Christopher M. Schroeder is an Internet venture investor and the Washington-based author of “Startup Rising,” a new book about a largely unrecognized revolution that has been quietly changing the landscape of the Middle East: tech start-ups. He spent three years making frequent trips to the region, getting to know the men and women behind this entrepreneurial upheaval.
Schroeder, former publisher of The Post’s WPNI, spoke with Style editor Frances Stead Sellers about his new book (“Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East” was published this month by Palgrave Macmillan), his thoughts about emerging tech businesses and the role of technology in the modern Middle East.
TWP: We’ve read a lot about the impact of social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, on the Arab Spring. Can you talk a little about how that political and social uprising affected the emerging tech businesses?
CHRISTOPHER SCHROEDER: It really is all part of the same thing. A new generation in the Middle East — as now virtually everywhere — has access to technology barely dreamed of a decade ago. They see the way the rest of the world works, they have most of the world’s knowledge at their fingertips essentially for free, they can connect and collaborate and share in unprecedented ways. We saw in the Arab uprisings people en masse demanding a political and social voice; these entrepreneurs are taking their economic futures into their own hands as well.
TWP: You’re an optimist, with an abiding faith in the power of technology and connectivity to bring about positive change. Does that come from personal experience?
CS: I have seen in the online news business, and [from] building a health and wellness enterprise online called healthcentral.com — that when people feel informed, they are not alone, they can collaborate, that actions they take can work because others have done the same [and] amazing things happen. [The term] “empowerment” is thrown around a lot, but for me, this is what access to technology is all about. And this is [the] early days. Most experts I know believe there will be 5 billion smartphones on the planet within a decade — two-thirds of humanity with a supercomputer on their person. Problem solving and innovation — again, bottom-up — will change.
TWP: Your book is full of surprises — [such as] times when the modern, tech-savvy young people of the Middle East defied preconceptions about the region. If you can pick just one example of a person or incident that made you rethink the region and its trajectory, who or what would it be?
CS: There are so many, but the winners of last year’s INJAZ Al-Arab high-school start-up competition really hit me like a 2-by-4. INJAZ, based on Junior League, is a region-wide program teaching basic skills in entrepreneurship to teens — over 1 million kids have done it — and they hold this region-wide competition. The winners had created solar-powered charging stations so that kerosene lamps in tent communities near their homes could be replaced by battery-based lanterns — fire being one of the greatest hazards in that community. When I asked them where [they got] the solar panels – expecting [to hear] some NGO had donated them — they smiled and said: “Oh, we built them! We went on YouTube and Google and found hundreds of places to learn how to build solar panels with the materials at hand. It took us 10 months!”
These were five young women from a high school in Yemen.
TWP: One of the most poignant comments in your book is from an entrepreneur in Tahrir Square during the protests that led to the downfall of then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. “I have always been proud to be Egyptian,” he texted you, “but this is the first time I love my country.” What do you say now to those young idealistic entrepreneurs, in light of the recent violence in Cairo? Was their [and your] optimism that enduring change could happen misplaced?
CS: What is happening today is deeply sad and troubling. The chief technology officer of one of my favorite start-ups was shot and killed this week. It is terrible.
At the same time, what I have seen has been going on for years, and these amazing entrepreneurs continue to build and scale. As I noted, there will only [be] more, not less, access to technology coming. Two narratives are at play, and political, [social] and business leaders are making choices right now between the 20th and 21st century. These entrepreneurs have voted and are on the right side of history.
I recalled recently that when I was in business school, the conventional wisdom was: First, Japan had won; second, India was a disaster, embroiled in terrible riots at the time; and third, post-Tiananmen China was lost for a generation. In less than a decade, no one was saying any of this.
TWP: You were very much part of the Washington Post family, having served as publisher of WPNI, the former Post/Newsweek Web operation, and you still have many friends in the newsroom. What kind of changes do you envision in the American media business, particularly now that The Post has been bought by tech entrepreneur Jeff Bezos?
CS: I thought Don [Graham] and Katharine [Weymouth] made an extremely brave and selfless decision, realizing the worlds I’ve just described are happening faster and faster — so they sold this amazing company to one of the best in understanding and building to these new realities.
With so much information being spread, with so much data being put out there, with so many sharing their experiences, with increasing speed of complexity in our times, great journalism, analysis and deep reporting will matter more … [and] can be done by leveraging the best of technology and essential things only humans can do. And, to everything I said above, billions of more people will be clamoring for reliable information and insight.
If one focuses on how to build a great news operation today — as if all this technology came first, rather than tied to, or merely modernizing, old models — I believe there is a special new future for The Washington Post around the globe.