I’ve been waiting for a book like this for a long time. A book that is about entrepreneurship but one that covers why people took the decision to set up shop in parts of the world where they knew that the economic, social and cultural environment would almost certainly add to their woes (unlike the US or Europe, where regulation and the rule of law are much less of a problem).
Elmira Bayrasli is a journalist and foreign affairs correspondent who has over the years written for the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, and is also an academic who lectures at New York University. In addition she is the co-founder of a platform for female journalists called Foreign Policy Interrupted (I am a regular reader of their newsletter). Earlier in her career, she worked for the State Department of the USA, where amongst many interesting experiences she once had a Bosnian citizen comment on what the country really needed: jobs, not aid. This set her off on a journey to dig up interesting stories on what it really is like for someone to start a business in developing economies – how different is it really to the US?
‘From the Other Side of the World: Extraordinary Entrepreneurs, Unlikely Places’ is her answer. I am an avid follower of the startup ecosystem in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, and I started off reading this book (a very easy read, by the way, which makes it quickly digestable for a wide audience) slightly skeptical about whether the book would really be able to capture the complexity of the challenges that people face in these parts of the world. By the end of it I was forced to reconsider. Not only did it do this very skilfully, Ms. Bayrasli has been able to bring out the similarities (i.e challenges) of the entrepreneurial ecosystem of seven different countries even as she builds the characters of seven founders into interesting enough stories in their own individual rights, using her vast experience as a journalist and writer.
The first story is from Turkey (Ms. Bayrasli’s family belongs to the country), where we learn about Bulent Celebi, who in 2004 started AirTies, now a multi-million dollar enterprise trading with the likes of Swisscom. He built the company by focusing on maintaining a strong culture, something Turkish employees were largely unfamiliar with, especially in 2004. AirTies’ corporate values weren’t just ‘feel-good rhetoric’, as the author notes, it was about being focussed on ‘customers and excellence, not on problems’, because problems, according to Bulent Celebi, are ‘too easy and cheap to get caught up in, with no upside at the end’.
The second story is set in Nigeria, where Tayo Oviosu, founder of Paga Tech, is trying to build his mobile payments startup by actually contributing to building infrastructure in collaboration with the Nigerian government, specifically fiber optic cables and generators for backup during a power outage. Nigeria, as we know, is beset with problems (as almost all the economies covered in the book are): weak governance, corruption, and the Boko Haram insurgency are just some. Reading about what Paga Tech is valiantly trying to achieve – the ability to bank the unbanked in rural and urban Nigeria through mobile phones, and enable them to have consistent access to mobile networks and broadband, is very inspiring.
This is followed by the story of Monis Rahman in Pakistan, the founder of Naseeb Networks, which runs a matchmaking site as well as Rozee.pk, a popular job search engine. Monis is doing this in a country where community spaces are typically looked upon with distrust (indeed, Sabeen Mahmud was gunned down by extremists in Karachi earlier this year for doing exactly that with her physical community space The Second Floor) so by trying to build virtual community spaces, he is also trying to ‘shift perspectives on Pakistan’, as the author notes. Again, the country’s political environment does not help, so it is an uphill climb.
In Mexico, Enrique Gomez Junco, the founder of Optima Energia, an energy-saving company, is building his business in another complicated environment. Traditionally, the utilities industries are controlled by strong monopolies backed by the government. Over the last decade, globalization and the growth of the startup ecosystem have galvanized even the government, however, as a result of which Mexico has taken trouble to create an environment that is investor-friendly. Yes, the country is still beset with poverty and drug problems amongst other issues, but many entrepreneurs are forging ahead, buoyed by an increasingly supportive startup ecosystem which has helped raise funds, educate potential entrepreneurs, build mentor networks and reform laws.
The story of Shaffi Mather in India really resonated with me because I am from the country and really sympathized with the tragic levels of corruption he faced in order to set up his emergency ambulance network Dial 1298. It mentions some of the country’s key figures over the last few decades, industrialists and policy people who have helped change the status quo for people like Shaffi. India’s problems are many but things are very much changing, and through Shaffi’s story you see how.
I was getting impatient to hear female voices in this book, and the sixth story met my expectations (I still wish there were a couple more female entrepreneurs featured). Yana Yakovleva was running her chemical trading business Sofex without much interference from the government till 2006, when she was arrested because her company had grown to the point that it had finally come to the attention of the higher-ups. I don’t know much at all about Russia, and it was fascinating to read about the environment there for entrepreneurs, who are probably the ‘social group that is persecuted most’, as Russia’s ombudsman for business rights says. Yana herself says that ‘the government considers business people in Russia criminals’. She eventually got out (many are not so lucky, dying in prison) after seven months, and set up Business Solidarity, an organisation that provides legal support to entrepreneurs falsely accused of crimes.
The last story is that of Lei Jun, the founder of Xiaomi, now one of the most well-known companies in the world, posing a serious challenge to the likes of Apple and Google in the East. How he grew the company from nothing to what it is now makes for compelling reading. I hear so much about startups in China today, but knew precious little about the funding environment there, which this story sheds light on. As Ms. Bayrasli says, ‘China’s leadership holds a firm hand over capital, monitoring its formation and allocation. It is part of a phenomenon that has come to be known as ‘state capitalism’, the antithesis of Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’. Under state capitalism, the government is the market: wealth of, by and for the state.’ That’s just a small part of it – things are changing now of course, but it is still not easy for entrepreneurs, so to have built a company as successful as Xiaomi, which embraces open source, is admirable.
I have tried to summarise a couple of the core lessons I took away from this book, a hard job given the vast ground it covers. Elmira Bayrasli has taken the effort to paint a clear picture of the background against which each of these founders started, sometimes failed, then re-started and got to where they are now, and uses hard statistics to indicate progress or failure on the part of governments as the case may be, which not many authors take the trouble to do. It is the combination of research and narrative that will make this book worth your while. Perhaps the best argument for it is one of my favourite paragraphs from it:
“Entrepreneurs, by the very nature of what they do – disrupt and innovate – provide a necessary check and balance on government that no one else can – not businesspeople, not NGOs, not civil society organizations. They help remake the social order and help move progress forward, giving rise to new ideas, new industries, and new possibilities and forcing change. That is what has made them both heroes and villains that many in power feel the need to keep in check.”
It’s what I sense week after week, as I write the Other Valleys as well, and that paragraph describes why I do it so accurately.
Congratulations, Elmira – travelling round the world to tell the story of these seven people must have been both a challenge and a joy. A job beautifully executed!