Spanish masters of the entrepreneurial universe

MADRID -- If most Spanish are unhappy at work, why don't they do anything about it? One public university bets on the risk takers.
Written by Jennifer Riggins, Contributor

MADRID -- There are 40,000 Googles a month for "entrepreneurship," with only about 1,600 coming from Spain. It's a country whose citizens will dedicate one, three, five years studying for civil servant exams, but recoil from starting their own business. But, in a refreshing surprise, it's a public university that is trying to alter this mindset and the course of Spain.

Complutense University, right here in Madrid, is entering the second year of its ground-breaking, privately-managed Master of Entrepreneurship. SmartPlanet sat down for coffee with two of its founders Javier Sanz Viejo and Peter Quinlan. They were inspired to start this program when their research turned up some disturbing results -- the university was actually uninspiring students.

"We were doing our doctoral [research] and we realized that the students' entrepreneurial behavior was much higher when they started [their bachelor's] than when they finished," Sanz says. Sanz is researching the emotional intelligence behind entrepreneurship, while Quinlan is studying the relationship between the size of public institutions and entrepreneurial spirit. Both have started their own businesses, both individually and as a team.

The students were "more likely to start a company when they started university. What we discovered was that the university was deterring them from starting their own business," Quinlan says.

He says their latest survey of graduates found that more than half of the students were planning to study for oposiciones, which are the Spanish civil servant exams for so-called jobs for life. Typical preparation for these exams, depending on the subject and position, can take up to five years of studying 12 hours a day, six days a week. Fifty-two percent is the average for Complutense University, however, it can run as high as 82 percent at other Spanish universities.

To compound the situation, more than half of the 30 and under jovenes population is unemployed. Many students are completing degrees without prospects, at least in their home country. Even if they find a job, it's a snail's pace to move up. "If you find a job, you'll be working for a thousand euros a month, tops, and work 60 hours a week," Quinlan says. Most first jobs or internships only earn less than 500 a month, if any.

Both Sanz and Quinlan have seen how unhappy and poorly-paid folks can be at work. "What holds a lot of people back is job security." Both he and Sanz have worked for various companies and "we saw many people hating their jobs." They found these people were unwilling to change because, "I've been here for 20 years, I'm not going to waste that." What they don't want to waste is lucrative severance and pension plans SP previously talked about. Someone who has been working at the same company for 20 years, beyond their monthly paro unemployment payments, will receive a check for two and a half years' pay, upon leaving their job.

Four years ago, the pair started developing the master's program that Sanz now heads, looking to improve graduates' quality of life and wanting to answer the question, "How can we help the students find their own jobs at the end of [their] bachelor's," Sanz says. "The best goal is to create their own job."

The Spanish are not known risk takers, but, if you don't have a job anyway, the risk is considerably diminished. "In this environment, with 50 percent of students unemployed, they don't have anything to lose. The opportunity is easy to try to [become] rich and start a company," Sanz says.

"Outside, the only thing you can hear about is the crisis," Sanz says. "One of the biggest mistakes about entrepreneurs is that they think they are alone." The master's program is, in part, a support group.

The basis of the master's course is developing the intersection of passion, skills, and specialties -- the ideal Venn diagram of someone starting a business. Sanz says, if you have these qualities -- which are very different from a natural manager's --, then, "It's not so difficult to find a marketplace, and you can make more money than if you work for someone else."

In this spirit, Sanz begins each course by asking students: "If you won a billion dollars in the lottery, what would you do?" Sanz elaborates the question for the students -- who usually say they'd invest it and travel the world -- "not what you're doing with the money, but with your life."

Some of the students come in with projects, some develop them along the way. Each week of the program, students -- whether in teams or alone -- must present their projects to the class, responding to criticism and advice from their classmates and advisers. "We really believe in the mistakes culture," Sanz says. "The methodology we use is learning by doing. This means that every week they have to make a change in their project." At the end of the one-year course, they have to present their projects in pitch form. If -- as with one graduate last year who came in with 23 projects, but couldn't make a decision --, the students haven't created their own business, they can then work a paid three-month internship at a proven start-up.

Students are given the unusual opportunity to visit start-up incubators in Silicon Valley, France, and Brazil to shadow real-life business starters in action. This is beyond the 3-D Experience, in which the students are mentored by small business owners. The program advisers will also help find angel investors for ready students. The point of the course is "more tangible than case studies," Sanz says. "Real companies with real problems."

"Many websites on the Internet -- even in Spain -- they recommend to go out of Spain," to start a company, Sanz says. He says this could be true if students are building a project with scalable investment, but the majority of successful projects can be smaller, self-funded, and based in Spain. This is especially true of service-based companies that require less investment up front.

By the end of last year's course, 13 out of the 16 students had successfully started their own businesses. These include Tapas y Tapas, a deliciously-integrated tourism app; AirportNap, an amazing venture that SP will talk about soon; and a company that resells Zara clothes on China's version of eBay for a large profit.

About half the students are Spanish, while the rest of last year's class were from China and Latin America. The average age is 30 years old, with students coming straight out of university and forty-somethings looking for their next step. The 7 to 10 p.m., Monday through Thursday schedule allows flexibility, with a third of the students unemployed, a third continuing education and a third attending while working full-time.

The program is entering its second year later this month.

Photos: Complutense University

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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