From Surviving to Thriving – How Can Digital and Mentoring Boost Vulnerable SMBs in Europe?

Anita Tiessen
Anita Tiessen Chief Executive Officer Youth Business International

Across Europe the devastating economic impact of COVID-19 has exacerbated the challenges faced by small business owners. Medium, small and micro enterprises (MSMEs) across Europe, especially those led by women, young people, ethnic minorities, and migrants, were significantly impacted by COVID-19 with the vast majority facing major financial difficulties. 

With the support of a $5M grant from Google.org and practical support from Google employees, YBI has provided integrated support for youth entrepreneurship in 32 countries globally, including 14 across Europe.  

Our new report Refocus, Retool, Reset: Insights from Youth Business International’s COVID-19 Rapid Response & Recovery Programme reflects on the insights and findings of this programme and identifies essential areas for future support that will ensure entrepreneurs have the emotional resilience, agility, and resources to allow them to build back stronger and harness new opportunities post-pandemic.  
Speaking on a panel as part of Google Skills Week, Anita Tiessen, CEO of Youth Business International reflected on the importance of digital support and the crucial role of mentors to realise the potential of young entrepreneurs and ensure that they and their businesses are best placed to be resilient to future economic shocks.  
The importance of investing in digitalisation cannot be underestimated. Many young entrepreneurs had very limited digital skills prior to the pandemic, but without digitalisation and moving online, their businesses would have failed. In our experience, even small predominately face-to-face businesses really benefit from digitalisation and many of the entrepreneurs we support now feel It’s a crucial part of their future resilience.  

“For me, a digital business model wasn’t something I had considered before. Since I started my web shop and really used time and energy to create social media content and outreach, I see all the digital potential for me and my business strategy. It is great to interact with my customers on social media, create stories or posts that answer their questions, and let them be part of my entrepreneurial story.” 

-Reimo Peters, owner of Reimos Brauwerk, supported by KIZ Sinnova (KIZ) Germany

 Reimo Peters Owner of Reimos Brauwerk, supported by KIZ Sinnova (KIZ) Germany 

Moreover, it’s been found entrepreneurs with digital maturity tend be better placed to adapt and pivot to the challenges in the longer-term. For ESOs in Europe to help entrepreneurs continue to cross the digital divide and maximise opportunities in digital economies YBI recommends the most effective support will be through digital accelerators, guidance around digital marketing and visibility, as well as practical advice on the legal and security components. In particular ESOs need to develop their packages around SEO and addressing legal digital risks around data gathering and GDPR.  
One of the biggest challenges facing young entrepreneurs over the past year has been their emotional resilience and ability to cope with the double crisis that hit their businesses and the economy. We found the relationship between mentor and mentee could mean the difference between success and failure for some businesses.   
Mentoring is crucial part of everything we do at YBI – our evidence has shown that business owners who receive mentoring have increased confidence, improved decision making skills and better business performance. It’s a two way relationship too – our mentors also find it profoundly impactful on themselves.  
Another key benefit of mentoring programmes for young entrepreneurs is the role they can play in providing role models and visibility, particularly for female entrepreneurs as well as those in minority or underserved groups. We found a strong link between accessible role models and increased confidence for entrepreneurs. 

Mentoring is a key opportunity for Google and other big tech companies to really get involved. Most micro-entrepreneurs will use the most popular and easily available tech tools to maximise their business. We have found that mentors who are highly skilled and knowledgeable , like Googlers can be of huge value sharing their skills and expertise with young entrepreneurs.     

“If I had drawn a wish list of experience in a mentor – my Googler easily surpassed it. I felt very lucky to have the opportunity to speak with her about this project; she came up with loads of great ideas and tangible ways to get started – which is what I needed. It helped spark the match.” 

Laura Bloomer Founder at Backed Technologie Supported by Hatch, UK 

For policy makers across Europe wanting to support young entrepreneurs enabling better access to state support to those who are currently blocked from receiving it due to barriers such as age or citizenship status, will ensure that more businesses are able to thrive and contribute to economies. It’s also important to democratize digital technologies as across Europe there are still vast areas and rural communities with poor infrastructure for and limited access to the internet. 
The future for Europe’s young entrepreneurs remains hopeful but uncertain. With the right role models, access to the support needed to transform digitally and maximise digital opportunities today’s small businesses will be shaping tomorrow’s world.  

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