Silvia Plaza (Zaragoza, 1986) has a degree in Law and Business Administration and is the current president of the Association of Young Entrepreneurs (AJE) of Zaragoza. An institution in which networking and collaborative spirit are signs of identity, and to which Silvia Plaza arrived in 2020 with great challenges to face: a global pandemic, the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the increase in the price of energy and the general rise in prices, among others, have been fateful circumstances that have conditioned the creation, consolidation and development of Aragonese companies. A complex panorama that Plaza faced from her first minute as president of AJE.
With a degree in Accounting and Financial Management from the University of Zaragoza, a master’s degree in Business Taxation from the Association of Economists of Aragon, and a master’s degree from the University of Deusto on Bankruptcy Law, Plaza confesses to being passionate about the world of law and business. That is why she founded, together with her partners, Mercurio Abogados, a firm specializing in business, urban planning and environment. A company that she combines with her responsibilities as head of AJE with the same ingredients that contain the recipe that, as she herself confesses, has led her to business success: enthusiasm, passion, curiosity, effort, professionalism and fun. As she confesses, “we have to be rigorous, formal and serious, but that is not incompatible with having fun. We need kilos of fun, we spend many hours of our lives at work and having fun changes both the atmosphere and the results”.
In 2020 you took over from Pedro Lozano, CEO of Imascono, as president of the Association of Young Entrepreneurs of Zaragoza (AJE). What were the biggest challenges you faced in leading a project like this in the middle of the pandemic?
I had many challenges, because the situation was what it was. In addition, the core of our association is relationships, the creation of a network of contacts, and at that time those relationships had to be made online. You have to keep in mind that our strong point is events, face-to-face events. Despite these circumstances, I took the baton with great enthusiasm, and also with great responsibility, due to the difficult situation that companies and young entrepreneurs were going through at that time. I think it has been unprecedented what we have experienced in recent years in relation to the business world and I think that the AJE network has been a very strong support for the companies that are within this network. We have supported each other and we have collaborated as much as we could.
To what extent do associations or collaboration between companies influence the development of a business initiative in Aragon, especially in times of difficulty?
In Zaragoza there are many business associations: sectoral, geographic… there are many different types of associations, each with its own identity and raison d’être. In the case of AJE Zaragoza, what unites the people who are in AJE is the way they see both life and business. I think they are very dynamic, very open, very collaborative people. The core of our association is, for me, to weave that support network. Entrepreneurship is a complicated task in the sense that you not only have to consider the business model of what you are going to do. There are many other things you haven’t thought about that you have to deal with. And not only that, but also many of the things you have to deal with you are not very good at, because it is impossible to know everything. And even more so nowadays, with the speed at which everything is going and with the excess of information we have.
THE SUPPORT YOU RECEIVE IN AJE IS BRUTAL, NOT ONLY FOR THE RESOLUTION OF A PROBLEM, BUT ALSO MORALLY.
So, having a network where you hang up the phone (it has happened to me as a member) and you tell another member that you have a problem, and this person helps you to solve it, because he has already gone through it… it is a brutal support. Not only for the resolution of the problem, but also morally. We talk about the AJE family. We all have a family at home, but when it comes to business we are like crazy people who believe in our project and no one else understands it. For example, despite the years I have been making a living with my business, my mother keeps asking me why I don’t take a competitive examination. Entrepreneurship is not something only rational, there is an internal conviction that is difficult to understand from the outside. That is why having the AJE family, where there are people who have the same concerns as you, who go through the same things, and who give you that moral support… is the main value of our association.
We are evolving, therefore, towards a business model that is very different from the one that has prevailed until now.
The people I see in our association are very collaborative, even within companies that are competitors. I believe that this attitude is much more conducive to business. Our association is a space where you can find shelter in this adventure of entrepreneurship, and where you can make relationships with very top people.
What is the average profile of AJE members?
We have different types of members. There are junior partners, who are in the idea phase, and join to nurture ideas and to see how they can best approach their business. Then there is the figure of the driving members, with consolidated businesses, who are very committed to AJE and are over 41 years old, which is our age limit for being on the Board of Directors and having a vote at the General Assembly. The great mass of members are people under 41 years of age who have been with the company for some time. We find it very enriching to have people from different generations whose businesses are at different stages, and interesting synergies always arise.
What is the proportion of female members in AJE? Are women entrepreneurs in Aragon?
We have a lot of women, and the lower we get in age, the more cases there are. I go to many business forums where you can see that, perhaps in older generations, there are not so many, but in the case of AJE there is a female presence.
What level of international presence do AJE member companies have?
Yes, there are companies that export, but they are not the majority. In general, and not so much because of the profile of AJE entrepreneurs, I believe that the productive and business fabric of this country does not have much of a vocation for internationalization. We do have companies that export, but they are not the majority. Moreover, many of the companies in AJE and in Spain are in the service sector, where it is more difficult to export.
The 2020 pandemic, the energy crisis or the consequences of the outbreak of war in Ukraine have marked a not very encouraging start to the decade from the point of view of business creation. You have been at the head of AJE during this complicated period. What do you think public institutions could do to help the creation and consolidation of companies?
Setting up a business has always been a very complicated task. The determination, the capacity for sacrifice and the perseverance of the person carrying out the project is vital. Nobody achieves anything without that effort, it is a common denominator in all the people I know who are running businesses. What happens in the current context is that uncertainty has risen exponentially. The pandemic, the war, the price of energy, the CPI, the difficulties with raw materials, the economic situation, the political situation in Spain… the common denominator they have is the insecurity and uncertainty they generate. You don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow, and it could be anything. Young entrepreneurs have shown great flexibility and adaptability. Their companies are much more flexible and responsive.
YOUNG ENTREPRENEURS HAVE SHOWN GREAT FLEXIBILITY AND ADAPTABILITY IN THE FACE OF THE CRISIS.
What I believe can be done from the public institutions and from the political sphere is, within the uncertainty that we are inevitably experiencing, to generate as much certainty as possible. For example, if there are fourteen laws, and every day we introduce fourteen more laws, you don’t even know which way the wind is blowing. This generates more legal uncertainty. In this sense, I think there are two key points to take into account. On the one hand, a message of unity: on important issues there should be unity and unanimity. Citizens can understand that there are different political criteria in certain aspects, but I believe that there are global objectives on which we should all be working hand in hand. I would like to see a working table where there is unanimity on economic issues, where there is unanimity for the workers and companies of the country. There are common objectives, I think that sometimes we get lost in the debates and we do not approach these economic issues with a strategy as a country. Another thing that should be done is to try to generate as much legal certainty as possible.
To what extent do these disagreements seen in the various Spanish public institutions compromise the image of Spain as a country, and of Aragon as an autonomous community, with regard to its companies?
There I have always seen a certain contraction. At the same time that there seems to be a series of myths surrounding Spain, when you look for talent, you look for it in Spain. It is known that people are very well prepared here. There is a contradiction between that image, which corresponds to a cliché, and which is far removed from reality, and the fact that, in reality, many people from here are hired because of their qualifications. Another thing is that we know how to turn that in favor of our country, which is where I believe that the political strategy as a country influences in the business field and in the economic field. And that is where I believe there should be unity.
AJE currently has more than 300 young entrepreneurs in its ranks. According to the latest GEM Spain 2021/2022 report, during this period the rate of entrepreneurship has risen. Has this diagnosis been noticed in the activity of AJE?
Aragon is well below the national average in terms of the rate of entrepreneurship, but the report highlights that, once people start up in Aragon, the life of their companies lasts longer. We think about it more, but once we make the decision, we are more confident. We are above the national average in terms of the survival rate of companies.
The survival rate of new companies in Spain is around five years. Does Aragon exceed this rate?
Yes, it even exceeds seven years or more.
This report of the Observatory of Entrepreneurship in Spain states that 70% of the people who start a business do so because of a shortage of employment. What would be the main motivation of the person associated with AJE when starting a business project?
In AJE I have not met anyone who meets this parameter; it is not the profile of the companies we have in AJE. There are people here who are very passionate and enthusiastic about their projects. And for me that is a key factor for the success of a project. A determining ingredient in the recipe for success of an entrepreneurial business is the perseverance, effort and time you invest. The more you believe in your idea and the more it moves you, the more you will be able to go through all the vicissitudes, to not give up, to fight for it and to be determined to achieve the objectives.
A commitment similar to the one you have with a child.
It’s like that, it’s your life. It is something that you create, that you nurture… it is indeed like a child.
One of the first steps on the road to entrepreneurship is financing. As the GEM Report shows, 70% of entrepreneurial initiatives are set up with less than 30,000 euros of capital, mostly from personal savings. How do you think this reality influences the development of young Aragonese companies?
There are several things to take into account here. I believe that there are financing facilities, but it is also true that many of these sources of financing seek types of projects that do not usually fit with all the projects that are undertaken. For example, in the case of European funds, they are now looking for companies that are called “unicorn”, fast-growing. But the reality of the projects that are carried out, not only in Aragon, but also in the rest of Spain, is usually not like that. Sometimes there is a gap between what investors or funders would love to receive as a project, and the projects that are carried out. It is not that there are no funding channels, but sometimes I think that the type of projects that are carried out, many have a smaller vocation. This is a reality of our country, they are micro companies, which do not have that vocation of exponential growth, or are not prepared for it.
THERE IS A GAP BETWEEN WHAT INVESTORS WOULD LOVE TO RECEIVE AS A PROJECT AND THOSE THAT ARE CARRIED OUT.
Another factor that influences this issue is the dispersion and difficulty in accessing information. Many times there are financing channels, but their access is cumbersome. In this sense, the initiative of the Regional Ministry of Economy, Planning and Employment of the Government of Aragon, a platform where, by entering your data, it tells you specifically the public subsidies that apply to you, has seemed very positive to me. And I also think that the service available at INAEM’s Espacio Empresa, where they provide information for particular cases, is very favorable. You can also find this advice at the Instituto Aragonés de Fomento (IAF). It must be taken into account that start-up companies, or the smaller ones, do everything themselves, if for any type of financing they have to present things that are very complicated… sometimes they are not able to apply for it.
What programs and activities does AJE have underway right now?
We have many projects. For example, now, in May we are going to hold a program called “in 4 hours meet 100 entrepreneurs”, a macro networking type speed dating and we had not held it since before the pandemic. We are going to do it with Hiberus, Zaragoza Activa and members of AJE. The idea is that in four hours you meet many people, make many relationships and expand your network of contacts.
We are also developing “MentorizAJE”, the star project of our association. It will be its ninth edition, we have made a new format that will be quite revolutionary and very different from other editions.
In October we celebrate the Young Entrepreneur of Aragon Award, which takes place every other year. We are looking forward to seeing what initiatives there are, what projects there are. It is a very relevant event, because we have to give visibility to the projects that exist, and above all to the person behind them, to the values that these people have, to what they move and to the talent we have in Aragon. I am left with my mouth open when I see the projects that are presented: the ideas, the creativity and what is achieved.
On the other hand, on June 22 we will have our summer dinner, which is a much awaited event, both by our members and by the rest of the business community, because it is an annual event that always attracts a lot of people.
We are also doing the terraceos, which are informal meetings that we make the partners, and networking that we do every month, something that is part of our ordinary activity.
You are at the helm of Mercurio Abogados, a law firm specializing in business, urban planning and environment, with RSA+ seal since 2019. How did this initiative come about and what challenges have you faced over the years?
I studied Law and Business Administration and Management, and I have always loved the business world. In the fourth year of my degree, when I studied Commercial Law, I loved Company Law. My professor, Esther Hernández, instilled in me a passion for Corporate Law, and I knew then that this was what I wanted to dedicate myself to. It is a part of law that mixes business with the legal world. When I finished studying in 2009, I started working as an intern in a law firm, and in 2012 the lawyers of that firm decided to take the plunge and the three of us set up a company together: the Mercurio Abogados project began, then called MSP Abogados.
In our beginnings we were seeing that there were things that were not working well, we did not know if we were guiding the company correctly. Then they told us about AJE and the first day I was in the association, at a dinner, they sat me next to Ricardo Buil, the creator of Central de Reservas. While I was studying for my degree, I had studied his company as a model of innovation, because it was the first online travel agency.
Ricardo is also a brilliant person, and during the dinner conversation he gave me a lot of ideas, even though my company had nothing to do with his. He helped me to make an incredible turnaround and open-mindedness. It also gave us perspective on what companies were demanding. At that time, our client base was 80% individuals and 20% companies, but we wanted to change that. So we started to think about what the value proposition of our business was going to be to achieve this. Thanks to the contact with AJE companies, with the open-mindedness that comes from seeing what other people do, you come up with things that help your company a lot.
What advice would you give to a person who wants to start a business project?
The fundamental thing is to surround yourself with people. You don’t have to start a business alone, besides, I’m sure that if you do it with someone else, the result will be different. An entrepreneur has to be supported by something, no matter how clear you have an idea, you need open-mindedness and other points of view. Especially with the complex realities we live in today. It so happens that I was recently elected godmother of the last graduating class of the Faculty of Economics and Business, and in the speech I gave I talked about this very thing. I told them that I did not have the magic formula for success, but I could tell them about the five ingredients of a recipe that, at least for me, works for me:
Enthusiasm and passion: you have to do something that moves you. You have to believe in your project to the core.
Curiosity: we never stop learning, you have to be up to date with many things, and if you are not a curious person, you are not going to move well.
Effort: you have to know that no one gives hard to four pesetas, and that things that go well require a lot of effort. You have to be willing to pay that price.
Professionalism: I think we often suffer from being mediocre. You can do anything, but you have to do it like the best. Whatever you do, be excellent, do it rigorously and do it super well.
Fun: you have to be rigorous, formal and serious, but that is not incompatible with having fun. We need kilos of fun, we spend many hours of our lives at work and having fun changes both the environment and the results.