Global Entrepreneurship Network’s Jonathan Ortmans on why he is bullish about Saudi Arabia

In a conversation with YourStory Gulf Edition, Jonathan Ortmans, Founder and Chairman, Global Entrepreneurship Network, talks about why the platform believes Saudi Arabia is now at its tipping point.

Global Entrepreneurship Network’s Jonathan Ortmans on why he is bullish about Saudi Arabia

Thursday March 30, 2023,

5 min Read

Silicon Valley has been a lighthouse for startups across the world to build on ideas no one has thought of before. The idea of building out of a garage and creating technological giants from their own backyards has driven young leaders across the globe to solve problems and create something of their own. 

Global Entrepreneurship Network (GEN) has been fostering this drive to build since 2008.

Founded by Jonathan Ortmans in 2008, GEN is an organisation that provides a platform for initiatives and programmes to help kick off startups and scale within the global ecosystem. It currently has operations across 190 countries, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE.

“We work to help founders to build on their ideas and turn them into innovations for a rather strong economic ecosystem. We wanted to tell the world that Silicon Valley didn’t have a monopoly on entrepreneurship,” explains Ortmans, Founder and Chairman of GEN, in a conversation with YourStory Gulf Edition at Saudi Arabia's Biban 2023 conference.

“The idea was to democratise entrepreneurship and make it possible for a lot of smaller as well as bigger economies, especially ones that aren’t necessarily perceived as entrepreneurial powerhouses, to be a part of the journey,” he adds.

In 2008, Ortmans teamed up with former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown to start Global Entrepreneurship Week under the leadership of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The idea was to celebrate a global entrepreneurial culture. 

An economist, Ortmans has worked with the US Congress on Capitol Hill and has also served as the CEO of a trade policy and healthcare think-tank. He now chairs the Global Entrepreneurship Congress, which gathers over 5,000 leaders from the GEN’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and network in April each year.

It was launched at the Kauffman Foundation in 2009 to offer early-stage startups pitching, marketing, and networking opportunities. Ortmans has chaired the GEC in Bahrain, Dubai, Istanbul, Shanghai, Liverpool, Rio de Janeiro, Moscow, Milan, Medellin, Johannesburg, and Istanbul. 

Spotlight on Saudi Arabia

Ortmans says it is an exciting time to invest in Saudi Arabia as the Vision 2030 goal has accelerated developments in the region. 

“This is across sectors—whether it is the growing number of women in the workforce, scalability, and the number of companies. We’ve got a history of being in countries where we were part of their growth journey from the beginning, and that is where we can be useful. For instance, we can’t contribute much to Silicon Valley; we're much more in our element in emerging economies where we can bring knowledge, community and networks from across borders,” he says 

He further explains that Saudi Arabia is at the cusp of growth because the region has budding leadership—right from the local level to startups and even external mentors and entrepreneurs—to build the ecosystem. The kingdom also has pre-defined goals, binding ministries and organisations to work together to achieve them. 

“There is an openness where global organisations, brands, and think tanks are welcome to collaborate. In Saudi Arabia, everyone works towards collecting the data, innovating, testing, and moving forward. Over 10 years ago, there was an interest to create big events, and also welcome universal brands to collaborate, and that started happening closely,” adds Ortmans. 

Also, what sets Saudi Arabia apart, according to him, is that the kingdom isn’t looking to replicate any other country’s model and wants to build its own through collaboration with universal brands.

The country is also witnessing the phenomenon of reverse brain drain, with the World Economic Forum now classifying Saudi Arabia as a “net talent magnet”, as several young Saudis are coming back to explore the opportunities in the region. 

“These are people who have moved back from the Valley and are building different products, ideas, and want to be part of the growth. The country is now at a tipping point,” he says. 

On meeting startups in the region, Ortmans says all of them are focused on solving real problems. They have evolved from just food delivery apps to working on sustainability and helping the government meet its target for greenhouse gas reduction. 

“Now with the Saudi space programmes, we are seeing a lot of astropreneurs. The Saudi Space Commission is very much focused on deep technology. The idea isn’t just about what the government pushes, but what are all the things that startups can do, and how can the government and larger bodies help them to test their products in space,” he explains. 

Ortmans advises founders to not raise capital too early. “While you’re working on one idea, know that it is a serial business. You are testing an idea and there is no such thing as failure; you may find that the idea yields data that tells you it's not going to be viable at this point in time. Get into it understanding you are always evolving. Have the right team that can assemble that idea.” 

(Image credit: Chetan)

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Edited by Kanishk Singh