“Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East” asserts that the Arab world has the makings of a significant innovation hub, despite daily headlines describing the region’s social, political and economic strife.
Just last week, clashes in Egypt between the military-backed government and supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi plunged the country into renewed violence that resulted in the deaths of several hundred people.
But Schroeder describes a large population of young people who have discovered the power of self-determination through recent political uprisings and have begun to embrace transformational Internet and mobile technology at higher levels.
Schroeder discussed his motivation for writing the book and some of his lessons learned throughout the process with Capital Business. What follows are edited excerpts from that conversation.
How does an executive from Washington become interested in Middle East entrepreneurship?
I was always sensitive to issues [in the Middle East] and the impact they had on the world overall. After Sept. 11, [I was part of] a group of business executives in the United States who started getting together rather casually with no huge agenda. We would meet sometimes in the United States, sometimes in Europe and sometimes in the Middle East. It was very interesting and I learned a lot of things that I just didn’t see in the Western press.
By 2009 or so, a lot of the Arabs [in our group] began to talk about what they saw technology doing in the Middle East. The idea that technology was changing the world bottom up was not a surprise to me, but I could not get it in my mind that Egypt was building an ecosystem for start-ups. I just didn’t believe it.
These guys eventually … held this great gathering in Dubai in 2010, and they really kind of dragged me to come speak at it. I look at my world view as before that event and after that event, because it was 2,400 young people from everywhere from North Africa to Yemen. Nobody wanted to debate politics. Nobody cared about [President] Obama’s Cairo speech. They wanted to build stuff.
What inspired you to write an entire book based on what you had seen and discovered?
I wrote an op-ed that [editorial page editor] Fred Hiatt took in The Washington Post just describing this event that I went to, and the outpouring of feedback I got from it was remarkable. It was a mix of a lot of Washington people who had been to the Middle East being confused by it [and] literally hundreds of e-mails from people in the Middle East saying “Thank you for finally telling a different story about what’s really going on here.”
The narrative that we know so well about violence and wars is crystal clear and obviously real also, but here was another thing going on. So it intrigued me. Right around the time we started talking about selling my last company, HealthCentral.com, I started talking to a book agent. I thought maybe putting [my experience] together in a book … might change the conversation a little bit.