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Shape Europe: Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Pastries in Portugal

09/15/2014 05:11 EDT | Updated 11/15/2014 05:59 EST

Readers are likely familiar with the expression "When in Rome..." though they may be less familiar with its Portuguese cousin: when in Lisbon, eat pastries...and innovate! It was a thrill to join over 70 Global Shapers from all across the Eurozone -- as well as India, Ukraine, and Russia -- for SHAPE Europe, hosted by the Lisbon Hub of the World Economic Forum's Global Shapers Community. I was fortunate to be invited to attend as a member of the Ottawa Hub studying in Paris for the semester.

After attending the action-packed SHAPE North America in Detroit in June (see my reflection piece here), I thought I knew what to expect when I arrived in Portugal's flavourful, festive capital. I expected that I would meet local agents of social change in Lisbon -- chief among them, the members of the Global Shapers Hub.

I also expected to meet an extremely diverse array of accomplished young professionals, primarily entrepreneurs, given the summit theme, From Ideas to Action: Entrepreneurship and Innovation in Europe. I also knew to get some sleep before SHAPE began. After all, I had just three days to meet and build relationships with an entirely new group of people, who are respectively fabulous ambassadors for some of the greatest cities mankind has ever built and who are pushing further to build more creative and inclusive communities in the ultimate expression of 'pride of place.'

But I did not prepare myself for the incredibly warm welcome we Shapers would receive in Lisbon -- that last undiscovered European capital, as my tour guide put it -- and for the extent to which I would discover a city not just of great beauty and history, but one that, up to and including the highest echelons of government, is embracing entrepreneurship. It's also recognizing the importance of laying a foundation and, in turn, building a fountain through which that enduring lifeblood -- innovation -- can flow as it has in Europe since the Roman Empire and well before.

SHAPE delegates and speakers used words such as "ecosystem" to describe the kind of community we want to build and to denote the role of the private and public sectors, as well as civil society, in supporting entrepreneurship and innovation. As with my experience in Detroit, my fellow Shapers and I encountered a city reeling in many respects from the 2008 economic crisis. Yet as in Detroit, the silver lining is at times blaring: a recognition by the State of the need to cultivate, support, and retain entrepreneurs -- and to keep doing so even when they fail, as they surely will, and even when they resist structures of hierarchical decision-making and red tape, as they surely will.

The Lisbon Hub wisely understood the need to curate a programme that would allow ample time for European Shapers to get to know one another. Thus there were generous time chunks for networking and socializing (and plenty of silly 'camp songs,' too). On the final afternoon, the 'jackets came off' and we put together an "Unconference" in which Shapers volunteered to run workshops on everything from the crisis in Ukraine (led by two Kyiv Shapers who were heavily engaged in the Euromaidan movement) to breakdancing, to a sensitive but important discussion on possible mechanisms for showing the degree to which individuals from conflict states are communicating and developing peer-to-peer relationships through social media.

Yet although these informal mechanisms for knowledge sharing are perhaps the most important elements of any gathering of Shapers, I must try to convey my sheer surprise and delight at the degree of support for the work of the Lisbon Hub as expressed to all of us by Bruno Maçães, Portgual's Secretary of State for Europe -- who welcomed us at the Palácio das Necessidade -- and António Pires de Lima, Minister of Economy, as well as Lisbon's Deputy Mayor, Graça Fonseca, who hosted us for a memorable dinner in the library of City Hall.

I mention these interactions not to be boastful, but rather to applaud the Lisbon Hub for cultivating true (and influential) champions for their work in community development and social entrepreneurship. It is certainly excellent to receive formal acknowledgement from a public official, but it is quite another to forge constructive relationships that allow for collaboration in pursuit of sustainable prosperity for all citizens. Most interesting to me was the reception by the Secretary of State for Europe. I felt as if he was treating us like visiting diplomats from across Europe. And in a way, we are -- unofficial networks with the potential to advance the core interests of the cities and nations from which we originate.

Yet a key question remains: must such strong partnerships between innovators and governors necessarily evolve out of a point of economic crisis? Certainly not, and entrepreneurs, changemakers and progressives alike must recognize the long-run value of getting themselves and policymakers on the same page. Of course this requires earning and building trust on both sides -- entrepreneurs trusting that their elected leaders will pursue economic policies that facilitate rather than constrain new ventures, and policymakers trusting that entrepreneurs will take the State's investment seriously and will reciprocate through sustained civic and political engagement to ensure that entrepreneurship-friendly policy moves are rendered politically advantageous and in turn incentivized.

Don't get me wrong -- SHAPE Europe was a smashing success not merely because of our high-level engagements and delicious food (the best codfish one could ever hope to taste, and oh those butter-filled Pastéis de Belém!) but primarily because of the energy, talent, and diversity of the participants, who ranged from 'angel investors' to rising star bureaucrats at the European Commission to young law professors to concert pianists. We all have so much to share and learn from one another, all while advancing progress towards better cities and a better world.

As such, what will stay with me the longest (aside from the weight gain!) are the countless conversations I had with Shapers. What began as discussions of familial roots and origins often led to engaging on some of the most pressing sociopolitical issues of our time, including preventing economic collapse following a period of conflict (as in Sarajevo, whose Global Shapers Hub is growing quickly), equality of opportunity, the protection of democratic values, the role of organized religion in social innovation, the degree to which young leaders have the capacity to fulfill their true potential, and the possibilities for more collaborative forms of economy...and I could go on.

And in spite of our wildly diverse backgrounds, I can confidently conclude that we are united in our passion not just for entrepreneurship and innovation, but also for improving the state of the world and in particular, advancing opportunities for young people to contribute positively to their communities. SHAPE Europe provided us with a highly welcoming environment in which to learn from one another and to derive inspiration from the incredible work of the members of the Lisbon Hub of the Global Shapers Community! So to them let us all say Obrigado! Até breve!

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