The World’s Most Ignored Startups: Why Our Innovation Ecosystems are Failing Creative Entrepreneurs
Pabiben Rabari hardly fits the stereotype of an innovator. She is a young woman embroiderer from a remote village in India, with no formal education. Women in her community barely work outside their homes, let alone have careers. But Pabiben changed that narrative. Today, her trademark “Hari Jari” linings – textile patterns made from colourful ribbons – have made their way into fashion capitals and Hollywood movies. Her fledgling enterprise supports over 50 women, who take pride in their creativity and their community’s cultural heritage. Pabiben is one of the many under-recognized artist-innovators and creative entrepreneurs who are driving the steady growth of the world’s most untapped startup economy: creative businesses.
The creative economy encompasses every possible manifestation of human creativity – arts, crafts, culture, audio-visuals, design, food, new media, publishing and more. It generates US $2.25 trillion in revenue and creates nearly 30 million jobs globally, according to this EY Report, and is growing at almost 12% annually within developing economies, according to Cornerstone Capital. While North America and Europe are significant players, the Asia-Pacific region leads the market in terms of revenue (US $743 billion) and jobs (12.7 million), with Latin America and Africa fast catching up. In light of those numbers, global institutions like the Aspen Institute, Nesta, Upstart Co-Lab, the British Council and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) are spotlighting its power to drive jobs, equity, sustainable development and overall well-being. Knowingly or unknowingly, our lives, actions and emotions are impacted by the work of creatives. We laugh watching the television shows they produce; we read their words with our morning coffee; we use technology designed by them; we dance to their tunes, and wear the products of their imagination as our identities.
Here are four critical reasons why this sector should be on the radar of impact investors, non-profits and other actors in the innovation ecosystem.
The Future of Jobs is Creativity-Led
As automation and artificial intelligence disrupt lives and societies, the workforce of the future will need to be skilled in areas that can’t be replicated by new technologies – including “human” skills like creativity, resilience, emotional intelligence and complex problem-solving, according to the World Economic Forum. According to LinkedIn’s latest analysis, creativity tops the charts of the most desired “soft skills” among employers in 2020. Those who work within the creative economy – artistic and creative workers – not only possess these traits, but also are adept at managing uncertainty, failure and change, an important competency in today’s workplace. As a result, they offer a valuable talent pool to fill the creativity gap within most organizations. And with tech-enabled platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video creating new markets for diverse forms of entertainment, the growing demand for storytellers and creative technicians will need to be met. These trends present a clear opportunity within developing economies, where vulnerable employment affects three out of four workers.
Meaning is the New Currency, for Employers, Workers and Consumers Alike
The paradox of prosperity is central to our lives today: While many people’s standards of living have improved, their life satisfaction remains static. This explains why “more people – liberated by prosperity but not fulfilled by it – are resolving the paradox by searching for meaning,” in the words of Daniel Pink, the author of “A Whole New Mind.” We want this meaning not just as customers, but also as employees, investors and managers, argue Drewell and Larsson in “The Rise of the Meaningful Economy.” Meaning is the new currency for Millennials and Generation Z, the workforce of the future who are fast moving into their economic prime – and seeking jobs that allow them to advocate for causes they believe in. The creative economy embodies this meaning and is primed for growth, making it more resilient to economic downturn than most industries, according to UNCTAD.
Creativity and Culture Offer a Rich Landscape for Portfolio Diversification
The creative economy offers an active playground for tech-integrated solutions and new business models. Plus, culture and creativity are fast becoming a focal point for global tourism and sustainable business environments. For example, countries in the MENA region that want to diversify their portfolios to reduce their dependence on hydrocarbons are heavily invested in the creative economy. The small country of Qatar is home to the Aljazeera Network, a global media company, and it will soon host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. It has also built three museums – the Museum of Islamic Art, the National Museum and the Orientalist Museum – within the last decade.
Creative Industries are Leaders in Impact, Equity and Sustainable Development
Global institutions and CEOs across the world have agreed – businesses need to focus less on narrow shareholder interests and more on making a positive contribution to society. Many creative entrepreneurs not only work at the intersection of profit and purpose, but also take sustainability quite seriously. For example, there’s been a boom in sustainable fashion led by young, impact-driven creative entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, big retail brands like Ikea, Muji, Target and Costco are partnering with communities to source more unique products, thus driving demand for the craft-based skills of artisanal communities (a huge subset of the creative economy) that were traditionally overlooked. The creative economy also offers a low barrier to entry, making it possible for traditionally underserved communities to participate easily. In Latin America, for example, we see a higher participation of women in this economy as compared to other industries, according to IDB’s Launching an Orange Future.
Current Innovation Structures Exclude Creativity-led Solutions
Back in 2005, John Howkins noted, “Creativity can lead to innovation. Innovation seldom leads to creativity.” In other words, creativity is a mindset that needs to be cultivated to drive innovation, and the creative economy already offers a plethora of tools and solutions to do so. But despite this economy’s existing contributions and the opportunities it presents, current innovation structures – incubators, accelerators, startup competitions, investment agencies and philanthropic organizations – have not stepped up to support its growth at scale. Let’s explore some of the limitations faced by most creative entrepreneurs, which often stem from – and perpetuate – this lack of support.
Society tends to perceive creativity as an indulgence, not as a means to value creation. This is reflected in our education, our policies and our approach to work, especially in the Global South: Both young students and seasoned professionals are often steered toward careers and skills that focus on hard sciences and easily quantifiable value. But despite the lack of validation from business and education, many people do follow their creative purpose. They see gaps in the market, or pressing challenges that need solutions. They begin to address these, as part-time creators or workers within the growing gig economy. What’s Airbnb Experiences if not a snapshot of this untapped landscape of creative workers?
However, when creatives are ready to build a stable career around their solutions, they realize that the shift to entrepreneurship is not easy – it’s hard to access traditional business skills, and the existing language, culture and practices of the entrepreneurial lifestyle do not work for them. They’re told that if their solutions leverage future-ready technologies or promise scale, they stand a better chance of finding financial support – yet even if their ideas can be scaled to drive impact, the current innovation ecosystem takes a one-size-fits-all approach to business incubation.
Most creative enterprises will rarely have relevant proof points around scalability and profitability, and they lack access to networks, mentors, investors and supporters who understand what creative workers do, and how to support them. As a result, creative businesses are typically not included in traditional investment portfolios rooted in the Silicon-Valley-like rhetoric of measurable, exponential growth within a short time. The lack of outlets for their creative training and skills often leads to a crisis of confidence – and a reluctant return to the traditional workplace.
Making matters worse, currently there is very little data about the creative enterprise community – who these individuals are, where they live and how they operate. For example, official estimates of the number of artisans working in India stand at 23 million, but unofficial figures claim 200 million. This is just one of the many instances where creative workers and entrepreneurs fall through the data gap.
Lastly, the lack of well-rounded impact measurement tools affect creative enterprises the most; we often fall prey to the “tyranny of the quantifiable,” in which “what can be measured almost always takes precedence over what cannot,” in the words of the writer Rebecca Solnit. For example, how should we measure the impact of music on health and workplace productivity, or art education on children’s motor skills? A narrow view of measuring value currently dictates policy at every stage, further hindering sustainable venture creation in the communities that need it the most.
Building Creative Capital for the Future
The creative economy is already a big contributor to economic growth and cultural dynamism within our societies today. Plus, creativity-led solutions have the ability to work across sectors and development priorities – from health and education, to environment, gender and livelihoods – and they can be harnessed to advance all 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals. Imagine what could happen if creative entrepreneurs had the right support – a goal the impact investing and the social innovation sectors are well-placed to advance. Some possible focus areas could include:
- Helping maximize the entrepreneurial potential of the creative community, whose business skills remain under-explored and untapped. This will require a commitment to transforming the current, highly skewed perception of creative value.
- Enabling more reliable data and classification, which would help make a stronger case for expanded investment and support of the sector.
- Offering funding that’s patient and catalytic, and adopting future-ready frameworks anchored in sustainable values, like the Zebra Manifesto, that will ensure the scalability of creative startups.
By helping close the technology, education, data and investment gap within the creative economy, impact-focused actors can direct the future course of the creative economy. Here are a few examples of those stepping up to champion the creative cause:
- Ecosystem builders like Creative Business Cup, Artisan Alliance, DICE Fund, Fashion for Good and Glug Events are creating global platforms that serve the needs of the creative community;
- Emerging technologies promise to enhance the value of creativity-led solutions;
- Crowd-funding platforms are enabling creative businesses to raise capital, and
- Investors and global banks are warming up to the idea of supporting creative solutions.
Creativity provides vital support to our societies, organizations and innovation ecosystems, and the creativity deficit is affecting all of us – as workers, leaders and innovators. We can no longer afford to downgrade and stigmatize creativity-led solutions for being too small, or for not fitting into a box. Instead, as leaders working toward greater impact, it is imperative that we build an inclusive ecosystem that supports and preserves the millions of artist-innovators and creative entrepreneurs like Pabiben Rabari working around the globe.
Priya Krishnamoorthy is a storyteller, creative impact strategist, Fulbright scholar, and the Founder and Chief Collaborator at 200millionartisans.com, an initiative that aims to reimagine the potential for craft in India through radical collaborations around knowledge, resources and partnerships for collective well-being.
Photo: Creative entrepreneur Pabiben Rabari (front center) and her co-workers – image provided by author.