Valnalón, in La Felguera, Asturias, northern Spain, is the site of a project supported by the EU's EQUAL Community Initiative which has developed a chain of educational activities to stimulate entrepreneurship, especially among women and young people.
Responding to industrial restructuring by opening up entrepreneurship to young people and women
The Technological City of Valnalón sprang from the ashes of one of the most severe processes of industrial restructuring in Europe. Over the last 25 years, Valnalon has developed a complete "chain" of educational and training activities to forge a culture of entrepreneurship in an area that had grown used to dependence on never-ending mineral resources, big companies and help from "father" state. Through its participation in three EQUAL projects, Valnalón has managed to move a series of excluded groups, like women and rural youth, closer to the "fast track" of business creation.
One of the main aims of the EU's Lisbon Agenda is to promote a "more entrepreneurial culture and create a supportive environment for SMEs". This is seen as a major challenge in Spain where according to a recent study "47% of parents encourage their children to look for a job in the public sector as the best career option". However, it is an even bigger challenge for regions like Asturias which, after nearly 200 years of relative prosperity based on coalmining and steel, has lost nearly a quarter of its jobs in just two decades. The consequences are that the rate of unemployment among young people is nearly 40% in the former steel industry areas like Valnalón.
The Director of the Technological City of Valnalon, José Manuel Pérez, argues that to deal with this kind of situation it is important to start changing mindsets at a very early age. "To become an entrepreneur is like becoming a sportsman. If you really want to do it, you have to start when you are 5 years old", he says. This is exactly what they have done. Over 52,000 people of all ages have now taken part in their many programmes. Günter Verheugen, Vice President of the European Commission in charge of Enterprise and Industry, says: "take note of what is happening in certain Asturian schools and institutes. If we want to create more employment, Europe needs more young people who are prepared to take risks and create their own employment."
There are eight projects in Asturias financed by the second round of EQUAL, all of which are led by the Regional Government. The EQUAL project "Equality Creates Enterprise", in which Valnalon is a partner, together with the Regional Women's Institute, the Women's World Bank, and several trades unions and employers' federations, wants to apply 20 years of Valnalon's experience in building entrepreneurial culture to support women to set up their own business. As José Manuel Pérez says, thanks to EQUAL, Valnalon now has its "female team".
Valnalon has also participated in two other EQUAL projects - "Empezar" and "Equal Avanza" - which focus on spreading entrepreneurship culture even further, among young people living in many of the region's remote rural areas. Through all these projects EQUAL has allowed Valnalon to adapt its highly innovatory methodology to reach groups who do not normally benefit from programmes for industrial restructuring.
From coal and steel to the hearts and minds of entrepreneurs
Way back in 1987, the Regional Government handed José Manuel Perez the keys of the former offices of "Duro Felguera" and asked him to find alternatives to what was previously the most important and prosperous steel factory in Spain. Valnalon, the regional government owned company directed by José Manuel, transformed part of the premises into the region's first business centre. But what companies were going to come there?
It was clear that the business centre lacked "raw material" - but now the raw material was not to be found in the ground - it lay in the creativity of existing and future generations of Asturian people. Valnalon's success in fashioning an entrepreneurial culture that taps this creativity is based upon a number of key lessons which have great relevance for other EU countries. These findings have been adapted through EQUAL to fit the specific needs of women and other groups.
First of all, Valnalon considers that it is important to intervene across the complete life cycle in a way which it compares to training for a "high risk sport". The process starts with "little sportsmen and women in primary school; it is still with them when they enter the junior team in secondary school; the best ones then go to the professional team". At every stage, the students have "specialist trainers" to support them, but success depends on their own efforts.
Secondly, Valnalon has imaginatively adapted their training methodology to recreate real life situations at every stage of the process. For example, in primary school, Valnalon's EME Programme transforms the entire class into a real cooperative. The children make the]]rules of the cooperative, they design and make the products - puppets, flower pots, hair slides, dolls... - as well as the marketing and publicity campaign. The great moment arrives in May, when they all get together in the marketplace of their hometown and actually sell the products. Finally, they decide themselves what to do with the profit.
The process is taken one step further in the next lap of the "race". Under Valnalon's EJE programme, young secondary school students between 12 and 16 years old also create and manage their own cooperatives, but this time for international trade. They invest their own money and get in touch with other cooperatives in Spain or, even better, in other countries. For this they have a range of options in places where Valnalon has transferred its methodology: eight other regions of Spain as well as Mexico, the United States, Canada, the UK, Northern Ireland, Sweden, Norway, Poland, Slovakia and Belarus. The cooperatives trade using new technology and communicating in English. There is even an agreement with the regional bank to support the cooperatives with microcredit.
Valnalon also operates a series of programmes in universities. The top "athletes" can perfect their business ideas in Valnalon's incubator and when they are ready, they can start to trade in Valnalon´s Business Centre, where they have three years to consolidate their company. Another interesting feature of Valnalon's approach is that it does not see entrepreneurship simply as a set of technical skills such as book-keeping and marketing which are only useful to private businesses. It sees it is as a much broader set of attitudes and competences like team working, decision-making, risk-taking, innovating and so on which can be applied in all walks of life. So they argue that those who don't go on to become professional "sportsmen and women" can practice their entrepreneurial skills as employees within private companies and in the public sector (they have coined the phrase intra-entrepreneurs) as well as within the community as social entrepreneurs.
Finally, Valnalon realises that it is not possible to change mindsets simply through innovatory educational methodologies. There is also need for far-reaching work with other stakeholders like teachers, parents and the rest of the community.
Equality is good for business
Iron, steel and mining make for an overwhelmingly male work culture and, unsurprisingly, most of the redundancies that took place in these industries in Asturias were made up of men. However, 60% of the people unemployed in the region are women. Rafael Vigil, an adviser in Valnalon's Incubator Unit, recognises that there are differences between the needs of women and men entrepreneurs: "Women's projects take longer to mature. Women also stay longer in the incubator - around a year compared to six months for men".
So the EQUAL project "Equality Creates Enterprises" builds on Valnalon's methodology to reach out and deal with the specific needs of women entrepreneurs. The project has three parts: firstly a study on the causes of discrimination against women in the Asturian job market; secondly an e-commerce platform to help the women promote and sell their products; and thirdly, a school for women entrepreneurs.
The latter is the heart and most innovative part of the project. According to Maria José Ramos, a regional minister, "the project aims to develop a new way of intervening in the labour market from a gender perspective". The study has helped the project identify six key barriers faced by women entrepreneurs in Asturias and the school based in the old steel company premises has tried to find solutions to each of them.
- Lack of time and the burden of family responsibilities: The solution found by Valnalón is based upon designing a short 64-hour starter's course for women entrepreneurs, which is both flexible and mobile. Childcare comes as part of the package.
The school´s core team is composed of six women. Although they are based in Valnalón's offices they move to where the women are. They identify possible participants in the course by contacting local territorial agencies and organisations that already know the women. This is one of the strong points of the programme: the school reaches many women through local agencies, so these agencies do not see EQUAL as a competitor.
When they have reached enough women for the course (around 10-15), the school makes personal contact with them to adjust the location, dates and timetables of the course to their needs. Women are even given the possibility of following different modules of the course in other places. Finally, quality childcare is provided in the form of the Schools ludoteca.
- Lack of confidence and self-esteem: The women often have the basic experience and competence required for the business world but they haven't developed these into the skills required for running a business. For example sometimes they know how to make something but not how to sell it. The solution adopted by the women's school is to devote the first 12 hours of the course to role playing and other activities designed to increase confidence and self-esteem. This increases capacity of the women to identify what they already know and what they need to know to launch a business.
- Lack of certain skills in business management and new technology: Using Valnalon's experience, the course builds both these aspects into a series of short highly practical modules that relate to real life.
- Lack of adequate finance: Experience shows that often the investment is less than one thinks - similar to buying a small car. The solution found by EQUAL to the lack of adequate finance is to bring in the Women's World Bank to provide micro-loans adapted to the needs of the women entrepreneurs.
- Lack of support from the family: To some observers it seems that when a man starts up a business the whole family usually chips in. But when a woman wants to start a business they say 'I suppose you know what you're doing'." This is linked to the following point...
- The dominance of a male entrepreneurial culture: Women not only tend to get less support from their families but also from business networks and institutions. To overcome this, the Women's Entrepreneurship School had its activities assessed by a panel of 12 business women from different sectors. The teachers are also mainly business women themselves to make them as close and approachable to the people who attend the course. When they have completed the course, the women can use female tutor from Valnalon´s Project Incubator Unit to support the launching of their companies.
Long journeys start with small steps
The EQUAL project Equality creates Enterprise was only launched in the summer of 2005 by the spring of 2006 it was very early to judge results. The aim is to train 480 women by 2007 and the project has already had to double its initial expectations. The 95 women trained in 2005 are working on 30 business ideas and have already launched four companies. But more fundamentally the goal of EQUAL, like that of Valnalón, is to change attitudes.
Valnalon is also partner in another EQUAL project that is applying the same methodology to reach young people in the rural world. The aim of the EMPEZ@R project is prepare a new brand of young entrepreneurs who can modernise the food and agricultural sectors of these areas, thereby helping to improve their image and sense of identity. Valnalon is in charge of training the rural business advisers.
In the project AVANZA, Valnalon also provides training to the staff of rural development agencies. This time, however, the target groups are mainly young women, adults older than 40 and entrepreneurs in small municipalities. The aim is to spread an entrepreneurial culture to the furthest corners of the region.
The credibility of Valnalon and the presence of other key institutional partners such as the Asturian Women's Institute, various regional government organisations and the social partners also increases the chances of mainstreaming the lessons from all these initiatives. For example, Valnalón's EJE programme has already been incorporated officially into the educational curriculum in Asturias. Today 1,600 students in Spain are busily involved in the programme and have created 70 cooperatives.
Transnationality: The programme has been translated into Basque, Catalan, English and Polish and is being used in 135 schools in 11 countries. So the prospects for spreading the lessons from EQUAL are bright.
DP name: Equality Creates Enterprise (LICEA - La Igualdad Crea Empresas en Asturias)
DP ID: ES-ES20040195
National Partners: Banco Mundial de la Mujer, Comisiones Obreras, DG Formación Profesional (Consejería de Educación y Ciencia), FADE, Federación Asturiana de Empresarias y Directivas, Fundación Metal Asturias, Fundación Universidad de Oviedo, Instituto Asturiano de la Mujer, Instituto de Desarrollo Rural, UGT Asturias, Valnalón.
Transnacional Partners: Cerdeña (Agricultor@: Sostantivo Femminile. DP ID: IT-IT-G2-SAR-012); Amiens (Articuler les temps de vie : un enjeu de perennite pour les entreprises familiales. DP ID : FR-PCD-2004-44004)
TCA ID: 3935
Contact DP: Marta M Rodríguez Díaz
Contact Valnalon: Jose Manuel Pérez
Telephone: +34 985 69 22 27
Other DPs participated in by Valnalon: EQUAL Avanza (ES-20040198), EMPEZ@R Emprendedores en zonas rurales (ES-20040536)
 Microeconomic guideline 10 of the Integrated Guidelines for Growth and Jobs refers to the need to "promote a more entrepreneurial culture and create a supportive environment for SMEs". Employment guideline 16 refers to strengthening social and territorial cohesion, while employment guideline 18 refers to inclusive labour markets.
 GEM 2000 Emprende Report.
 Asturias lost 100,000 jobs over the last 20 years. The rate of unemployment among young people is 38.5% in the former steel industry areas and 33% for the whole region. This is creating massive outmigration among the most educated young people.
 EME (Empresa en Mi Escuela - a company in my school). Since the start of the programme 8,264 children have participated in it from 361 schools. 447 cooperatives have been created. In 2005, 1,935 children took part in the programme. The methodology of the EME programme has been taken by schools in Navarra and in Canary Islands.
 EJE : Empresa Joven Europea - Young European Enterprise.
 In the Young Social Entrepreneur programme, in Secondary school, NGOs like the Red Cross support the school associations created by the class that works with a international cooperation project.
 "Consejera de Presidencia", Principado de Asturias