Saturday, January 31, 2009

Entrepreneurship: Swedish and American style

(“Kvick” thoughts, huh? Guess they haven’t been too “kvick” lately!)

My daughter and her classmate want to go to Bangladesh. Their school has a project where it’s helping to start and support a couple schools in Bangladesh for six years. My daughter, age 14, and her friend want to go with one of their teachers on a field trip there. The cost for my daughter and her classmate is SEK 30,000 (about USD 3,600).

Aside from hesitation about whether or not I want my daughter “alone” in Bangladesh for a week, my first thought was money. If my daughter and her friend were going to do this, they’d have to raise the money themselves. I threw out some ideas beyond the usual bake sales, car washes, etc. that might result in serious cash (such as an on-line auction rummage sale) and offered to help if they wanted to do it. They were lukewarm about the idea, so I dropped it. Instead, they’ve been contacting businesses, foundations, etc. to see if they’d be willing to make a donation.

Not a bad way to go. But I was struck by the difference between their way of thinking and mine. My first thought was how to raise the money. Their main thought was who could they ask. I suggested if they try and do at least some “serious” fund-raising, potential donors might be more willing to give; but the girls didn’t bite. (OK, I know they’re only 14.) Interestingly, none of the potential donors, as far as I know, have offered to make a matching grant.

But I think something more fundamental is at work. Having grown up in the U.S., I had always seen and been told that if I wanted something I had to earn it. In Sweden, teen-agers rarely rake leaves, shovel snow, etc. for pocket money. Since the wages adults pay for “neighbor kid” help are much lower than the professional market-rate for such services, it’s considered vaguely exploitative to ask a neighbor kid to do it. Consequently, the market for “pick-up” jobs among teens is virtually nonexistent. And when you do find a teen willing to help, they expect to be paid quite well!

Of course, I’m not in favor of exploiting people, and believe people should be paid decently for their work. But as a culture, Sweden neither encourages nor cultivates entrepreneurial thinking. I’m reminded of something I read in the newspaper not long ago. A Swedish family living in New York talked about an incident at the playground. A five-year-old wanted to go down a big slide but was afraid. If it was Sweden, said the couple, the child’s parent would probably have said, “Are you afraid? You don’t have to go down if you don’t want to.” In the U.S., they said, the American parent stood at the bottom of the slide and said, “You can do it! I’m here - I’ll catch you if you fall!”

There’s been a lot of discussion in Sweden recently about how to increase the number of business entrepreneurs. I say, get ’em while they’re young!

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