This is the second in a series of five interviews with entrepreneurs who are attending the third annual Global Summit of Leaders this week at Royal Roads University in Victoria. Kevin Langley joins leading CEOs and business owners from eight countries, moderated by school alumnus Dean Lindal.
Mr. Langley is CEO and co-owner of Ellis Construction Inc., a regional commercial contractor based in New Orleans. He also owns other real estate, construction and energy companies.
Mr. Langley has served as an entrepreneurial delegate for the U.S. Department of State in Egypt, Indonesia, Morocco and Algeria. With youth unemployment as high as 50 per cent in the Palestinian Territories, he is currently helping build an entrepreneurship ecosystem in the West Bank and Gaza.
Question: How did you get back on your feet after losing your home and your business in the wake of Hurricane Katrina?
Answer: The worst natural disaster in U.S. history, with nine feet of water in the city, no power or phones, and impassable roads, forced us back to the basics of business and life. It challenged us to rethink what was important. It made me grateful for my health, my family, my employees and my community.
When I re-entered New Orleans in a boat, I stood on the roof of my flooded house, faced with the challenge of figuring out where my wife and I and our three-year-old triplets were going to live, how to make payroll, and how I was going to rebuild my business. We had to move our temporary office twice, and we worked on folding tables until we were able to rebuild. Six months after the storm, we moved into our new office.
It became clear that the people who thrived amid the chaos were the ones who had the right mindset. While many people dwelled on their losses, I learned from entrepreneurial leaders who chose to pick up the pieces of their flooded lives and focus on the future. They had a vision, even in a time of crisis, and they did their best to effectively communicate it to their families, to their employees and to their communities.
They successfully conveyed the possibilities and the certainties of a better future by working together. That is the core of what entrepreneurial leaders do: they align resources and people.
With our busy schedules, relationships are something we tend to forget. In crisis mode, it was the quantity and quality of relationships that helped us recover from disaster. Despite the hardships, challenges and losses, the disaster restored my faith in humanity. I watched so many people help each other.
I made a promise to myself that as I recovered, I would help other people. I realized the impact that entrepreneurs have in their communities by creating jobs, providing leadership and improving quality of life.
Question: Did the entrepreneurial ecosystem play a big role in the city’s recovery?
Answer: Definitely. The entrepreneurial ecosystem is a reflection of the co-ordination and co-operation of all of the stakeholders in our communities, including government, educational leaders, entrepreneurs, and capital providers. Despite the many flaws that were revealed by Hurricane Katrina, it was ultimately the links of these various actors in the entrepreneurial ecosystem that allowed for the rebuilding of the city.
Think about it. Without basic infrastructure such as roads, utilities and communications, conducting business is very challenging, just like it is in Third World countries. A key pillar of economic development is a fair and effective government that creates infrastructure by connecting with businesses on the ground.
At the same time, governments must listen to the realities of business creation and growth, and work hard to remove unnecessary roadblocks to success. They have to create an enabling policy environment for entrepreneurs so they deliver goods and services that meet consumer needs and wants.
Small businesses and entrepreneurs ultimately build cities, and in the case of New Orleans, we are re-building the city.
Question: On Sept. 5 and 6, G20 leaders will meet in St. Petersburg to discuss business challenges and how they can work together to solve them. Youth leaders met in June at the G20 Youth Entrepreneurship Alliance (YEA) Summit in Moscow and produced a communiqué for the main event. How seriously do you think governments should take those recommendations?
Answer: The recommendations captured in the communiqué are the voice of a million entrepreneurs under the age of 40, and the G20 leaders should definitely listen to that voice in their efforts to boost sustainable, balanced and inclusive growth.
These entrepreneurs and organizations that support their work, including Ernst & Young and Accenture, which produced reports in advance of the youth summit, represent the powerful resource that is lying idle in most countries: the creativity and energy of young minds.
Young entrepreneurs are already solving the world’s most difficult challenges, such as global warming (through clean technologies) and access to markets (mobile banking), to name two examples. It is time G20 leaders supported their efforts to build a better world by improving the policy environment that affects their decisions.
The entrepreneurial leaders at the youth summit focused on a wide range of potential policies and initiatives that could help start and grow ventures to solve global challenges and create jobs. The recommendations address the following key areas:
1. Access to digital infrastructure and services.
2. Education to provide knowledge, networks and innovation skills.
3. Improved business and labour legislative environment.
4. Increasing access to finance for startups and enterprise growth.
Uninformed policy making can be detrimental to any entrepreneurial ecosystem. Young leaders should continue to weigh in and have their voices heard. I encourage everyone to look at the Global Entrepreneurship Week policy survey. The aim is to assess the experience of entrepreneurs so that the outcomes may help inform future policy decisions affecting new and young firms.
Question: Of the places you've visited, what would you consider the top global markets for Canadian entrepreneurs and why?
Answer: Over the past 15 years, I have travelled to more than 40 countries and met with entrepreneurs from 160 countries. I see opportunities everywhere I go. The top three global markets for Canadian business owners would depend on the individual entrepreneur’s passions, risk profile and product or service offering.
Another important factor is the ability to speak the languages and to understand how to conduct business in other countries. Canada is fortunate to have a large immigrant work force that can help bridge the cultural gap for entrepreneurs who want to do business abroad.
With those considerations in mind, based on market size, consumer demand and economic potential, the current target markets for Canadian entrepreneurs are:
1. United States
6. Southeast Asia
7. Britain (which provides access to the EU)
Question: You've built a huge global network over the years. How can a young Canadian entrepreneur get plugged in to ecosystems worldwide?
Answer: There are lots of ways for Canadians to build a global network that will take their businesses to the next level, and at the same time allow them to become part of the global entrepreneurship ecosystem. You can do it by joining an entrepreneurial peer organization such as Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO), which offers many initiatives to engage the global entrepreneurship community, including its Global Student Entrepreneur Awards () (GSEA) and the Accelerator Program.
You can also get involved by becoming part of Canada’s delegation to the G20 Youth Entrepreneurship Alliance (YEA), and by participating in the thousands of Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW) activities happening Nov. 18 to 24 across Canada. Many of the GEW activities are worldwide in scope, such as the Global Startup Battle. These are great ways to meet other entrepreneurs, to find talent for your business, to hook up with mentors and even to get sources of funding.
There are a large number of accelerators and incubators in most major municipalities. Many of the global platforms I mentioned are made possible thanks to the work of visionary organizations at the national and local levels, which can provide ways to plug your startup into the global grid of entrepreneurship, and provide useful guidance. The Canadian Youth Business Foundation (CYBF), for example, has enabled many global initiatives and resources.
Kevin Langley represented the United States at the G8 Youth Entrepreneurship Summit in Stressa, Italy in 2009. As a founding member of the G20 Youth Entrepreneurship Alliance (YEA) he represented the United States at the 2010 summit in Ottawa; in Nice, France in 2011; and in Mexico City in 2012. He recently led the U.S. delegation at the Moscow summit in June, and he serves on the G20 YEA steering committee.