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Meet the Faculty

Interview with Carin Holmquist

“We need lab environments and institutions such as SSES where it’s easy to test and validate new ideas, places where being entrepreneurial is rewarded”

Dr. Carin Holmquist has conducted research in a wide range of topics. Her thesis focused on inter-organizational issues, and how to manage economic and political goals in the same setting. Before joining the Stockholm School of Economics (SSE) as a Professor in 2001, she was a Professor at Umeå University. Carin served as our first-ever Centre Director at SSE and founded the SSE Business Lab in 2001. For several decades, she has served as a prime expert in the internationalization of SMEs, the organizing of, and for, entrepreneurship, and women’s entrepreneurship, a field in which she is considered one of the most prominent researchers in Sweden.

Name: Carin Holmquist
Title: Professor Emerita Stockholm School of Economics

How did you first get in touch with SSES?
I was working as a Professor at Umeå University when I was asked to join SSE as a Professor in 2001. The board of directors at SSE, including Carl-Johan Bonnier, Claes Dahlbäck and Stefan Persson, had decided to invest in the emerging field of entrepreneurship. Stefan Persson, the chairman of H&M, provided the financial means necessary for establishing a new professorship at SSE and launching a novel initiative called The Stockholm School of Entrepreneurship (SSES). One of the founders of SSES, Bengt Stymne, developed and ran the first courses as a collaboration between KTH and SSE, and that’s how the story began.

In addition to the courses, SSES also became a much-needed forum where researchers could meet each other across disciplines and universities. I was appointed Centre Director for SSES, which gave me the opportunity to run my own courses as well as highlight and bring forward other talented people within the field.

Why did people believe in the idea of SSES in the first place?
An investment in entrepreneurship was actually way overdue in Stockholm at the time. During the late 90’s many universities throughout Sweden already had major initiatives underway. When we started in Stockholm, I became the first female Professor at SSE and the first one in Entrepreneurship. Before then, SSE had been very focused on industry and large companies. Very few students at the time wanted to become entrepreneurs, they dreamed of having a successful career at a big company. But looking at the statistics many of them still decided to work for themselves. They just didn’t make that much noise.

And then you started SSE Business Lab?
Yes, and the same principles that we founded the lab on still guides the place. We decided to focus on the viability of the business model and the people behind the idea, rather than on the idea itself. We felt that too much time was spent hunting money rather than finding customers, so we encouraged students to look for ways of making money straight away instead of trying to impress us with fancy 10-year projections. Our rule was that they have to show a positive cash flow within the first six months. And I’m proud to say that, even excluding Klarna, the companies coming out of the lab are showing very high success rates.

Has the language around entrepreneurship changed over the years?
Yes, because society has changed. The finance sector does not have the same attraction or star quality that it used to, and the general attitude towards entrepreneurship is now overwhelmingly positive. You can see this clearly with the students from SSE, it’s a completely different hype and many students dream of making it as an entrepreneur. But, of course, norms follow society and society moves in waves. Every time there is a recession, the need for entrepreneurship is highlighted because job creation becomes a top priority.

Can anyone become an entrepreneur?
Yes, I think everyone can, but I don’t think everyone should. You should only become an entrepreneur if you’re truly passionate about what you do and your idea is good enough to pay the bills. Research has shown that entrepreneurs who earn enough to get by, especially women, report a higher well-being compared to those who are not entrepreneurs, mainly because of the freedom.

Nevertheless, there is a dark reality you have to face as an entrepreneur when things go south. What is lacking in the conversation about entrepreneurship, is a clear representation of reality, that it is a job like any other. Actually, most educated people who venture into entrepreneurship, don’t do it because of the money, they do so for a host of other reasons. The way that successful entrepreneurs are portrayed in the media is often very limiting and leads people to have the wrong idea about what it’s really like to live as an entrepreneur. When I invite speakers to SSE, I bring in people who are close to the students in age, who can serve as role models that they can identify with and who can provide them with a sense of hope and possibility. I want students to leave the classroom feeling like “Hey, I could do that”.

Why is SSES needed?
Universities in themselves are not entrepreneurial, it’s simply not in their DNA. We need lab environments and institutions such as SSES where it’s easy to test and validate new ideas, places where being entrepreneurial is rewarded.

How would you define an entrepreneur?
Someone who is innovative, creative and action-oriented. A person who can turn an idea into a financial opportunity and redirect monetary flows.

Do you think entrepreneurship education should have an ethical component?
Yes, all education should have a strong ethical foundation. Lately, it has become more accepted to be an immoral company in the world. In the lab, we made the decision early on not to bring in companies that work with gambling, alcohol or drugs.

Should there be more to entrepreneurship education than business?
You are never fully trained as an entrepreneur. And often, the longer you study business, the more ridiculous your business plans become. Now and again, I’m presented with five-year cash-flow projections that are detailed down to a monthly basis, what nonsense! Students should get out on the street and ask people what they really think of their idea. Entrepreneurship is not so much about sitting and thinking about plans and forecasts, it’s about having the courage to take your idea into the world and then listen to what people have to say.

What is the proper role of a University?
The classic idea of education is that people should gain knowledge and develop as human beings. Personally, I believe the role of the university is to open the door to people’s own learning and teach students how to find and evaluate knowledge for themselves. Unfortunately, I think we are drifting in the wrong direction, placing too much focus on educating people for the market and too little on training minds to think critically and discern true from false. In Sweden, our well-meaning ambition that everyone should take part in higher education has caused us to miss out on those who really need it. Everyone should be given the opportunity to develop a critical mind, not doing so would be a betrayal of our mission.

What are you most proud of?
Education has a way of drawing out and strengthening people’s ability to find a place for themselves in the world that makes them happy and content. Many students graduate from SSES with a feeling that they can change things, with a recognition of their unique talents and a willingness to become a positive force in the world, be it as a writer, politician, artist or business leader. That’s something I’m proud of. And of course I’m proud of the fact that the strategy we set for SSE Business Lab turned out so well!

What is your hope for the future of SSES?
I think SSES can help students become more confident in themselves and their own abilities. Teaching is really less about distributing knowledge and more about teaching people to see their own talents. A good teacher pays attention to and confirms a student’s abilities so that he or she can grow. I usually say that “everyone can write a dissertation if they want to, you just need a tutor who thinks you can do it and who believes in you when you doubt yourself”. Then again, just as with entrepreneurship – everyone can but that does not mean that everyone should.