The Next Steve Jobs Won't Be Found in the United States
A Review of Elmira Bayrasli's "From the Other Side of the World"
It would be hard to find anyone under 35, pretty much anywhere in the world, well-travelled and with a smart device in hand, who would argue with this:
"Throughout corners of Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, a combination of historical, geopolitical, technological, financial, social, and macroeconomic forces have created a primordial soup from which a new powerful generation of entrepreneurs are emerging. The West has two choices: Invest and partner with them or get shoved out of the way."
What is surprising about this is two-fold. First, this quote is lifted from Pando founder Sarah Lacy's book on the rise of global entrepreneurship published nearly FIVE years ago. Second, the West has continued impossibly down the path of being shoved.
The significant opportunity, innovation and wealth created in Silicon Valley, combined with fairly consistent doom and gloom news coverage of new markets has undoubtedly kept many close to home. At the same time, Western investors and entrepreneurs alike know that the software and capabilities we take for granted are all but globally universal today. No one can predict what ISIS will look like in a year, or how turbulence in China's markets will play out in three. But it's as sure as the sun setting in the west that by the end of this decade over two-thirds of humanity will walk around with some kind of smart device. The same computer power that allowed allowed NASA to put a man on the moon 40 years ago will be found in billions of pockets.
We know what this means at a macro level. A new generation that never knew otherwise is not only demanding a direct role in their economic, political and cultural destiny but has the capabilities to make it so. It means universal access to the world around us, and having all of human knowledge at our finger tips for almost nothing. It means unprecedented sharing of ideas and collaboration, and a sense of empowerment when others take action and find sucess. It means less fear of centralized authority and the ability for problems to be solved bottom-up by the very people who have the greatest stake in solving those problems. The phenomena is entirely organic and autodidactic, as people around the world are taking courses from universities, reading any blog or best practice, on any subject that interests them.
If you want to consider what this means on the ground right now, a perfect follow-on to Lacy's book has just emerged in From the Other Side of the World: Extraordinary Entrepreneurs, Unlikely Places by Elmira Bayrasli, a journalist and expert on the current state of global innovation.
This is a beautifully written tour of remarkable entrepreneurs building not only great enterprises but, they believe, new societies in parts of the world that most of the West still considers "third." Bayrasli points out the unstoppable trends and tools in these societies – the rise of mobile, broadband access, ability to share and co-author ideas, ability to see best practices from anywhere in the world and adapt them for local needs, ability to assess data for transparency and improvements – forcing readers to understand how different the next decade will be from the last. She notes:
"The economy of the 21st century whether 'globalized, 'new,' or 'shared," is unprecedented. No longer are the 20th century models that made the assembly line and Fortune 500 companies thrive relevant. Today's digital and dynamic economy is not beholden to top-down corporate structures. Instead, it is contingent upon ideas and self-initiative. It is an economy being fueled and powered by entrepreneurs."
When we think of Nigeria, we may tend to think of Boko Haram and a history of corruption. Bayrasli documents how universal access to mobile technology means tens of millions of undocumented, often poor, citizens now have a way to be counted; how mobile money has helped businesses expand and forced greater transparency in every transaction. When we think of Pakistan, we may think Homeland, but Bayrasli explores how technology platforms connect millions, opening their views to a wider world, and how the leading job board has processed over 26 million applications with over 100 new jobs posted each day. When we think of Mexico, we too often think of crime and pollution. She shows us problem solvers who are helping cities of millions finance and deploy LED light bulbs, saving 60 percent or more of the energy consumption of these cities. More familiar juggernauts from China and India are are here too – but the clear takeaway is that this is happening everywhere.
Bayrasli opens the book through her own eight-year old eyes, recalling a visit to her parents’ hometown in central Turkey – a device which gives her book the feel of an open and honest investigation not only of how quickly growth is happening but of the challenges that still persist. This is no rah-rah appraisal of hopeful outcomes. What is often most striking about the stories she shares are the impossible challenges in culture, infrastructure, rule of law and lack of support network each of these entrepreneurs faced.
I interviewed Bayrasli last week in Istanbul. She noted that, "The men and women in my book are using entrepreneurship to solve the problems that have plagued them for so long and revolutionizing the systems that have denied them progress. Ultimately, progress is what entrepreneurship is about. That’s a lesson we have lost sight of in the United States as we’ve turned our attention to novelty tools and products that are cool but don’t advance society."
I asked what surprised her most in her travels. She paused and aimed back home toward Silicon Valley. "Silicon Valley prides itself at being at the cutting edge and yet they're very few VCs to be seen in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. Dave McClure who founded 500 Startups and Tim Draper of Draper Fisher Jurvetson are two exceptions. But they shouldn't be. The next big thing isn't a billion dollar enterprise. It's a solution to climate change, disease, or some other challenge we all face. And that next big thing will come out from the other side of the world."
It stuns me – in Silicon Valley and Washington – that the questions leading to enormous opportunity seem so obvious, so unasked and so exciting. What will a world of universal access to software mean? What can happen when we all can easily connect with each other and collaborate? What is a world where everyone can transact value and digital goods, services, music, content – safely, transparently, instantly and without middlemen – where today billions are unbanked? What human expression may be opened up anywhere in the world when people do not have to labor impossible hours for impossible wages? What lives can be saved with instant and affordable genetic diagnosis of disease, and cancer treatments that will make chemo therapy seem to our kids what blood letting seems to us?
From the Other Side of the World shows some of the answers happening right now, everywhere. There is no going back.