Dear President Medvedev: Stop Emulating Silicon Valley

Rather than wasting time and resources trying to recreate the ideal and impossible, consider these rules to jumpstart Russia's next entrepreneurial revolution.
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So you say you want a revolution? Let a thousand flowers bloom (Chairman Mao)? Reduce Russia's dependence on oil (like King Abdullah and KAUST)? Instead of hobnobbing for the cameras with Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt, you should be talking -- and listening -- to Natalya Kasperskaya (Kaspersky Lab), Arkhady Volozh (Yandex), Victoria Livschitz (Grid Systems), Sasha Galitsky (serial entrepreneur), and Serguie Beloussov (Parallels). These great Russian entrepreneurs are right under your nose. With brains, determination, leadership, and a little je ne sais quoi, they are navigating the maze of the Russian environment. If you want to build a healthy entrepreneurship ecosystem for sustained economic prosperity, you should learn from those who know how to make it work now, and how to make it work better in the future.

Back in the USSR. President Medvedev, your Skolkovo Valley smacks like a repackaging of top-down industrial and economic planning. If it is entrepreneurship you are after, you cannot dictate it top down. Moscow can't emulate Silicon Valley. Kigali can't emulate Silicon Valley. Cali can't emulate Silicon Valley. Guess what: Silicon Valley can't emulate Silicon Valley.

Rather than wasting time and resources trying to recreate the ideal and impossible, consider these rules to jumpstart Russia's next entrepreneurial revolution:

1.Identify and over-celebrate the entrepreneurs who have made it. I have been all over the world looking, and I have yet to see a society without entrepreneurs: like art and music, entrepreneurship in part expresses something fundamental in the human spirit. Sometimes a societies' entrepreneurs are flying under the radar, but you have the ability to sniff them out.

2.Talk with them and listen to them. Create a candid, informal, bidirectional dialog. Not the big company talking heads show of this month's St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, but an ongoing discussion where you can learn the real entrepreneurs' perspectives. Use them to help you figure out how to practically change the ecosystem to make it conducive to entrepreneurship, big time. Remember, these are Russia's best and brightest. And remember, Russia has an amazing scientific and technological legacy to build on.

3.Put Russia's Diaspora to work. Form a group of the best ex-patriate Russian entrepreneurs living in the U.S., Europe, and Israel. They would be intrigued, if not downright proud, to be consulted. Tear a page out of Taiwan's book when the newly elected Premier Sun created the "foreign monk" Science and Technology Advisory Group. STAG had an incredible impact, and was one of the root causes of the brain gain of 40,000 US-trained high tech entrepreneurs and executives flooding back to Taiwan in the 1990s.

4.Remain sectorally agnostic. For three decades, Israel's vaunted Chief Scientist program adamantly avoided prioritizing sectors to promote. Sectoral agnosticism sends a strong message because it encourages entrepreneurs to identify and realize what THEY think are opportunities. This is part of letting the thousand flowers bloom. Remember that entrepreneurship is inherently a contrarian activity: you need to let loose the hounds, and let them sniff out the opportunities.

5.Don't paint the zebra. You cannot take a white donkey, paint it with black stripes, and call it a zebra. Help entrepreneurship grow organically rather than capturing it in clusters. Create conditions for zebras to breed, which is not in cluster captivity. A lot of that involves removing the obstacles that prevent them from doing so. Remember that removing bureaucratic obstacles is more impactful than creating incentives, all else being equal.

6.Intervene holistically. There are 13 distinct, but interrelated elements which compose an entrepreneurship ecosystem. All 13 of these have to line up eventually in order for there to be sustainable entrepreneurship. Is there capital and technology? Bolster these with diaspora networks and entrepreneurship education. Are there success stories? Use them to encourage large companies to become customers to small suppliers. Does the culture support risk taking and honest failure? Encourage support services to help reduce the failure rate.

Russia's next revolution won't happen overnight, but the key is to look inside. You should emulate yourself, not Silicon Valley. And if you want to do international benchmarking, instead of visiting San Jose and Cupertino, you should be visiting Hsinchu City, Herziliya and Reykjavik.

Daniel Isenberg is the Professor of Management Practice at Babson Global, Founder and Executive Director of the Babson Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Project, and author of the Harvard Business Review article, "How to Start an Entrepreneurial Revolution " (June 2010).

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