Dawn of a New Era: Entrepreneurs Not Tanks
When I was a very little girl, growing up in the pre-revolutionary communist bloc, our teachers often lectured us on war and peace. Many people of my also age remember compulsory gas mask drills at school. Just in case.
However, the Cold War ended one day and I was lucky to spend most of my life in peace and material comfort.
Today, new armed conflicts spread across the globe as some kind of an unstoppable lethal virus. Increasingly shocking terrorist acts force the Western civilization to stop averting its eyes. On top of that, many predict another wave of a devastating economic crisis.
I like to believe that if we are to weather the storm that is looming on the horizon, entrepreneurs won't cede the battlefield to armies, politicians, and bankers. Entrepreneurship on its own may not present a panacea, but it should be an indispensable part of the cure for the ill society of our times.
Recently, I’ve read an article on a popular business & tech blog, where the author wrote that “social startups” were dead. At first, I was disturbed by such a statement. Thankfully, it turned out that the blogger meant startups building new social networks, not startups aiming to deliver positive social impact.
Social entrepreneurship is the future. Now more than ever. We all know that to build a sustainable business we have to address people’s needs or solve their burning problems. As entrepreneurs we tend to have the resolve, experience, tools, or relevant skills to change the world for the better.
Take people working in the technology industry, for instance. They are experts at doing feats of magic, with widespread outreach, even on limited budgets.
Still, somehow it seems that we entrepreneurs haven’t fully embraced our new role in the present precarious environment. Every morning, we would read about yet another bomb attack, the refugee crisis, dire poverty stats, racial hatred, another downed plane, or hostage emergency. Yet, news on innovative companies or individuals coming up with viable solutions is rare.
Now, you’re probably thinking: “Wait, wait, this is too much to handle. How can we stop states fighting for power, religions fighting for devotees, or ideologies fighting for influence?”
No, we can’t. Or at least never to the full extent. This is how the world is and always will be.
But we can lessen the consequences. We can contribute to developing a more tolerant society. We can build feasible solutions our governments fail to offer. We can use the principles of sharing economy to redistribute knowledge, information and vital resources.
Recently, I’ve made research on online initiatives, websites, and apps created as a response to the influx of refugees to Europe. Although undoubtedly very useful, their overall quality and design reflect the fact that they had been hurriedly developed by grassroots nonprofits, with financial help of larger organizations at best.
Imagine what a team of top-notch hackers, for example, could achieve. Imagine each of the uber-successful startups from Silicon Valley practically participating in alleviating the catastrophe.
We find ourselves at the threshold of a new era. For many years past, being an entrepreneur or a startup founder has been considered a pretty cool and attractive career option. At present, we shall leave the comfort zone of our MacBook screens and trendy coffee shops and move to the front lines of the battle for humanity.
I have co-organized dozens of workshops for aspiring entrepreneurs in Lebanon, Morocco, Iran, Kenya, South Africa, and Brazil. I’ve mostly talked about technology and all the possibilities it opens for anyone who desires to become financially self-sufficient.
However, during our workshops, before I proceed to the presentation on various online tools and applications, I like to break the ice by encouraging the attendees to share their ideas and perceptions of running a business.
At first, I would ask to raise their hands if they see themselves as entrepreneurs. Often, I can observe sort of timidity and palpable hesitation to claim such a lofty title.
Many do, many don’t, but I still always ask the same follow-up questions:
What makes you feel an entrepreneur?
What does it mean, specifically, to be an entrepreneur for you?
Even if you don’t think you’re an entrepreneur, how would you describe one?
And every single time, no matter if I’m in Teheran, Casablanca or Rio de Janeiro, I receive similar responses:
“I try to improve my community and the lives of the people around me.”
“Entrepreneurs solve problems.”
“I think they substitute the functions of governments when needed.”
“They come up with new ideas.”
“Entrepreneurs are not afraid to do things everyone else refuses to do.”
“It was the only option for me.”
“People who have a lot of courage.”
“Entrepreneurs change whole industries.”
“They fulfill people’s dreams.”
I listen, nod, and smile. And then, every single time, I tell them:
“Hey, and what about indefinite working hours, financial insecurity, disapproval of your friends or family?”
“I totally agree with everything you’ve just said but I’m kind of surprised none of you has mentioned the “darker” side of entrepreneurship. The hardship, the struggle, the rejection.”
For a fraction of a second, they seem baffled, and then they burst out laughing.
I’ve done this small exercise dozens of times and it never fails me. Over and over, I learn that young people from various countries, continents, and cultures share the same vision of entrepreneurship.
Entrepreneurship as a window of opportunity to improve people’s lives. Something that is worth pursuing despite all the associated obstacles. A way of life. A set of beliefs that transcends profitability and expansion.
If you look at any business incubator, accelerator, VC fund, or angel investor in the world, they use similar metrics to evaluate the potential of young companies: user growth rate, revenue generation, market share, return on investment and so on. Let us simplify and say that these are entities or individuals with some extra money who look for opportunities to earn even more money.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m not a naive idiot. I also want my startup to grow, be profitable and create jobs.
But I also believe in purpose, which will drive and motivate me, no matter if the business itself ultimately fails or succeeds. I want to see more and more entrepreneurs taking ownership of the issues plaguing their communities, countries, or continents. I want to see more funding decisions based on questions such as: How many lives can you significantly improve?, How many lives can you save?, Which social problems is your business trying to tackle?, If you fail, and both you and I lose everything, is there something good that will change the world nevertheless?
It’s a utopian world. Perhaps. But if the markets fall, the Internet crashes, the lights turn off… we will be all in the same boat. So let’s dominate the news. Less tragedies, less xenophobia, more problems solved, more people connected, more hope.
My favorite quote says:
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
It doesn’t matter if you live in New York or in Nairobi, in a condo or in your mom’s house, if you own millions or just those last 50 dollars. If you call yourself an entrepreneur, it’s your turn.
Title image by Gatis Sluka