When thinking of Dubai, Cairo, Amman, Beirut, Istanbul, and Damascus, “startup” might be the last word that comes to mind. Investor and advisor Christopher Schroeder, however, recently released a book suggesting that the word should rank higher in people’s minds when thinking of the Middle East and North Africa.
“That the crisis in Syria is real does not mean that it’s the only thing that should be covered. It’s narrative bias,” the co-founder of HealthCentral.com said.
For his part, Schroeder spent a year travelling to the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region and to India to explore how people are growing economies in those areas. The result is a book released this past summer called “Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East”.
The Harvard alumnus cited cellular penetration, bottom up solutions, and an impatiently motivated youth among the culprits for the thriving entrepreneurial spirit found in his travels.
“[It’s a] mindblow that so much of this ecosystem is happening despite the ecosystem,” Schroeder said.
A “mindblow” indeed, the secret to which is mobile penetration.
“What does it mean when two thirds of humanity are walking around with a super computer in the pocket?” Schroeder asked the audience during an event hosted by Boston International last Wednesday at the law firm Mintz Levin.
People underestimate the impact of mobile penetration, said Schroeder. He characterized the spread of mobile technology — especially smartphones — as a large scale delivery platform to share solutions.
“I think that we’re at one of the most important moments of our time, where technology opens up bottom up solutions. [People] misunderstand that this is a device of the next economic platform,” Schroeder said holding up his smartphone.
At the Wednesday event, the audience also challenged some of Schroeder’s assertions.
A Lebanese attendee said it would be helpful to not to generalize the Arab world and followed by arguing that “wasta” — an Arabic term for “who you know” — plays a much bigger role than anything Schroeder explored.
Schroeder responded by telling the story of a Lebanese entrepreneur who said to him, “There is no wasta on the internet.”
Schroeder also addressed entrepreneurship closer to home. His target: Politicians who continually congratulate entrepreneurs, while doing nothing to change elements that stifle entrepreneurial immigrants.
“This is a once in humanity opportunity to have some very meaningful impact,” Schroeder said, “But young people can’t get here. They can’t get a visa.”
All profits from Schroeder’s book will go to the Jordanian community empowerment initiative, Ruwwad, which networks with the private sector, government, and civil society to help disadvantaged communities in Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, and Jordan.