In a ceremony that gathered the best of young entrepreneurs of the future from across the world, Youth Business International (YBI) held its Entrepreneur of the Year awards last night in London. It's not often that a business event can have the audience rocking with laughter one minute and sobbing the next, but these awards are truly memorable for their inspiration – the ceremony held a few surprises, a lot of fun and not a few tears.
In a fitting prelude to Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW), the awards celebrated some of this year’s brightest and best young business talent. Finalists included young people who have started and grown their own businesses from as far afield as Canada, Israel and India, often against hefty odds. The judges are principally YBI, the worldwide network that runs non-profit business-support initiatives for young people across the world, including support programmes in developing countries. With the Prince of Wales as president, the network helped 6,346 young people to start their own business in 2010.
Mrs Deki Wangmo, Woman Entrepreneur of the Year, has overcome centuries-old Himalayan tradition and rather more modern prejudices to create her thriving motor business in Bhutan. At the age of 15, faced with her family’s inability to pay for her education, Bhutanese schoolgirl Deki looked around for a local job, eventually training as a car mechanic.
Despite Himalayan tradition dictating that women stay at home, and startling those who felt car maintenance was not a job for a lady, Deki finished her training with honours in 2007 and left to set up her own tyre retreading business in Thimpu, Bhutan’s capital city. With the help of YBI partners, four years on Deki has established a profitable firm which now employs eight staff, including her husband. "Becoming an entrepreneur was my ultimate choice," Deki says simply.
Now with three small children to look after, these days Deki also manages to act as an ambassador for local entrepreneurship – which itself is growing as enquiries are increasing from the interested ladies of Bhutan. She's famous now but "It's nice to be appreciated," is all she will admit, modestly.
Now Deki had made it to London, was she going to relax? a spa? manicure maybe? Sadly not – she was flying back to work after a lone day in the bright lights to rescue Mr Wangmo, who was holding the fort – the kids, the business and and their new baby daughter, Little Power – singlehanded. A strong man, I pointed out. "Oh yes," she said, beaming with pride: "Such a strong man. But he works for me."
True value businesses
Winners had to show they had improved economic development in their community sustainably and measurably. And some of the YBI’s future stars have helped save the planet too – Environmental Entrepreneur of the Year Award went to Vaidhyanathan Rajamani, whose water projects firm V Cube saves 50,000 litres of water every day in India. Vaidhyanathan was so keen to be an entrepreneur that when his parents insisted he stay in education he ran away from home.
Selling T-shirts to make ends meet, he battled for years to get anyone to take his inventions seriously. Then YBI, in the form of a local Indian trust, did. Now he employs 37 full-time staff and 342 dealers. No mean feat, as Andrew Devenport, CEO of Youth Business International, points out: "Recent UN figures have highlighted the dire economic situation around the world, with record levels of youth unemployment blighting many countries."
In a moving speech that had assorted tycoons, self-made men and women and even flinty-eyed venture capitalists moist-eyed, Devenport highlighted the growing problem of youth joblessness and the risk of a 'lost generation' that looms ever nearer worldwide. He added: "It’s vital that more young people are encouraged into entrepreneurship to create jobs and drive economic growth."
The main winner, claiming a prize of including $5,000 US, was Amir Asor, founder of Young Engineers in Israel. He's invented science lego – plastic models that show kids abstract maths and physics concepts in cheery plastic they can build themselves. He now hires 20 people and is training schoolchildren to be engineers through the lego games.
What inspired the Entrepreneur of the Year? Being diagnosed with learning difficulties as a child. As he sprang onto the podium to claim his $5,000 US dollars, the room of grandees exploded with applause and several people finally gave up and burst into tears. But Amir was, typically of his peers, concentrating on his job – quietly thanking his friends and mentors, and, of course, the kids he watches at play.
Next week GEW sees over 40,000 events take place in over 100 countries worldwide. Ten million of us will take part – among whom will no doubt be the secret stars of future business – and probably some people weeping at how great starting a business really is. Read our daily updates from Day 1 GEW Mon 14 November.