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Why Spain's Economic Doldrums Could Be Good -- For Startups

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AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Spain is having a rough month. Again.

Standard & Poor's downgraded its rating on the country by two notches last week, which has brought Spain close to junk status. On Saturday, thousands of people marched through the streets of Madrid, where they protested the Spanish government's latest austerity cuts. And the country's hiring situation remains bleak, with unemployment hovering around 25 percent.

But could this kind of sour environment ultimately turn out to be a sweet one for start-ups?

"This landscape is perfect for entrepreneurship," says Josemaria de Churtichaga, associate dean for IE School of Architecture in Madrid. "I'm not defending the crisis but in some way the crisis is helping to change or should help to change the attitude within the young people, which I think is the mass that is suffering more -- and, at the same time, is the mass that has been living too well for the last decades, too protected from their parents, too protected by the state."

Certain universities in Spain are more aggressively pushing for the creation of homegrown entrepreneurs who could launch and oversee new ventures -- and the Spaniards who might work there. One tactic, besides teaching courses on entrepreneurship: getting students from business schools as well as engineering or science departments to participate in startup or acceleration labs, and prepping recent grads to pitch their business plans in front of potential investors. But the academic efforts may also mean students -- both those wanting to launch a business, and others seeking a job at an existing organization -- need to be taught to become much more competitive as a way to survive in Spain's uncertain economy. "I sometimes wonder whether we should emphasize more some facets of managerial personality, like competition," says Santiago Iniguez de Onzono, dean of IE Business School in Madrid. "Should we make our graduates more fierce, more willing to compete in a really tough way as some others do?"

Companies are also playing a nurturing role in the growth of new startups. Everis, a technology consultancy that is headquartered in Madrid, hosts speed dating-like meetings between entrepreneurs and investors, who boast more than 40 million euros in funds to help grow startups during the first stage of operation. The initiative could spur innovation and job creation in the country's tech sector, says David Garcia Hernandez, a director at Eversis.
Creative minds have also carved out a space in an old garage near Madrid's CaixaForum Museum for entrepreneurs who want to start or nurture enterprises with a socially driven mission. Known as Hub Madrid, which launched three years ago, it is designed to be a shared working space where member entrepreneurs "are challenging you, provoking you, inspiring you to do what it is you're passionate about and also makes an impact," says Max Oliva, a Hub Madrid co-founder.

Around 300 members have been paying between 15 to 300 euros a month to garner access to this shared space. It encourages collaboration through rounded desks, where there is no hierarchical "head" of the table, as well as non-ergonomic seats that regularly "encourage" people to get up and mingle near the kitchen or a library built of old wine cases. A second floor is being completed, where giant holes punched through the walls are supposed to encourage more discussion flow -- and better opportunities for eavesdropping, which could lead to new collaborations. "It's an ever-changing space to provoke sparks, to provoke accidents, to provoke failures that are positive failures," says Churtichaga, who helped design Hub Madrid.

Other companies are working closely with local universities to provide additional training to students who are looking for a leg up in a tough hiring climate. Emzingo, for one, sends MBA candidates from Spain and other countries from around the world to South Africa and Peru, where students work with NGOs to improve and expand operations through mini-consulting projects. The for-profit social enterprise provides students with leadership development training as part of the experience and is a growing network of alumni (more than 75 so far), including some who have landed jobs at companies such as McKinsey, PwC, Bayer and Johnson & Johnson. "We're working now [on] placement after the MBA, so that's an extra benefit that you get for going through the program," says Pablo Esteves, who is based in Madrid and works as Emzingo's director of branding and partnerships.