Accelerate EU – Would You Invest in These Entrepreneurs?

By Britta Meyer |

There is a framed group picture on the wall at Unter den Linden 17, showing 11 young people with long hair and beards, big sunglasses and colourful shirts, smiling uneasily for the camera. “Would you have invested in these guys?” the Microsoft Ventures team asks the entrepreneurs they coach. Most people probably wouldn’t have, although the original founders of Microsoft Corporation did not let that stop them back in 1978, when the picture was taken.

About a hundred participants joined Accelerate EU, a European startup conference with the subtitle ‘Making Europe an easy place for startups’, in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate in the middle of Berlin last Friday. Entrepreneurs, investors and accelerators met to discuss the current European climate for startups from multiple countries and backgrounds. While trying to identify the biggest obstacles to a friendly entrepreneurial culture in the EU, the key speakers primarily defined an ever-present fear of, and the social stigma linked to, failing with a company, along with having no starting capital and finding interested investors.

In this, the cultural and linguistic diversity of Europe was treated as both a chance and a difficulty, being a valuable source of creativity and competences as well as a background where resources are divided unequally. As one of the speakers put it: “Talent is distributed, opportunity is not.”

Even at the conference itself, this last point was strikingly obvious. Although there was a considerable number of female entrepreneurs among the audience, the meaning of the word diversity seems to have partially escaped the organisers when they chose nine men and one woman as speakers for their panel. With two women to nine men, even the Microsoft founders did a better job at creating some gender equality – 36 years ago.

Another not-so present problem became clear when one audience member described having a hard time communicating with German authorities due to the language barrier. German Startups Association board member Sascha Schubert responded by giving advice on how to find competent business associates, clearly misunderstanding a topic he himself never encountered – the fact that almost no official German contact is able to speak English.

According to the 2013 EF English Proficiency Index, which tested 60 countries for their English skills, Germany came in only 14th, ranking behind all the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Estonia, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland.

Despite this poor ranking, the current level of English is widely perceived as good enough and findings which suggest otherwise are met with sharp criticism. Administrative offices in particular do not make much effort to improve their lack of English skills or to provide translation services, an obstacle which makes building a startup much less attractive to international entrepreneurs.