Norbert Kunz is working to make self-employment a viable career option for disadvantaged populations in Germany. Through a holistic, low-threshold support system with certified trainers, coaches, qualifications, and micro-credits, he brings together all institutional stakeholders to empower and enable youth to take charge of their lives and help improve their communities.
The New Idea
In areas of Germany that are structurally weak and wage-employment is hardly available, people are often forced to relocate, which can be detrimental to communities. To combat this growing trend, Norbert is encouraging self-employment and developing the necessary infrastructure to create new opportunities among unemployed youth.
As an alternative to inefficient government employment training and welfare programs, Norbert has created a tailor-made, low threshold start-up support system, which extensively backs founders of new businesses through a collaborative network. By bringing together relevant stakeholders, including employment agencies, lawyers, banks, politicians, and business entrepreneurs, he is developing procedures and creating the tools necessary to help new small businesses succeed. These partnerships serve to strengthen young entrepreneurs as agents of change in their personal lives while also promoting regional development.
Realizing that unemployment and lack of entrepreneurial awareness are commonplace in many European countries, Norbert has anticipated the growing need to encourage self-employment, particularly in the East. As a result, the structures and policies he has implemented are all entrepreneur-friendly and cross-cultural—best exemplified by the profession of enterprise consultant—to ensure quality start-up support throughout the European Union (EU). Norbert has expanded his program throughout East Germany, reaching more than 1,000 young entrepreneurs and he hopes to do the same throughout Europe in the future.
Germany has traditionally been a wage-employment economy in which jobs are provided by corporations or the government, while a strong welfare state supports the citizens in most need. Because popular opinion has dubbed self-employment an unattainable goal for average citizens, Germany has one of the lowest entrepreneurship rates in the EU. This negative perception is further propagated by the many obstacles facing prospective small business owners as they embark on the start-up process, including a complicated an organizational structure and a lack of communication between key agencies. Additionally, economically disadvantaged youth find it difficult to open their own businesses because of a lack of support from local players.
The professional development of young adults has turned into a “patchwork career” where individuals increasingly take on short-term or part-time job opportunities, freelance, or project-based contracts to secure their livelihood. Rather than successfully fostering self-employment as a viable option or phase in their career, civil servants in German employment agencies still encourage diminishing opportunities rather improving people’s qualifications.
Recently, unemployment benefits have been cut, increasing the pressure on jobless individuals looking to venture out on their own. However, without the necessary societal and governmental support systems in place, more than half of these businesses fail.
The consequences of a lack of support and encouragement for the self-employed are especially felt in Eastern Germany. After the reunification of the country, privatization processes and social turn-around left most regions in the east structurally weak. This disproportionately affects youth, with 19.2 percent unemployed: A figure almost twice the size of that in the west. Those with means and education tend to flee these frail economic conditions and look for work in the west, with approximately 50 percent of emigrants from the east younger than 25 years. Those who choose to stay receive welfare payments or attend temporary governmental measures, such as subsidized employment programs, often with devastating social consequences.
With his Enterprise program, Norbert has developed the first and only comprehensive local venture support system in Germany. He begins by engaging and empowering unemployed and disadvantaged youth through counseling, training, finance, and mentoring. His approach is multi-faceted and begins with a profiling phase where potential candidates meet with trainers from regional Enterprise centers for a series of interviews, to probe their ideas and their motivation. After articulating what their needs and hopes, candidates who prefer employment are linked with businesses and public institutions for education and job opportunities—most of these individuals will later start their own businesses.
After the initial skill assessment, Norbert works to build collaborative networks of small entrepreneurs, corporations, and public institutions to fuel the nascent entrepreneurial activity. Key stakeholders, including chambers of commerce, banks, and labor offices, formally recognize each young business owner’s abilities as outlined through the Enterprise system, and will offer them specialized and targeted support.
To provide permanent financial access for his entrepreneurs, Norbert has involved financial institutions such as the government’s KfW and the first retail bank, Berliner Volksbank, to include micro-lending in the new business owners’ portfolios. Norbert is the first in Germany to convince retail banks to do business with “unbankable” customers, and in doing so, has brought services to a broader population in need. His program’s success has led several banks to design benchmark proposals on how public-private partnerships can cooperate to provide small businesses with seed funding.
In 2002, Norbert took his Enterprise program to structurally weak regions in East Germany using a social franchise system, which resulted in nearly 1,000 formerly unemployed entrepreneurial youth establishing new businesses. As he began to reach more marginalized populations, Norbert realized the sustainability of these businesses relied on both the founder’s relationship with local stakeholders, but also regional entrepreneur-friendly policies. As a result, his program also assists individuals to utilize transnational policies to enhance the quality of support they receive. For instance, Norbert has worked with the EU to ensure both the quality management of his start-up support system and to promote a self-help mentality more broadly. In doing so, he hopes to create a new European profession: The enterprise consultant. He is currently obtaining third party certification from the EU for his entrepreneurial incubator training. Graduates will be entitled to do start-up consulting based on his methodology. Germany was the first to launch the program in the summer of 2007, while a training curriculum was established with Spanish and English partners.
Norbert’s Enterprise program has been adopted by the European Union’s EQUAL program as a best practice tool for job integration and alternative employment opportunities. His tools will especially be applied for regional development of the new EU membership countries in Eastern Europe, but also in the U.K. and Spain.
Born to a family of simple means, Norbert was expected to leave school at sixteen and work. When he voiced his desire to attend high school, his parents were shocked. It was the encouragement of one insightful teacher that gave him the confidence he needed to proceed with entry exams. Having felt the effect of positive reinforcement from a mentor, Norbert was driven to give others the same opportunity. He began coaching football teams, and reaching out to marginalized youth. He later studied business education to help young people realize their professional aspirations.
As a member of the Green Party, Norbert travelled to El Salvador to conduct a feasibility study of development projects the party had supported. He was sobered by what he saw and realized how little top-down initiatives impacted society where civil structures were weak. When he returned to Germany, he decided to encourage a self-help mentality instead of waiting for top-down developments to bring about change.
Norbert started implementing his vision in 1992 when he created Germany’s first customized qualification program. He designed a modular vocational training for disadvantaged youngsters that focused on developing the skills and talents necessary for success. He was able to persuade trade unions and official agencies to formally recognize the youth’s skills despite their lack of experience, and allowed them to enter the official vocational schooling, choosing only those curricular modules that were new to them. Among his target group were dramatically increased graduation and employment rates, and now all public services offer modular vocational training.
In the mid 1990s, Norbert moved to East Germany, where he created and delivered qualification programs to youth. He saw that the government’s vocational and employment support was focused on wage-employment while in real life, such opportunities hardly existed. He visited mentoring programs for youngsters abroad, and ultimately launched his initiative to build an infrastructure that enables youth in structurally weak regions to sustain their own livelihood.