The 99% of Businesses: How can we make SMEs in high-income countries more sustainable? - Willem Overbosch of Ubiquity University

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Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are key players and national economies around the world. They compose 99% of businesses in the OECD area. How can we make SMEs more sustainable and contribute to a better and sustainable future? Listen to Willem Overbosch at the SDG Learncast at #UNSDGLearn.


SDG8: Decent work and economic growth
SDG9: Industry, innovation, and infrastructure
SDG12: Responsible consumption and production
Aligning Business Strategy with Global Goals
2030 Agenda
small enterprise
soft skills

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are key players and national economies around the world. For example, in the OECD area, they represent 99% of all businesses, generating about 60% of employment and between 50% and 60% of value-added. Therefore, SMEs play a major role in delivering growth that is more inclusive and whose benefits are shared more broadly. Are SMEs in high-income countries aware of the sustainable development goals? What changed in the past decades, and how can young people start sustainable entrepreneurship for a better future?

Let’s hear from Willem Overbosch, Head of Global Business Development at Ubiverse, the global community of changemakers at the Ubiquity University. In this podcast, he shares his experience in helping SMEs build and grow their business in the Netherlands and Australia for the past 20 years, the shifts and trends among SMEs, the differences across regions and ages, and his tips to business owners and the young generation of entrepreneurs in building a more inclusive and sustainable business.

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The opinions expressed in the SDG Learncast podcasts are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of UN SDG:Learn, its Joint Secretariat, and partners.

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[Transcript of the podcast]

Paulyn Duman: Hello everyone. Welcome to the SDG Learncast with me Paulyn Duman.  

In every episode, I bring you insightful conversations around the subject of sustainable development and learning, helping us all to achieve a sustainable feature.  

In this episode, we are going to talk about small and medium enterprises or what we call SMEs. SMEs are key players and national economies around the world. For example, in the OECD area, they represent 99% of all businesses, generating about 60% of employment and between 50% and 60% of value-added. This means they can play a role, a major role in delivering growth that is more inclusive and whose benefits are shared more broadly. This is particularly relevant at the time when many countries face the challenges of low growth and productivity, along with rising or persistently high inequality.  

With us today is Willem Overbosch, the global business development manager of Ubiquity University. Willem has more than 20 years of experience in the field of business and has authored books on entrepreneurship. 

Hello Willem, and welcome to the SDG Learncast.  

Willem Overbosch: Hi, Paulyn. Great to be here, thank you! 

Paulyn Duman: Thank you so much for being with us today. Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and your work? 

Willem Overbosch: Yes, I would basically call myself a family man. I’m a father of four kids in the age between 8 and almost 18, living in the Netherlands, lived there basically all my life. Professionally, I’ve been working with entrepreneurship for almost 20 years now. And that all came from a fascination about the rapidly changing world.  


Paulyn Duman: Can you help us understand what is a small and medium business and what is its role in our society? 


Willem Overbosch: Well, Let’s start small with a definition. Entrepreneurship starting, growing and running a business is something that can start really small. So, the definition of a small or micro business is basically less than 10 FTE, so 10 employees. Micro-businesses are basically you, yourself, a solo entrepreneur; and then gradually moving forward to medium businesses, somewhere between 25 and 50; and larger, more businesses up to 250 in staff. That’s basically the definition OECD and the European Union are taking. And if you look at it, it’s basically over 400 million businesses globally. So, it’s an immense population and they provide work and income for their staff. T  hey have a role in society. And basically, they have an impact of over 4.2 billion people if you just add up the numbers. So, it’s an important part of society. 


Paulyn Duman: I’m really curious about what you are seeing as global trends when it comes to entrepreneurship and particularly during this time of the pandemic. Have you seen any global trends in entrepreneurship? 


Willem Overbosch: Well, of course COVID had an impact and what we’ve seen, partly quoting from the global entrepreneurship monitor that is an annual research or report that comes out that gives a global perspective of 43 economies. So, I always like to quote them because they’ve got this global overview. And what they see is that the total economic activity in the Middle East and Africa is booming despite the pandemic. They also see that in Northern Europe and in America, Northern America. Of course, people got a bit afraid of the pandemic, there wasn’t that much economic activity in starting new businesses. And if you look at Asia, there is a growing number of people that start businesses. But the interesting fact is they are a lot older than their European and Northern European counterparts. So, we see trends, we see differences in people starting a business. And that tells us something about the economic perspective about the opportunity people see, and about the social circumstances of actually becoming an entrepreneur and starting a business. And that usually differs. Imagine starting a business in Africa or South America or in Asia, compared to Northern America or Europe, there are differences in the way that you are supported from a government level. There are differences in the economy and new opportunities. So, the need to start a business in those Asian and African countries is much higher because it provides you with an income. And in Northern Europe and America, of course it is by choice that you can become an entrepreneur. And that’s a big difference. This is very much in starting a business. If you’re starting a business, there is a big trend. There is the social shift. So, what we see across the world is that the shareholder value first, so the investor or shareholder first economically driven, is slowly shifting towards a shared values where there’s more balance between the business, its role in society and the impact on the environment. The triple bottom line is the term, the show associated with that, but you can clearly see a shift from doing business for good is good for business; and taking care of the community around you and making sure that you don’t take more of the Earth without giving back. So, I think that’s a major shift that’s also supported by the SDGs . 


Paulyn Duman: I wanted to go back to what you’ve mentioned earlier about the differences in regions and in countries. Aside from the regional differences that you also see, differences between the younger and the older entrepreneurs? Are they different? 


Willem Overbosch: Again, it is good to take that global perspective and the global entrepreneurship monitor has those 43 countries. That’s really good to see that basically Northern Europe and America, Guatemala, Egypt, they have the youngest group, 18 to 24. If I compare that with the Netherlands where I support a lot of local entrepreneurial programs in schools, it’s part of your education. It’s part of setting the scene for future development that entrepreneurship is a career choice. That’s really something where governments play a huge role. So, in Northern America and Europe, that’s managed, in the majority of the other countries there, you can see that people are older when they start a business. So that’s an age thing. And the oldest generations are in Central and Eastern Asia where people are between 55 and 64 before they start a business, so that’s really at the end of the life cycle, and that might have to do with a role government or education even plays in setting the scene and preparing young adults and even children in being able to develop an entrepreneurial mindset, to develop skills that are relevant in a rapidly changing world. And I think that education has a huge role to play in developing current and future entrepreneur.  


Paulyn Duman: So, let me unpack teaching entrepreneurship. Why is it so important to teach entrepreneurship in schools and what is the benefit that you see if you start young as opposed to waiting a bit more? Is there a difference? 


Willem Overbosch: Oh, sure. I start young, failed a lot. I think that entrepreneurship has to do with your ability to fail, your ability to recuperate when things go wrong, it has to do with your ability to be resilient, to adapt, to change the environments. And those are all like muscles. You can develop those muscles, so you can basically learn how to do that. You can develop a skill to see opportunity. You can develop skills and an entrepreneurial mindset. You can learn these things Paulyn, and that’s why it’s so important to teach young kids. They have an open mind. They are not biased by years and years of education or years and years of hard life. So, the earlier you begin with creating an opportunity, and it is a skill set. So, once you show people the alternative future ahead of you, if you just practice and just go out there and do it. And schools, of course, are at school at young ages in the human development index shows that education is more and more important, SDG4, quality education for all, very relevant. And I definitely think entrepreneurial education should be a part of that because it impacts a community and it impacts the economic success of not only the individual, the entrepreneur, but the people yeah, teaching young people, entrepreneurial skills, entrepreneurial mindsets, and giving them knowledge to take responsibility of their own lives and create a better future. Not making money per se, but creating a better future is something that we should really strive for.  


Paulyn Duman: We can all hear your passion about really pushing forward for the younger generation of entrepreneurs.  But how are you supporting the work of, let’s say new SMEs or like this new, small, medium businesses, but also those that have been around for a long time. Can you tell us some more about the work around this? 


Willem Overbosch: Entrepreneurship is a business. That’s step one. It might be about failing a business, but it is about growing and running a business most of the time, and I’ve been there myself. You’ll run a business and while you run a business there’s new things happening every day. As an entrepreneur, you get, or as a business owner, whatever name you want to give it, but you will encounter questions, new challenges, things you weren’t anticipating every day and every day, you’re looking for new information. Every day you want to learn, you have to learn because you’ve got this new situation that you have to handle, or there’s new change that you have to adapt to, or the new regulation that comes in that basically throws your business model, all over the shop. 

So, supporting as a means in their day-to-day work with how to content is something that’s very relevant. The way I did that over the past 15, 20 years’ worth with online content. So, think about eBooks, think about websites, where you could find answers to questions that you have at that moment. Think about peer-to-peer learning, where you can talk to other entrepreneurs who have had the same experience. Those ways of supporting mentoring, coaching current generations of entrepreneurs is something that is very relevant. Governments are stepping in that area. Many universities are teaching entrepreneurship. But entrepreneurship is not necessarily an academic thing, right? Entrepreneurship is about doing; it’s about making your hands dirty and getting into it. If you’re too academic about entrepreneurship, you’ll be able to say why you are going to do it, but the how and the what is what makes your business, actually talking to that customer, actually going out there and, get that bang on the nose and get that rejection from people who are not understanding what you want to do.  


Paulyn Duman: And of course, we are at the SDGLearnCast and our focus is about sustainable development, the sustainable development goals, the 2030 agenda for sustainable development. And in your experience for more than 20 years, what does sustainable development or sustainability mean for businesses? 


Willem Overbosch: It really means sitting down with your team and talk about it, sitting down with your team and assessing in what kind of business context you operate. If you’re operating a restaurant, it might mean buying local. If you’re operating a retail shop, it might mean buying different products that are produced sustainably. If you’re operating a consultancy firm, it might mean give everybody a card for public transportation, minimize your carbon footprint and make sure that people are able to balance their work life. So, sustainability in every sector, in every region of the world means different things. If you look at Africa, South Africa, mainly it is of course, about gender equality. If you look at South America, it might be more the opportunity. If you look at Asia, it might be really fundamental in making sure that the zero hunger and the primary needs are covered for it. 


Paulyn Duman: What made me think about what you just said is you have to sit with your team and you have to ask what sustainability mean for us, but that assumes SMEs or the business owners or people who are working in the small and medium businesses are already aware of sustainability. So, in your experience, how much are the SMEs aware of SDGs?  


Willem Overbosch: Well, recently I’ve done a research in the Netherlands. It is global research by the World Economic Forum that investigated that more generally the familiarity citizens have with the SDGs. And I was basically blown away by the fact that the majority doesn’t know about the SDGs. The difference with small-medium enterprises, they might not know that the framework of sustainable development goals it’s neither what they would define what they do as sustainable, but in their day-to-day practice because they are locally based, most of them, they do business in their region, they do business in their city, or even in their village. They are very connected with society. They play a role in local sports clubs. They play a role in hiring people, maybe with a disability, they play a role in sourcing local foods and sourcing local materials. They play a role in looking after the environment and they provide income to their staff. It is in that translation. When they are looking for that next challenge. And that’s what I like about providing support to current generations of entrepreneurs. They go out on the internet and find a solution to a problem right. Just Google it. That’s what they do. So yeah, I have to be there at that moment when they Google a question, like how do I hire someone with a disability. How do I do that? So, the ‘how do I do that’ question for entrepreneurs is asked every day, multiple times a day. And that’s the opportunity for the conversation. That’s the opportunity where if all the partners that are currently working with you at UN SDG:Learn translate the more theoretical academic or complex frameworks to the language of the day-to-day questions entrepreneurs have. That’s where the opportunity is for the translation. And that from a Ubiquiti perspective is also where the opportunity is for the translation from complex terminology, like cross-cutting skills, soft skills. I can help you solve a problem. I can help you become better at creativity. I can help you to train your staff. I can help you to become that change maker. I can help you to become a business for good because it’s good for business. 


Paulyn Duman: So, I am a busy business owner. I have a lot of things to juggle. There’s a lot of demand and my resources and my time are really limited, but you’re suggesting to me that I need to learn and really know more about sustainable development. Can you encourage me that learning support SMEs? How this learning support, small, and medium enterprise? 


Willem Overbosch: So as a small business owner, as a business owner, and I’m talking from my own experience, and I know that the majority, feels the same. You have an inquisitive mind. You want to know and learn new things, but you want to do that efficiently. So, as you said, you have little time, so any test or a quiz that will give you a quick answer. And then if that triggers you, you will go further. It’s a test you can give to your staff, a test or a scan you can give to a colleague. On SDG:Learn, there are basically two tests as I would like to suggest people have a look at that is the change maker test. It is a not even 10-minute test that asks you questions about your competencies and especially those cross-coding competencies and there are eight of them that are highly rewarded to deal with change. So have a look at UN SDG:Learn for the change-makers scan, take 10 minutes to do it and see the results. The results will give you practical tips for further learning, also on UN SDG:Learn to take courses. 


Paulyn Duman: Good that you mentioned also some of the tips that they can see on the UNSDG:Learn learning platform. And that’s really good because most of our visitors are young people. So, they’re between the age of 18 to 24. And some of our visitors are also coming from the age of 25 to 34. So, there are a lot of young people who are interested in learning more about the sustainable development goals and really achieving a more sustainable future. Can you give tips and lessons for the younger generation? 


Willem Overbosch: So, I would say to all those young people out there scan the horizon, look for opportunity imagined possible futures and not just one, the future doesn’t exist. So that’s a good thing. Take advantage of it and create it yourself. Be inquisitive, hungry for new ideas, experiment and play, and most things you can’t break. So, you just can’t play. Talk to people, your parents maybe, but also friends, neighbors learn, inform yourself, go to UN SDG:Learn and find out about entrepreneurship, don’t be afraid to start. We can see that across the world. People have different ways of feeling uncertainty, but the more you take the future into your own hands, the less you’ll have to be afraid. And if you are afraid, it’s in your mind. There is really nothing to be afraid of. So, if you want to put your mind at ease, write down what you think the risks are and mitigate them, take them away, calculate it if you wanted, it’s just all between your ears and what we entrepreneurs call that. Just create a budget. Just put a couple of numbers to it, and don’t forget to put the impact on the environment and society there because of the business model of the future is a sustainable business model. Define milestones and targets for yourself. Measuring is managing. Be smart. Don’t make too big steps. Make them small, improve on your skills. Go to UN SDG:Learn, take the change-maker scan and improve. Learn how to grow and run a business. And finally, I would say work with autos collaborate, play, make fun. Entrepreneurship is the coolest thing I have ever done. I wish I had started earlier and that’s what I tried to give and pass on to my kids.  


Paulyn Duman: Thank you so much Willem. That was very, very inspiring. It was great to have you here. 


Willem Overbosch: It was a pleasure.  


Paulyn Duman: And that was Willem Overbosch of the Ubiquity University. There were so many lessons we can take away from this conversation. We learned that small and medium enterprises or SMEs play a key role in national economies, for example, in the OECD area, they represent 99% of all businesses. They play a major role in delivering economic growth that is more inclusive and whose benefits can be shared more broadly.  

We also learned that there has been a shift from a ‘shareholder first’ mentality to ‘shared values’ of balancing the role of business in society and their impact on the environment.  

Lastly, Willem also encouraged the younger generation to imagine possible futures and consider entrepreneurship as your own personal path. There are a number of resources and networks available to you that can help you start, grow and run a business that helps achieve a sustainable future for us all.  

Thank you so much for listening to the SDG Learncast. You can find out more information on sustainable development learning on the UN SDG:Learn website. For now, I’m Paulyn Duman. Thanks for listening. 

Paulyn Duman is the Knowledge Management, Communications, and Reporting Officer at the UNSSC Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development and is a coordinator for the Joint Secretariat of UN SDG:Learn, together with UNITAR. 

The opinions expressed in the SDG Learncast podcasts are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of UN SDG:Learn, its Joint Secretariat, and partners.