Until recently, it was not 'natural' to be a high-growth entrepreneur in Portugal. "It used to be 'if you cannot find a good job, you become an entrepreneur by creating your own small business'," says Insead Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship, Filipe Santos, who is also the Director of the school's Rudolf and Valeria Maag International Centre for Entrepreneurship (Maag ICE).
"There was a tradition of family business, a long tradition of industrial organisations that dominated sectors; we had government-held companies that were privatised." High-growth, high-impact entrepreneurship was not mainstream.
Today, the status of entrepreneurs is evolving and, in order to recognise the achievements of the country's entrepreneurs, the Insead Portuguese Alumni Network presents an annual entrepreneurship prize at a ceremony in Lisbon.
Dozens of companies applied, judges created a short list of eight, and the top prize this year was shared by two: Frulact, a fruit processing company, and TIM, a mobile and interactive global marketing company. A global technology company, ISA – Intelligent Sensing Anywhere, received an honourable mention.
Judges were chosen for their 'entrepreneurial credibility' and the criteria for choosing the winner included the project's degree of success, the competence of the entrepreneur, the innovation and degree of risk-taking, and the soundness of the project.
"We wanted people who had a good track record, and the three on the final list show extraordinary innovation," says Antonio Borges, former Insead Dean (1993-2000) and former Vice-Chairman and Managing Director of Goldman Sachs (2000-2008). "They had an orientation at the earliest moment to the foreign market, to the international market; they had an ability to compete with the top players in the world, as well as a degree of success, which is already remarkable."
No women were on the list though. "I'm afraid not, says Borges. "That's a serious weakness. There are some interesting female entrepreneurs in Portugal but none of them has yet applied." Recent figures from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor actually show the number of female and male entrepreneurs in Portugal as roughly equal: 4.10 per cent of the total are Portuguese men and 3.81 per cent are Portuguese women. Entrepreneurs seem evenly distributed in terms of age, but the figures also show that men are twice as likely to engage in entrepreneurial activity as women.
The country's admission to the European Union in 1986 helped Portugal open up to foreign investment, which in turn has increased productivity and growth. The global economic crisis, coupled with increasing pressure within the EU itself after Central European countries joined the union, have slowed productivity and increased the country's debt load, but this has also increased government support for entrepreneurship.
"Think about what happened," says Santos, referring to the economic crisis.
"We had the financial system almost in a state of collapse. That was saved really by cheap money and lots of government stimulus but that's not sustainable. The cost of money will have to go up and the budgets will have to be balanced at some point. So what's left is trying to innovate. Entre?preneurship is the key – not only venture creation, but also entrepreneurship inside the existing companies.
"I think the country has woken up to entrepreneurship in the last ten years," said Santos.
"For example, the government recently announced that it would match business angel funds, and a financial fund was created by a group of private investors. For each euro invested by that fund, the government would match it with another euro.
"So that's a very good system because, basically, it leaves the decision of in whom to invest in the hands of the private sector, and the government supports and leverages the funds of the private sector," he says.
"Entrepreneurs are now becoming a strong force in the Portuguese economy," he adds, "and I think the government is very aware of that."
Borges agrees. "Portugal is a country of entrepreneurs," he claims. "And there have been numerous cases of extremely successful entrepreneurial companies here."
And the Insead Portuguese Alumni Network will continue to recognise them.