Christopher Schroeder built his name and career in Washington as an executive and publisher at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive and the founder of social and information network HealthCentral.com.
So it may seem strange that he recently penned a book focusing on the burgeoning entrepreneurship in a region several thousand miles from here.
“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.
How did you find time to pursue this intellectual interest while running a company?
When you’re running a company, you can’t. For all intents and purposes, while I was running HealthCentral, this shut down as another part of my life. But as we got into the process of selling it, I was able to reengage in it.
We see a lot of entrepreneur CEOs who have traveled the world or pursue some intellectual interest once they sell a company. What is it about selling a company that motivates people to do that?
[In a start-up] there are days when you think you’ve got a great idea and there are days when you wonder if you can take care of your employees going forward. You have to bite down on the initiative to be successful and be hyper-focused. Every action, is it moving the dial on the impact you’re hoping to make? And so as you start to get to the point where you’re going to sell it and move on, I realized I had become incredibly narrow.
There was a lot of stuff going on in the world ... and I began to think about a lot of the big questions I thought about when running the company. What will the world look like when half the world has super-computing capacity in their hands through broadband and smartphones? You start to ask bigger questions that in a way it’s almost impossible to get your mind around if you don’t go out and start talking to people.
You write a lot in the book about the Middle East establishing itself as a tech hub. Locally, D.C. continues to try to establish itself as a technology hub against this cosmic pull of Silicon Valley. How different are the challenges of establishing a community here compared to the Middle East?
One of the biggest questions I get when I come back from the Middle East ... is where is the next Silicon Valley? Or what do you need to do to be the next Silicon Valley? I have a very distinct view on this which is that Silicon Valley is one of the most extraordinary phenomena in world history.
You can make an argument that it’s very difficult to have a bunch of cities where companies are going to create a $10 billion IPO, if that’s your criteria of success. Or you can say we’re about to become an incredibly diffused world of technology hubs. The Arab world of the Middle East has none of the classic ecosystem advantages that have built up in Silicon Valley over time, at least not for the time being, and yet these people are doing it anyway.
Here in Washington, people keep asking me if this is going to be a great consumer Internet hub. I don’t think it will be. There will be some. You have an incredible generation of young people who want to change the world and all of a sudden they look around and think maybe with technology they can do something that complements what government is doing or something that government should do. You have groups like 1776, it is just filled with young people who want to change the world, but they’re looking at areas like health care, education, even national security. If you look in almost any city and you see these pockets of innovation popping up, it’s no surprise they begin in and around the unique aspects of those areas.
How do the protests against governments we’ve seen recently relate to the rise in entrepreneurship?
Because of technology, people can see the way the rest of the world lives, they can see the way the rest of the world innovates, and they can ask one of the most important questions anyone can ask, which is “Why not me? Why do I have to have anything less than what anybody else has?” That expression comes in the way you think about your family, that expression comes in the way you think about your political rights and your ability to express yourself and it comes in the way you think about your relationship with religion. And it,[raises the question] what kind of economic future do I want to have? The idea that the Arab uprisings is different than what I am seeing in the business and tech community is to me a distinction without a distinction.