I recently had lunch with Siamak Alian, an entrepreneur who emigrated from Iran to Sweden in 1989. Although Siamak had a degree in nuclear physics from the University of Teheran, he quickly began studying at a Komvux adult education centre for a high school equivalent degree in electrical engineering. Having combined studies with work since he was eight years old, Siamak began thinking about activities he could pursue alongside his studies. Together with his brother in law he started an import company. Their only capital being the money they could save from his student loans and grants.
The company, which was founded in 1991, focused on importing goods ranging from children’s clothing from Iran to can openers from Taiwan. The year after, Siamak and his companion started importing computer related products, such as hard drives and mouse pads. In 1992 their company, which was still a part time activity, had a turnover of 100 000 kronor; the year after that it had a turnover of one million kronor. When Siamak and his brother in law sold the company in 1997 the turnover was fully 85 million kronor.
Siamak is a good example of the kind of individuals that are so much needed in Sweden; entrepreneurs who are willing to take risks and work hard for ideas that they believe in. Of course, not everybody can found a multimillion kronor company. But that’s not the point. A single moderately successful company does not hire as many people or create as much economic value as an unusually successful company, but a handful of small and medium sized companies will do just that. And the more entrepreneurs we have, the greater are the odds are that highly successful firms will be established.
As Siamak himself put it, Sweden has many of the prerequisites for being a good country for running a business. On the whole, one could say that Sweden has good infrastructure, limited corruption, political stability and high educated people. One factor that has made Sweden fall from being one of the richest countries to an average industrial country is policies that punish entrepreneurship.
But another factor is people’s attitude towards capitalism. Entrepreneurs are associated with greed rather than hard work and innovativeness; profit interests are automatically regarded as a destructive force. On a personal level, it isn’t OK to be openly proud of one’s career successes. The Swedish dream is to be moderately successful. Anymore than that and people start looking down at you. When the social rewards for entrepreneurship are diminished in this way, fewer are attracted by the prospect of becoming a successful businessperson.
It is thus important not only to strive towards political reforms that open up the Swedish economy, but also to present a more positive view of entrepreneurship. Luckily the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise has launched the campaign “Fri Företagsamhet” (“Free Entrepreneurship”) to do just that; show the human face behind business and encourage people to themselves take up roles as entrepreneurs.
This campaign has an interesting historical background. During the seventies, one of the organizations that would later found the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise launched a campaign featuring “The tethered man” – a symbol of entrepreneurs struggling against a socialist system. During an age where the social democrats were working towards removing private ownership and putting all companies in the hands of the labour unions, the tethered man became a strong symbol for those who believed in ownership and a free economy.
Today the message is renewed. The tethered man has broken from his chains and is looking towards creating opportunities in a globalized world. Can this symbol of free enterprise change people’s perceptions of capitalism and capitalists? Can the tethered man transform Sweden into a country where it is no longer shameful to become rich, and where more people strive to do just that? A single campaign cannot change nation’s attitude, but one can only hope that it will give a nudge in the right direction.
Fri Företagsamhet’s website: www.friforetagsamhet.se
Nima Sanandaji is the president of the Swedish free market think tank Captus and publisher of the weekly online Swedish magazine Captus Tidning. He is also a PhD student at The Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.