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Spain: The new hub for entrepreneurs

Julie Meyer Friday, 10 April 2015.

Roughly 470 million people speak Spanish as a first language, and I'm reminded of that every time I travel through Madrid airport. It's big, boisterous, sort of organised, and feels like the centre of its own universe: the Spanish-speaking world.

That world is going through massive change right now, and don't think it's not leading in its own way. The Anglosphere tech and venture capital world tends to think it starts everything, but those Latin folk know what they're doing.

 

JulieMeyer 2Consider the following.

Ana Botín recently ascended to the chairmanship of Santander and is in the process of building a bank for the digital future. She's thinking differently, having recently suggested that Santander has a core asset in managing and storing data. In the UK, the bank has forged a brand out of the relics of old, tired assets, and — largely due to Botín's magnetic personality — it has become one of the most entrepreneur-friendly brands in the world.

José María Álvarez-Pallete López, COO of Telefónica and founder of Wayra, a startup accelerator, has built from Madrid a network of ecosystems that are whipping up innovation in a non-Anglosphere way. Their model is to take equity in exchange for office space and support. It creates huge PR and social good; but whether it's positively affecting Telefónica's financials is another thing. They may have created a kindergarten, not a digital P&L.

Álvaro Pérez Pastor, founder and CEO of aBoatTime and BoatGrid Yacht Charters, is one entrepreneur, based in Madrid, who is world class. aBoatTime is essentially a global distribution system (like Sabre and Amadeus in the airline industry) for the large yachting and boating world, which has lacked structure until now. He's getting to grips with the large amounts of data that can explain consumer preference and drive liquidity in this emerging marketplace. And he has grit. Pérez Pastor has scraped and done backflips, but has his hands firmly on the tiller of a very high-growth venture. His shareholders must be very pleased.

One of the most interesting aspects about going to Madrid for me is how the old Europe is crashing into this new Europe. If Europe is being redefined by its entrepreneurs right now, as I believe it is, then business people such as Marcelino Elosua are worth considering. He is president of business publisher LID Editorial Empresarial. Decades ago, his businesses may have been in olive oil, but today he is a global leader in digital publishing and communities. Before any of the publishers in the UK were understanding the 360° opportunities for authors, Elosua was reshaping the industry with different business models.

Diego del Alcázar Silvela, the 10th Marquis of la Romana, founded one of Europe's leading business schools, IE, based in Madrid, in 1973. The ambience there and the programmes it leads set it out from other European schools, and you can tell it's led by an entrepreneur. It's a very business-oriented place. Many of Europe's business schools falter because they are not run like businesses. IE has done an outstanding job of making itself a European leader. It's not yet in the league of INSEAD, based in Fontainebleau and Singapore, which is probably the best global business school, but for Spanish-speaking students, it's world-class.

My old friend Frank Gelardin, ex-Lehman banker and formerly on the board of Acciona, the large water and infrastructure firm, relocated to Madrid many years ago and has become part of the furniture in the innovation and entrepreneurship space. Having backed many entrepreneurs, he does a mean job of advising startups in the music sector.

These bankers and investors from the old industrial world make some of the best backers of the new digital industry. One huge tech success out of Spain is eDreams, which was created in 1999 by Javier Pérez-Tenessa Block, ex-EADS, ex-McKinsey, ex-Netscape and AOL. The old internet 1.0 entrepreneurs are now backing other entrepreneurs, having been in the burning building of an early startup and living to tell the tale. No one does this better than Rodolfo Carpintier, who has backed dozens through his DAD investment firm.

NetNet — if you want to understand how Spain and the Spanish-speaking world are leading and building their ecosystems, Madrid is a great place to land.

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