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 / Summer 2014 / Issue 75(originally published by Booz & Company)


A Guide to the Next Million Innovators

Many entrepreneurs in the Middle East now, in these early days of technological innovation, are improvisers or problem solvers doing things that are specific to their region. But I believe that at some point soon, we’re going to be surprised by how global they become.

I’d pay attention to May Habib’s Qordoba, 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 (effectively the Amazon of the region) is going to be a juggernaut. The founder and CEO, Ronaldo Mouchawar, is an amazing salesperson and a great culture builder, and he has executed well. And I’ve also 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?
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 global women’s support and empowerment organization), says in my book, social networks, particularly via mobile devices, are dramatically shifting 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 they’re willing to enter a world of coauthorship and understand that everyone brings something to the table. Over the next 10 years, these tools will foster innovation and create 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?
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 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 to the fastest 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 the government has already given 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.

S+B: What else do business leaders need to understand about the increasingly mobile-driven global economy?
Ben Horowitz, the cofounder of Andreessen Horowitz, the venture capital firm, often talks about courage, and he doesn’t just mean bravery. He means an assuredness—not an arrogance, but an assuredness; being willing to walk through walls to make an idea happen. You can usually tell whether an entrepreneur has it within 15 minutes of meeting him or her.

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