Leaving the Svenssons behind

10th April 2009 at 01:00
Ben Kersley watches the Swedes coming to terms with taking risks

British academics and politicians may look to Sweden as an example of an ideal education system, but there is one subject that its schools and universities have been historically bad at teaching: entrepreneurship.

This is because Swedes are probably the most risk-averse people in the world. There are many reasons for this, both political and social, but most Swedes recognise that they are constrained by the Jantelagen, a mythical set of laws that essentially say "Don't stand out from the crowd". In Sweden, people don't keep up with the Joneses, but rather, keep down with the Svenssons.

Sweden has enjoyed a high standard of living, low unemployment and relative equality for decades. However, all that is changing as traditional employers are becoming economically threatened. As a result, one of the few growth industries is that of entrepreneurship.

In the small southern city where I live (Linkoping, population 140,000), I can count at least five nationally or regionally funded projects for new businesses. One of these is run at the city's university. (Curiously, I was thrown off its entrepreneurship course last year for being too entrepreneurial.)

Ung Foretagsamhet, or Young Entrepreneurs, another project, is aimed at secondary schools. This week, I went to its Future Entrepreneurs Trade Fair, where more than 750 high school pupils were touting their business ideas.

As I walked in, I was accosted by a girl who thrust an inner sole into my hand. "Do you suffer from smelly feet?" she asked.

I was a bit taken aback. How did she know? And what was that smell of cinnamon?

My look of fear didn't break her patter as she explained that the inner sole she had handed me was filled with cinnamon, apparently a surefire cure for stinky feet.

I felt confused. It was as though the quack doctors of the Wild West had infiltrated Swedish schools to sell herbal remedies for age-old problems.

Many of the businesses were using English to give their ideas an international elan, planning for the global market, no doubt. I was given a leaflet that read "Bird Word prodly (sic) presents ... ".

Another company offered a "comfortable and safe head". I was too embarrassed to find out more, but I'm sure that they will do well.

Sweden is changing, for better or for worse, and teenagers are embracing entrepreneurship in a way that their parents never did. Almost a quarter of the participants on this scheme go on to start their own business.

The government here must find these figures reassuring at a time when global Swedish brands, such as Volvo and Saab, look close to collapse. And who knows? If it works, then maybe Sweden will "prodly" parade in the global market - with cinnamon-scented shoes.

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