ore than 20 years ago Andreas Widmer began his working life in Rome, wearing the colorful Renaissance uniform of a Papal Swiss Guard; since then, he has had a successful career as an entrepreneur in the high-tech computer software business, and today, in conjunction with Michael Fairbanks, he runs the Social Equity Venture Fund (SEVEN), researching entrepreneurial solutions to world poverty.
The SEVEN Fund has a $2.6 million grant to research “Building Linkages between Prosperity and Progressive Human Values for Citizens of Developing Nations.” This follows on the success of an earlier program “Pioneers of Prosperity—Legatum Prize,” co-funded by Templeton. “Our Pioneers of Prosperity project was a resounding success in East Africa,” says Widmer. “Both the amount of successful entrepreneurs we found and the enthusiastic response the project received indicates that we have identified a great need in the field and have the opportunity to develop a powerful and effective vehicle to encourage and promote entrepreneurs in the developing world.”
Widmer sees entrepreneurship as a vocation which he himself has followed for years. “But it took me a while to realize what it is that I am doing and to merge my spiritual life and my business life.” He contends there are two camps in the economic world: the opposing camp is occupied by “those people who see the economy as a zero-sum game… if you make a dollar, I lose a dollar.” He deplores the continuing prevalence of this misconception and exalts the vocation of the entrepreneur beyond mere money-making, “If I’m an entrepreneur, I can actually create something out of nothing. The only analogy I know to that, in my spiritual life, is God.”
He describes entrepreneurship as a kind of “co-creation,” which is also a crucial means of promoting sustainable development. He cites the example of Iqbal Quadir, founder and executive director of the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT and a collaborator with the Templeton Foundation. Quadir recognized that nobody could become an entrepreneur without some kind of networking capacity. So he introduced cellphones to the poor of Bangladesh, empowering them as entrepreneurs. “He pulled a lot of people out of poverty and, by the way,” laughs Widmer, “he himself became brilliantly wealthy.”
The philosophy of SEVEN is based on the notion that, to the three standard types of capital recognized by economists, four more categories, less easily measured, but nonetheless crucial, can be added: Institutional capital (e.g., democracy, rule of law, punctuality); Knowledge capital (international patents, R & D initiatives, data bases); Human capital (skills and abilities); and, most importantly, Cultural capital (how we attach meaning to our lives, pro-innovation traits, belief in competition, interpersonal trust, and so on).
Widmer also uses the term “exclusion from networks of productivity,” which he learned from his former boss Pope John Paul II, “I think this is about the best definition of poverty that we’ve ever heard because it does exactly this: it moves away from the paradigm in which poverty is all too often seen, which is a purely financial paradigm.” He insists that the poor in developing countries have greater needs than “just the job.”
SEVEN is inviting people in the developing world to discover opportunities for themselves. So far, it has launched four competitions. Its request for proposals on “Enterprise-based Solutions to Poverty” attracted 35 submissions, four of which gained awards of $100,000 over one year. Its Student Essay Competition drew 350 submissions, with three undergraduate entrants winning $10,000 prizes and one graduate student $20,000. The seminal LEGATUM Pioneers of Prosperity Africa Awards attracted 453 entries, of which a Grand Prize Winner received $100,000 and five runners-up won $50,000 each. SEVEN is also co-funder with IDB of a Short Film Competition.
In addition, five mini grants of $10,000 each have been awarded to project proposals that the judges deemed bold, innovative, and high-risk. With so much research being stimulated, what are the big questions that SEVEN wants to ask? The Fund has identified three. What are the most significant qualities of a successful entrepreneur in a developing economy? Can entrepreneurship be taught, inspired, and diffused through a society? And, most important of all, in Widmer’s view, Could support for the entrepreneurial spirit serve as harbinger of sustainable solutions to poverty?
Even just asking these questions, Widmer believes, will convince a lot of people of the answer. But there are pitfalls too. He points to the large influence Michael Fairbanks, his partner in SEVEN, has had on thinking about development. “Mike has been working on this much longer than I have.” When Fairbanks wrote his book, Plowing the Sea: Nurturing the Hidden Sources of Growth in the Developing World, ten years ago, he introduced a new language, a terminology of entrepreneurial-based solutions to poverty that is now widely employed.
But, points out Widmer, “The downside is that it takes much more than terminology to change the paradigm—again, it takes the culture.” He believes SEVEN must enter this debate and strongly defend terms like capitalist, profit, and entrepreneur as “good and critical things for the future of humanity.” SEVEN will increasingly take its message of development through entrepreneurship online, to blog, to go onto YouTube, “to pursue that generation in their media, on their terms, and to really try to show them it’s hip and cool.”