite passionate about, with a vision to be the best on the planet. I'm pretty competitive, so that appealed to me.