Many entrepreneurs in the Middle East now, in these early days, are improvisers or problem solvers doing things that are specific to their regions. But I believe at some point soon, we’re going to be surprised by how global they become.
I’d pay attention to May Habib’s Qordoba, which is a translation platform that allows people to work from home on a part-time basis. It has a huge growth opportunity because only about 1 percent of content online is currently in Arabic. As an investor, I think Souq.com is going to be a juggernaut, if it isn’t already. The founder and CEO, Ronaldo Mouchawar, is an amazing salesperson, is a great culture builder, and has executed beautifully. It’s effectively the Amazon of the region. And I’ve already seen some interesting ideas in mobile payments; I’d expect to see increasingly frictionless transactions through devices.
S+B: How important are “big data” and social media for growth?
SCHROEDER: I think the ability to understand in aggregate and at highly specific levels what people are doing, thinking, and caring about is a massive challenge that is now more digestible through data. And the more responsive any institution is to what people are really doing as opposed to what we think they’re doing increases their opportunity to engage the bottom-up phenomenon. As Alyse Nelson, the CEO of Vital Voices (a great global women’s support and empowerment organization), says in my book, social networks, particularly via mobile devices, are dramatically shifting the power dynamics. Real influence can come as much from a Twitter account as from the corner office.
Influence can come as much from a Twitter account as from the corner office.
Often—not always, but often—traditionally top-down institutions have tremendous difficulty understanding and embracing the power of these new tools to engage from the bottom up. But for large corporations, there’s an unbelievable opportunity—if you’re willing to enter a world of coauthorship and understand that everyone brings something to the table. Over the next 10 years, these new tools will produce great new innovation and significant new markets. There’s a reason smart companies like Vodafone Egypt are partnering with and even investing in startups in their backyard. They want to learn.
S+B: What can multinationals and governments do to encourage innovation in emerging markets?
SCHROEDER: Anything that helps maximize the movement of people, goods, and ideas.
Although so much of the entrepreneurial ecosystem is happening naturally from the bottom up, a top-down structure is very important when it comes to areas like infrastructure, the rule of law, and education. As one positive and somewhat surprising example, the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, recently said that everyone in his country is going to have access to LTE within the next two or three years. Not 3G, not 4G, they’re going to leapfrog that to the biggest broadband. They’re wiring the entire country—and bringing in a company from South Korea to help them do it. The president is totally committed. He wants to get a tablet in every child’s hand in that period of time, and in the last six months the government gave out more than 150,000 tablets, along with training, to young people. So if that can happen there, it can potentially happen anywhere.
And with increasing access to mobile technology, a real awakening is happening. Young people are saying, “I can do stuff that my parents told me I couldn’t, and I can stand toe-to-toe with anybody in the world.” This brings with it a sense of tenacity, an utter commitment that comes with great entrepreneurs everywhere. This is the transition that’s happening in the Middle East and other emerging markets now.