Thoughts on Entrepreneurship in the Middle East

I got to spend this week in Jordan on behalf of Angelsoft, at the inaugural event for the Bedaya Angel Network. Bedaya, which means “start” in Arabic, is a new organization aimed at bringing the entire Middle East’s angel investing efforts together. Angelsoft, as the world-leader in software facilitating connections with entrepreneurs and early-stage investors, was asked to help put on this event, and I will admit I was a little nervous about traveling to the Middle East at this time given the unrest in the region. Even Jordan itself had installed a new government in the past few weeks. Nonetheless, I thought it was important so I ignored my fears and went.

For two days before their event I roamed the country of Jordan. I met with local people, and visited their amazing history. I saw Petra, Jerash, the baptism site of Jesus, the Dead Sea, Elijah’s hill and so many other amazing historical sites. Since I was alone, I struck up conversations with locals all over the place to get a feel for what the people here were like. Since I was here to learn about entrepreneurship and angel investing, I wanted to get a feel for the culture, the initiatives of the people, and their attitudes towards Americans and the rest of the world. (I even gathered some thoughts about sales for my QuotaCrush blog – of course.)

What I learned about Jordan astonished me.

If you watch the news right now, you see how the media lumps all the countries, and the restlessness in the nations together, but you can’t imagine what a contrast there is in Jordan to the other countries that are experiencing uprising. Last Saturday, I got calls and emails from my family and friends asking if everything was OK and when I was leaving the country. I was confused by the emotion. Everything in Jordan seemed calm – it seemed normal – people were exceptionally accommodating and nice to me. Then I put on the news. I watched Americans being airlifted out of Libya, riots in the streets of Egypt, unrest in Tunisia, violent protesting in Syria, and a protest in Amman, Jordan – the city I was currently in. Well, lump all of that together and I can see why people were wondering if I was OK. In fact, I was. The protests in Jordan were no different than the peaceful protests that exist in New York and Washington nearly every day of the week. Local news showed the protestors and the police sharing tea before and after the protests.

Nonetheless, I think their protests are newsworthy, because this type of stuff doesn’t normally happen here. It’s still technically against the law to insult the king and its not usual that people would protest against the status quo. Is all of this part of the domino effect of the fruit vendor in Tunisia? Indeed. But the attitude in Jordan is very different because Jordan is and has been a very open society. King Abdullah II respects his people and does not make them live in fear. The fact that the peaceful protest was allowed is proof of this. His people generally respect him, and he listens to them. Do his people want change? Yes. They are just starting to speak more loudly now because their lives aren’t getting better fast enough for them. Is it possible there will be change or revolution in Jordan in the near future? Perhaps, but I certainly don’t predict a violent one like in other countries in the Middle East. Could the King relinquish some power to the electorate? Perhaps. Could there even be something more significant? Perhaps. I can’t claim to be an expert on Jordanian culture in just 5 days, but what I can say is that this is a society that is very open and western in its thinking – much different than what is portrayed by mass-media.

What has led me to this belief is several things that I found out about the Jordanian people and their entrepreneurial nature. Jordan is a highly educated society. They have great universities with tech centers and with departments dedicated to driving innovation and entrepreneurship whenever and however they can. These people understand that they need to educate their people – ALL their people – so that they can be globally competitive. Many in the west believe that the Middle Eastern societies discriminate heavily against women yet I didn’t see one shred of this in Jordan. Once again, it is probably very unfair to lump Jordan in with other radical regimes. Despite the fact that they are an Islamic country with an absolute monarch, this country is clearly not one that oppresses its people.

If you say that innovation comes out of necessity, then clearly Jordan will succeed in entrepreneurship. Jordan is a country of few resources. They don’t have large oil fields. They don’t have massive exports. They have sites worthy of tourism, but after years of war and bad press, it’s not a primary destination. This is a country completely dependent on other nations for 100% of its energy. But Jordan surely does have quite a bit of sun and wind. It’s no surprise then that many of the entrepreneurs here are looking at solar and wind technology. They need this more than probably any other nation on earth – and they have the drive to make it happen. I can’t comment of if their technologies are up to snuff since I didn’t get into that type of detail, but I can tell you that they are motivated to design and invent new ways to harness those types of energy. I’m looking forward to what comes out of here.

Which brings me to the investors in Jordan…. Jordan doesn’t yet have a vast amount of angel investors, but they are clearly out making the concept known and doing a very good job of it. The ones that I met here surely understand what it takes and talk just like angel investors from the US. They understand why they are doing it, have a clear initiative to promote the next generation of entrepreneurs, and certainly want to do so. In fact, the way that they talk about angel investing is far closer to Western thinking than many European angel investors. In Europe, there is often a close tie with the government in their entrepreneurial endeavors. Because Jordanians are not yet getting a lot of government sponsorship for their work, it’s not something they assume or rely on – which makes their efforts much closer to US thinking.

But Bedaya is taking their ideas a step further. Jordan is a small country in terms of population. They have about 6.5 million people, so the pool of wealthy individuals is not as large as they would like it to be to support all of the initiatives going on in the country. Jordan is not an incredibly wealthy nation. However, when you look across the entire Middle East, there are a lot of wealthy people. So, if you look at the greater community of the Middle East you will see plenty of wealthy people, and you also see plenty of educated and motivated people – even if those audiences are concentrated in different areas. This is why the concept of the Bedaya Angel Network is so important. It’s bringing together investors and entrepreneurs across this region to promote startups wherever they may be, and to provide investors opportunities in the region. This is also the reason why Angelsoft was asked to participate, because having the entire Middle East on one platform for sharing is critical to its success – and certainly they want to be on the same platform as the rest of the world.

This region knows that like it or not, oil’s days are numbered. It may take many, many years to get completely off of oil, but it is happening.

As I reflected on all of the initiatives in place, I was astounded at the thought of the lost opportunities in this region. How many people were lost under regimes that taught their children that the external forces were the root of their problems? How many inventors were raised to fight over plots of dirt instead of exploring their minds for ways to improve the planet? Imagine if Khadafi spent his billions on technology and promoting innovation within his country rather than waste it on militia and New Years Eve parties? If all of this had happened, would we be talking about the Middle East’s rise instead of China’s rise? Perhaps. Is it too late for them? Hardly. I see exciting things happening in a region where the youth, Twitter, and Facebook launched the toppling of dictators. This region is just at the beginning and the Bedaya Angel Network is launching something very exciting. As you see the dictators fall and freedom rise, I think we will see Middle East inventors emerge with interesting ideas about technology in ways we can’t imagine in the US. They certainly think of the world in a much different way than we do in the West.

You’ll notice, these revolutions aren’t about religion. They aren’t about the evil Western societies. They are about people wanting the ability to make their own lives better by themselves. Its about freedom and the entrepreneurial spirit. Angel investing and entrepreneurship is rising here at exactly the right time.

A man in Tunisia just wanted to feed his family so he opened his own fruit stand and was stopped – and now the region is transforming.

I think that exciting things are going to be coming from this place. And yes I’m particularly excited because…

An entrepreneur started it all.

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