Value Added: An exchange program for entrepreneurs
By Thomas Heath,
There’s a line from the late television series “The West Wing” that has stuck with me over the years. It went something like, “Trade between countries prevents wars.”
The dialogue came to mind when I learned that Afghan entrepreneur Ahmad Reza Zahedi was coming to Washington to learn some business smarts from two cool and thriving local companies: visual storyteller Jess3 near the Farragut North Metro station, and Web strategist Threespot, located in the old Tivoli Theater in Columbia Heights.
Zahedi, 30, is a Web programmer from Kabul who runs TechSharks, which develops software for media companies, nongovernmental organizations and governments. He learned programming in Iran, where he attended high school and lived as a refugee.
TechSharks, which has six employees including Zahedi, works on about two projects a month. Those projects earn $1,000 to $6,000 each.
Zahedi is part of a program called Bpeace (Business Council for Peace), which each year picks up the tab for about a dozen entrepreneurs to travel from Afghanistan to the United States, and sometimes from Rwanda and El Salvador.
The visitors spend three weeks learning everything from how to build the legal framework for a partnership, to how to treat customers, to finding investors for their companies. Bpeace continues to work with these foreign entrepreneurs over a period of years, helping them to build a business.
Other Bpeace-sponsored foreign entrepreneurs this year are visiting companies across the country, including Microsoft in Seattle, Redmond Minerals near Salt Lake City and Bumble & Bumble beauty company in New York City.
The idea is to send them back home after three weeks with enough practical business knowledge to build their companies — and to build wealth, too.
“When businesses are creating jobs in a community, people are earning income, they have hope for the future and they are less likely to join groups that are disruptive,” said Toni Maloney, Bpeace’s chief executive.
New York-based Bpeace has trademarked its own version of the West Wing line: “More jobs means less violence.”
Maloney, a former public relations person for American Express and for big Madison Avenue ad agencies, loves the business game and is one of five businesswomen founders behind Bpeace.
Her nonprofit organization has a $1.2 million budget. About 15 percent comes from the State Department and the rest from fundraising.
Getting sponsored is no snap. The application process includes 100 questions and in-person interviews.
For that, Zahedi gets airfare, hotel, interpreters and three weeks to learn how to solve some business problems. It’s worth about $6,000. He is going to grind it out in sessions with Jess3 and Threespot.
Zahedi has said he needs to learn more about managing and pricing his projects, organizing deadlines, and knowing what to charge for his services. He also wants to know how to keep good employees.
“During the years . . . we faced some problems on project management,” Zahedi said in an e-mail. “I understood Bpeace is a good chance for me to solve the business problems I have here in Afghanistan.”
Jess3 co-founder Leslie Bradshaw will allow her Afghan guest to shadow the firm’s Nike account team to understand how the firm services its premier client. Jess3 manages the Facebook page for Nike iD division, which allows users to custom-design their shoes.
D.C.-based Jess3, with 27 full-time employees in offices around the United States, specializes in turning complicated subjects into easily accessible videos and graphics. The company created a video for ESPN to explain how television ratings work to its employees. It crafted a 30-second stop-motion animated video for Google that demonstrates how its mobile Gmail system works. It also produced an interactive site for Intel at the Consumer Electronics Show.
Bradshaw, 29, said she will help Zahedi with management tips, including how to hire more women and use their multitasking and management skills to help the company and diversify the workforce.
“We hope to learn from Zahedi as well,” she said, “knowing that he has overcome many obstacles to build his company back in Afghanistan.”
Threespot’s co-founder, David Belman, 43, hopes to explain how to find and keep customers.
“I will talk to him about the importance of building relationships and a hands-on way to help him organize a project,” said Belman, who has 70 employees with clients including the Humane Society, the World Bank and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “Profitability is the result of building long-term relationships as opposed to one-off projects.”
Threespot, whose founders cut their teeth on designing Web sites for Crayola, Haagen-Dazs and Kellogg’s, helps organizations locate digital consumers and turn them into customers and, eventually, longtime loyal fans. The audiences range from curious middle-school students who want to know more about the Peace Corps to the 60-year-old woman whom Planned Parenthood wants to “activate” so she can write a letter to her representative in Congress.
“We wrestle with business problems every day,” Belman said. “We bid a big client in the past two months and came in about $100,000 over their price point. But we were able to still convince them we were the right people for the job by moving the conversation to another plane about experience and ideas. That’s the kind of business advice we can use to help Reza.”
I asked Zahedi in an e-mail about his view of American business.
“As you know we are a web and software company,” he wrote. “Most of the software and social network websites originated from the USA. Google, Facebook, YouTube . . . are all gods of our business. So I am so excited to travel to the country of my gods.”
Follow me on Twitter: @addedvalueth.