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Entrepreneurship in Northern Ireland

Andrew Webb Andrew Webb

Received wisdom states that Northern Ireland has low levels of entrepreneurship but if the past three years of Brexit arguments have taught me anything, it is that most things stated as robust fact require a second look. And so it is with our Entrepreneurship story. Yes, we have traditionally been poor at starting new business, but are we still?

Latest data from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) report for Northern Ireland show that over the past 15 years, the proportion of Northern Ireland’s population describing themselves as “early stage entrepreneurs” (those in the process of starting a business or running one for less than 3.5 years) has grown by 75%, to 6.5% of the working-age population. Although this rate still lags behind the UK rate as a whole (8.7%), it is an impressive improvement.

In seeking to understand why people here are motivated to become entrepreneurs, the findings from the GEM report suggest that opportunity (pull factors) are far outweighing necessity (push factors such as losing a job). That finding would be consistent with the strength of the labour market in recent years, which has added tens of thousands of jobs since the depths of the recession.  

The age profiles of people engaged in entrepreneurial activity also throws up some interesting insight. The GEM report looks at rates for 18-29 year olds and 30-64 year olds. At a Northern Ireland level there is little difference in the Total Entrepreneurial Activity (TEA, the primary measure of entrepreneurship in the GEM report) of two age groups. The most notable gaps by age are in Lisburn and Castlereagh, and Antrim and Newtownabbey, where the TEA rate of 30-64 year olds is under half that of 18-29 year olds. Entrepreneurship matters more than ever across our Northern Ireland.  As Brexit uncertainty places a cloud over future prospects for inward investment, and as about 80% of FDI projects go to Belfast anyway, entrepreneurship is vital to local wealth building and delivering on economic growth ambitions.  

This makes good business support all the more crucial. At the last count, there are around 2,000 business support programmes which are being delivered by hundreds of providers. Much of this support is one off transactional type support and doesn’t appear to be making any significant impact on business performance. There is a growing case being made that more effective support will be delivered by moving away from this transactional approach and moving to a relational approach with trusted advisors and mentors that can guide business growth and act as a critical friend. 

So, does the received wisdom still hold? Are we still lagging behind on entrepreneurship? Maybe we are, but there has been a vast improvement.