In the wake of the violence in Egypt, I've been thinking about a story my friend Chris Schroeder, a successful founder and angel investor, once told me about a Middle Eastern entrepreneurship conference.
Three years ago, a Saudi woman in a dark hijab explained her idea for a business manufacturing smartphone and iPad accessories. Schroeder listened politely and urged her to follow her dreams, but after thanking him with equal politeness, the woman pressed for more advice.
She had pre-sold 1,000 units, she explained, and was trying to decide whether to outsource the manufacturing to China. "Should I risk manufacturing my idea with people I don't know very well? Or should I raise the $45,000 I'd need for machinery and then hire a young woman I know locally to handle production?"
That conversation, which occurred at the Celebration of Entrepreneurship 2010 conference in Dubai, took Schroeder aback, he relates in his new book, Startup Rising: the Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East. Back then, he had the impression that many Westerners have of the Middle East: It's a war-torn region, culturally and religiously conservative, oppressive toward women, and hidebound. But this woman, and other entrepreneurs he met during several trips before and after, showed him something else was going on.
In full disclosure, I helped edit Startup Rising. A significant part of the narrative that Schroeder describes takes place in Cairo, so I've been curious to hear what the dozens of founders and investors in Egypt are saying about the turmoil--and how it affects their ventures. As it turns out, moments before we connected via email last week, Schroeder learned "the chief technology officer of a company I love over there was killed. There is great tension and sadness--and a passion to get back to work and build."
In light of his book and our recent correspondence, here are some key takeaways from Schroeder's study of entrepreneurship in the Middle East and North Africa.
The Middle East is Not One Big Place
If you cringed a little at the fact that I started this article by lumping a conference in Dubai with the violence in Cairo, well, good for you. Schroeder says one challenge for Westerners, especially those who haven't traveled in the Middle East and North Africa, is differentiating the cultures and opportunities in various parts of the region.
"What is happening in the tragedy of Mali is much different than the bustle of Kenya; what is happening in Dubai and even Amman is different than Damascus," he said. "At the same time, technology--its transparency, collaboration, its connectedness--is a universal throughout."
The Future is Long-Term
We've seen an entrepreneurial renaissance in the BRIC countries--Brazil, Russia, India and China--and Schroeder maintains that taking a slightly longer view in the Middle East suggests some reasons for optimism. To start with, it's a huge, untapped market.
"Something else is happening at scale based on relatively recent access to technology," Schroeder said. "I can't tell you what will happen in six months, but I can tell you within ten years, two-thirds of the planet will have smartphones. Problem-solving and innovation, bottom-up, will come from everywhere."
Moreover, the Middle East has never had widespread access to landline phones, so if you're looking for specific technological industries to get excited about, "look for interesting innovation in mobile."
An Inspiring Spirit
There's no such thing as an easy start-up, but some of the examples Schroeder talks about are exceptionally impressive, including those in Cairo. He mentions men and women trying to improve solar power in the Egyptian desert, and the creators of WeatherHD (now Clear Day), the highest-selling weather app for iPhone. There are also larger-scale projects trying to figure out how to bring education and tutoring to the masses using video and online technology--a $2 billion industry in Egypt alone.
"I see a huge hunger and humility far more than I see in Silicon Valley regularly," Schroeder said. "But there may be a special place in my heart for [entrepreneurs who] view their worlds as software problems. Too much traffic in Cairo? Build a crowd-sharing app to navigate it. Not enough water to expand arable land? Build solar pumping capabilities for small farmers. ... It is awesome."
Like this post? Here's the best way to keep up with Bill Murphy Jr.