‘Swedes are marvellous at creating elegant solutions’

'Swedes are marvellous at creating elegant solutions'
Stockholm Tech Fest 2015. Photo: Magnus Hjalmarson Neideman/SvD/TT
This is the time for social entrepreneurs to shine, entrepreneur Tyler Crowley tells Kirsten Zerbinis of Impact Hub Stockholm ahead of startup conference STHLM Tech Fest.

STHLM Tech Meetup is the Swedish capital's hottest get-together for entrepreneurs. Once a month, the Hilton hotel stage is where an invited panel of investors and journalists discuss a topic, three projects pitch and get feedback, and afterwards everyone retires to the bar. The bar, of course, is where the real action happens.

Tyler Crowley is one of the prominent faces of the STHLM Tech organization. For many years, the US native has organized events, spoken at conferences, given interviews, and worked in every way he can to promote Stockholm as a city for innovation and entrepreneurship. He has a ringside seat to the Stockholm innovation scene, and he predicts that entrepreneurship is about to change.

On August 16th, the STHLM Tech Meetup hosted a different set of panelists. They were from Norrsken Foundation, Impact Invest, Zennström Philanthropies and Impact Hub Stockholm. Crowley made a confession: he used to think that social entrepreneurship was not real entrepreneurship.

The social enterprise do-gooders belonged at the kids' table at the big Thanksgiving feast of innovation, he thought. They could never build unicorns, so why bother? Many venture capitalists share his view. The focus of most venture capitalists is on short-term gain and ultra-rapid growth. Social entrepreneurs are focused on other things: positive impact on lives, health, safety and sustainability. It takes a special kind of person to take on the wicked problems that affect society, and we should be grateful to those who choose the path of solving them, but they're not real entrepreneurs.

Crowley has changed his mind completely. The world, he says, currently grapples with many issues that public policy cannot provide solutions for. Policy is important, but politicians can only provide the setting an opportunities for others to take action. They bring focus to the issues that need addressing, but entrepreneurs have to build the solutions.

“My mission is to make entrepreneurs and tech developers wake up to the bigger problems that we should be addressing.” He thinks we're solving a lot of the wrong problems. “There's an app called AirPnP, which helps you find a place to pee, quickly. There's also an Uber-clone for quickly finding someone who will pick up dog poop in your yard. I get pitched almost every day, and these days I sometimes say, 'In ten years, the entire Middle East will be out of water. All the people who live there will have to relocate. How is Europe going to deal with that? What is it about your idea that's more important than the water crisis?'”

He's committed to using his position in the STHLM Tech community to bring attention to the projects and issues that matter. He thinks that Sweden is in a unique position to help meet the UN Global Goals, and that's why he added a new element to the upcoming annual STHLM Tech Fest: the Solutions Summit.

The Solutions Summit is like a regular startup event – hopeful, early stage projects have booths and pitch their idea to every interested passer-by, latter stage projects showcase their accomplishments in the hopes of attracting what they need to continue, and investors prowl looking for the projects that will be the perfect addition to their portfolios. Only this event is for innovations and organizations that focus on impact, not profit. The organizations participating as startups, partners and investors are working to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals laid out by the UN.

Social entrepreneurs have nothing against making a profit; many social entrepreneurs hope to generate enough profits to allow their business to be independent of grants and donations, and some hope to become personally wealthy through their business activities. It's just that a positive impact matters to them more.

“I think that impact should be the new metric that we strive to measure in every startup. Social entrepreneurs get looked down on. People wonder, 'Why are you bothering? You won't be a unicorn? But look at Bill Gates. He's in this game. He was always in this game. He started Microsoft hoping to make a huge change in how people live their lives, and that's still what he's doing.”

There is work to be done to smooth the interaction between government and business. “It's obvious that food and water are not just government problems; they are everyone's problems. Government can set policy, but they are not made up of innovators and engineers. So the innovators have to do the work.” But in Sweden, the government creates good policies and the population is quick to make a change once they have decided to do it.

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Tech Fest is one of the biggest events on the Stockholm startup scene, and Crowley is enthusiastic about adding the Solutions summit to kickstart the transition to a re-definition of entrepreneurship. “I can't think of a better place to start this transition, because Swedes have a much more global perspective than Americans do. They travel more and they look outward.” A global perspective and a high degree of community spirit makes them uniquely suited to tackling problems.

“From a geeky standpoint, Swedes are marvellous at creating elegant solutions to problems. They're not as financially driven. I think they like solving problems in order to solve the problem, and they like the idea of other people's standard of living improving. They are more sensitive to the message that we need to solve other people's problems, not just our own.”

“My hope is that investors, in pitch meetings, demand to hear the pitch for how many people are going to be impacted. But we need the investors to have a change of priorities. And they will. The money trail always comes back to the people. Venture capitalists aren't using their own money most of the time. They are using pension funds and sovereign funds. If these funds make a deal with the people whose money they're using, to change their priority, then we could see a dramatic shift occur.”

He admits that this is probably a fantasy version of events, and in reality, the change might not be dramatic. But it could be. The rise of the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement, green funds and ethical investment banks shows that there is a strong appetite to see a change in what money is used to support.

“Social entrepreneurs are not taken seriously by other entrepreneurs. It's regrettable. I want to make people see social entrepreneurship as cool night club for a change. Bill Gates isn't doing anything differently now – he's always been trying to solve the biggest problems on earth. He's still doing it. Elon Musk is a social entrepreneur.”

Does he think this approach can work in other places? “Yes, but a place like Silicon Valley is just massive, so it's going to take longer. I'm adding the same Solutions Summit to startup events in other cities, and it will work, but I think Silicon Valley will be one of the last places to embrace it.”

Article written by Kirsten Zerbinis, communications lead at Impact Hub Stockholm. STHLM Tech Fest takes place from September 4th-6th at the Stockholm Waterfront Congress.