Colombia’s Entrepreneurial Ecosystem: Interview with Carolina Franco

After an amazing time in Medellin I moved on to Colombia’s capital, Bogota, to continue learning about the country’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and what’s going on in the world of startups in Colombia. My first visit was to iNNpulsa, the Colombian government’s program to promote entrepreneurial innovation, where I met with Carolina Franco, a Special Projects Professional and the Customer Relationship and Service Specialist for the Colombian High Impact Entrepreneurship and Innovation Ecosystem.  Carolina came to iNNpulsa with an international background in the private sector.

Carolina had an interesting take on Colombia’s ecosystem because she sees first hand all of the efforts being made to improve it. According to Carolina, the Colombian government’s national development plan from 2011 identified innovation as one of the key foci, with entrepreneurial development as a core system for supporting and fostering that innovation. From there iNNpulsa was born.

Carolina saw many of the same issues with the ecosystem that my interviewees in Medellin mentioned: a lack of capital and an overall lack of development and sophistication in the ecosystem.

“We need to concentrate at first on our main gaps and our main gaps are strengthening institutions and closing financial gaps,” she told me.

She continued: “there is a big gap in financing early stage entrepreneurs in Colombia, so we have done a lot in that area and we have shown the country’s leaders that there is a lot to do there.”

She continued: “there is a financial gap that is a financial opportunity. This is a big test for the government but it’s also really attractive.”

iNNpulsa’s goal is to address these systemic shortcomings with the long-term impact in mind. At least in part because of iNNpulsa’s efforts, Carolina sees Colombia as poised to become a key player in the entrepreneurship world, but she also thinks that the culture needs to change first.

“We have been an entrepreneurial country,” she said, “but the point is that we didn’t believe that… We [iNNpulsa] want to build a conversation about the value of entrepreneurship.”

And iNNpulsa is certainly putting in the effort to make those changes happen through a number of programs. “[The] agency is focusing on a particular type of entrepreneur,” Carolina explained, “those that will create sustainable and accelerated growth.” On the financing side, they want to create a network of active investors. “We have built a national network of investors but they’re not active because of the risk and other factors so we need to educate them about the potential and about financing early stage companies,” she said.

“There’s a big, a big, big opportunity with the startups that they’re missing.”

So far, their efforts seem to be working.

“People that come here are very impressed with what we’re building,” she told me. “It’s not known in the whole regional ecosystem, all the things that Colombia is doing, but for those that saw all of the opportunities, they’re coming and coming and coming…We want them to see Colombia as a launchpad. Colombia is very strategic.”

Given Carolina’s international work experience, I was especially interested in her thoughts on how the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Colombia compares with those in other countries.

“Each particular country and each particular ecosystem has some particular similarities and some particular differences,” she told me.

Some of them, for example, have a very good business environment that makes it easy and attractive to do business there. “Setting up a startup company there is very, very easy and the government has worked so hard to make that easier. It’s an institutional strength that they have to make the doing business environment more attractive. Colombia is not far from that. The main difference is that probably they have incentives such as tax incentives and other regulations that increase the amount of startups…We need to work more on that. We need to increase those incentives.”

“Another difference that I think is a plus for Colombia,” she said, “is our bets on financial strategies to close the gaps. There are not a lot of countries helping to build more funds. In terms of attracting investors I think we’re working very hard and I think that will differentiate us…We [also] have a plan to create joint venture strategies between two countries and to have joint financing between the two governments.”

So what’s Carolina’s advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?:

“Work hard for whatever you believe,” she said. And, “build your relationships, your networks. Relationship can be a big part [of success], and not just on the national scope. Always thinking big is something that I can say that good entrepreneurs do. Don’t just think of your networks and relationships on the national scope.”