Beyond Silicon Valley: Elmira Bayrasli on Innovation in Unlikely Places

Nov 11, 2015

TV Show


Elmira Bayrasli, founder of "Foreign Policy Interrupted" and author of "Beyond Silicon Valley," is all about shattering stereotypes and bringing disregarded groups to the fore, from talented women who must be encouraged to "raise their hands" to the millions of successful entrepreneurs around the world that we never hear about.


JOEL ROSENTHAL: Good evening. Welcome. I'm Joel Rosenthal, president of the Carnegie Council. I am here mostly just to welcome you to the Council. All of the events at the Carnegie Council are special, but some are more special than others. This is one of those occasions.

This evening, this program is being sponsored jointly with the Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program, BGIA. It is a program near and dear to my heart. I have been involved with it for more than 10 years, and I happen to have known the founder of the program, the late James Chace. Some of you in this room will remember him; he was a real inspiration to all of us here at the Carnegie Council, and this lecture series has been named in his honor.

I am here just to welcome you. Thank you all for coming. I am going to turn it over to Jim Ketterer, who is the director of the BGIA program, and he will say a little bit more about BGIA, its relationship with Carnegie Council, and introduce the program.

Thank you.

JIM KETTERER: Good evening, and welcome. I am glad to see we have such a full house tonight. When we put this on the calendar, when I would try to recall when it was, I would have to "Remember, remember the fifth of November." For those of you who are British historians, you know: Happy Guy Fawkes Day. Hopefully, the fireworks tonight will be more intellectual than that.

Joel mentioned James Chace. James Chase was also the co-founder of the Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program. That is a program that brings students to New York City to spend a semester, or a summer interning, taking classes, enjoying New York City and, we hope, getting a very intensive experience as they dive into both the practitioner and the academic part of international affairs.

This is one of those parts, as well. I am very happy that we have our students here today. It is a very interesting cohort from all over the world, so they will not at all be surprised about the other side of the world and where those ideas come from.

I should also mention that this event is co-sponsored by Foreign Affairs. It has been supported by the World Policy Journal and, of course, very graciously hosted by the Carnegie Council.

We are happy to be here, and happy to have two such interesting people on stage to let us into their conversation tonight about this idea. Hazami Barmada is going to be our interviewer, our discussant for the evening. She runs her own firm in Washington. She is a consultant with the United Nations, and this is a topic that she knows an awful lot about.

Elmira Bayrasli and I first worked together in Kosovo, working on the first elections after the war. It is hard to believe that was 15 years ago. She has worked for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe [OSCE], for the State Department. She is a lecturer at NYU [New York University], and is a fellow at the World Policy Institute.

With all of that, I will turn it over to the conversation. About halfway through the conversation we will then open it up for questions and answers. Thank you.


HAZAMI BARMADA: I will start by thanking everybody, again, for coming, and for the warm welcome that you have all given to the wonderful author that we have with us today, and way more than an author: an intellect, an entrepreneur, an empowered woman—a lot of titles, and we will get into those.

You have heard a little bit about her bio, so in the interest of time I am going to delve into the discussion with her, with the hopes that you will stop by at the end and get the book, From the Other Side of the World: Extraordinary Entrepreneurs, Unlikely Places, and read the full bio and the book.

To start, I did a little bit of searching about your background. Thanks to Google, we can stalk everybody these days.

ELMIRA BAYRASLI: I am easy to stalk on Google. How many people are named Elmira Bayrasli?

HAZAMI BARMADA: Hazami Barmada had it right there. In one of the interviews, you noted specifically that there was a question, "Where are you from?" that got you interested in a career in the international affairs sector. Can you tell us more about that?

ELMIRA BAYRASLI: Sure. My parents are immigrants from Turkey and came here in the late 1960s. I was born here in New York City and grew up in New York City. But, with a name like Elmira Bayrasli that is highly Googleable, I always did get the question of "Where are you from?"

Off the bat when you say Brooklyn, then they probe a little further.

HAZAMI BARMADA: Where are you really from?

ELMIRA BAYRASLI: They say, "Where are you really from?" You are forced to be aware of the greater world, I think, the world beyond where you are actually living. So, from the earliest of ages—not only because I would travel to Turkey with my parents as a child, but I also think just interacting with other people who always made me aware that there was somewhere else that I was from and I should know where this place was and I should understand what this place was—I was always interested in not only what was happening in Turkey, but I think all over the world. So whenever my father brought home the newspaper, I would always look at the international section because automatically it was like, "What's happening to other places in the world?"

Certainly, when I was going to school, things in Iran were headline news, and I was very aware of what was happening in Iran, Afghanistan. I remember the Cold War and I remember when the Soviet Union was a country, following things like that. So I think just that question made me aware of the wider world.

HAZAMI BARMADA: That is a very interesting thing that they say, that your world is as big as you make it. But I do want to also—I am known to be somebody who challenges the status quo quite often; not very politically correct for somebody who works at the United Nations; I don't know how I've had my job for this long—but debunking stereotypes I think is something important. You get into this with some of the work that you do, both through your start-up, but then also through your writings and various other interviews.

Specifically talking about entrepreneurship—and I want to read this, so I don't mess up the stat—but the misconceptions that we have about that part of the world versus the United States and more developed countries. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, in 2012 showcased that one in every four start-ups in the Middle East are actually woman-run and woman-started, which is 25 percent. In Jordan, it is actually about a third of the ecosystem of entrepreneurs is women, compared to Silicon Valley, which is at 3 percent. Of the privately held companies, 6.5 percent have female CEOs and only 1.3 percent have a female founder.

So when we are talking about flipping narratives over on their head—and you are a very great example of an empowered woman—what was it that led you to create your own start-up? And tell us more about your start-up.

ELMIRA BAYRASLI: Sure. I am glad that you cited those stats because when you actually look beyond the United States and you look at not only the number of individuals, but particularly women, involved in entrepreneurship, the number is so high. Yet, we seem to believe that everywhere around the world women need to be empowered and we need to do something to save the women around the world. I think that is a separate subject that can certainly be covered on another night.

I started a non-profit called Foreign Policy Interrupted. It is a media education platform designed to increase female foreign policy voices. The genesis of that was constantly—I am someone who has been in the foreign policy field for the past 25 years, and many of the friends I know are foreign policy experts. Yet, whenever I open up The New York Times or you turn on Charlie Rose, you constantly see the same faces.

Then, when they make these lists up of foreign policy experts, they are constantly of men. Then what happens is I think there is an outroar where the question is asked: Where are the women?

I am also somebody who does not want to complain. I just think that yes, you should do outreach but I think you should take action. So, having a conversation with my co-founder, Lauren Bohn—who interestingly enough is an American based out of Istanbul; I am a Turk based out of Brooklyn, New York—we decided: Why don't we dissect where the problem is?

The problem is not that there are not women in foreign policy who are qualified enough to actually be on the pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or to be on the Sunday talk shows. It is just that traditionally I think media in the 20th century has been an old white man's game, and it was an institution developed by men.

In the 24/7 media landscape now, where everything is breaking news and producers and editors are rushing to get out information, they are relying on the Rolodexes of the 20th century; they are relying on what they know. What they know is a Rolodex of white men.

What we decided to do was break that down and work with the media outlets to flag qualified women, but then to also work with the women in order to let them know about how you pitch an editor, how you meet producers, how you talk to bookers, how you know that landscape because I think this is a problem that I think women have in start-ups, too. I always get the question of what is the challenge of women in entrepreneurship, and I think one of the challenges is that women cannot raise capital because they are not naturally in those networks where they can raise the capital; they are not naturally in those networks.

I also think that women—I can speak for myself—want to be perfect. We will only raise our hand when we absolutely know 100 percent the answer to the question, as opposed to a man. I remember in 2013 during the Gezi Park riots in Turkey I couldn't believe the number of men who had been to Istanbul once and were writing articles about, "let me explain to you what is happening in Turkey." I couldn't believe it. I thought, "Well, this is the chutzpah of men," where they are not afraid to raise their hand.

So we need to actually change the mindset of women so that they can raise their hand too. It is not that they should raise their hand and talk about things that they don't know about, but I think the women who are in foreign policy and doing the things they do are so abundantly qualified that we wanted to just make sure that they were going out there and talking about and sharing the things that they know—and not simply because they are women. We are not doing this because we think that we are these female activists. Certainly, there is a feminist quality about this, but I think Lauren and I are also just two people who care about foreign policy.

When you look around the world, there are so many challenges that are happening at such a rapid clip that the State Department cannot possibly handle all of those things on its own. I just think that the more different opinions and perspectives and ideas that you have, then you are going to have better solutions for it, and you are going to have people out there who are going to be able to solve all these global challenges because the challenge is no longer a bipolar world.

Now you have pandemics and cybersecurity and a lot of countries that have gained a lot of economic power, and a lot of complicated issues that are no longer confined to the oak-paneled rooms that men used to once close the doors and define the policy. Policy is not being made in those rarefied halls anymore; it is being made in Tahrir Square. It is being made on the front lines, and it is changing every day. It is being made out in Silicon Valley.

The last three leaders that have come and seen Barack Obama—India's prime minister; Xi Jinping, China's president; and, Indonesia's President Widodo—as soon as they left the White House, they went to Silicon Valley. What they are doing is they are talking much more than just about doing business. They are talking about policies of what the future of the Internet is.

It is the people of the Silicon Valley who are defining that. Whether that is good or bad, I think that is a separate subject. But, the reality is you need these different perspectives and people who are doing different things to be involved in the policy because it is changing so rapidly.

HAZAMI BARMADA: Absolutely. I think you bring up some very complex and timely points. We have realized very much, with the Arab Spring—which turned into an Arab Winter of sorts—and a lot of the other things that are happening, that there is an interconnectivity, that the role of the participants has changed; who is now the participant has very much changed—the role of digital tools and technology in connecting us, leveraging voices, etc.

I do want to go back to the point about women in politics because I do fully hear you that there are amazing women out there and we need to do more to not only empower them, but to amplify their voices. They are already doing amazing things; we are just not spotlighting that. That is true for young entrepreneurs in the developing world where the media tends to cover doom and gloom and not necessarily the amazing tech entrepreneurs that are in Egypt creating apps that people here can't figure out how to create in their 40s and they are making them there when they are 12 and 13 years old. There are ample cases.

I do want to go back to the women's issue because I think it is a critical one. We know that women's involvement in politics globally has doubled in the past 10 years, but it is still at 22 percent. What could we do to empower more women to go into politics, and what do you think the biggest barriers are, not only for entry but for enticing young women to go into that sector?

ELMIRA BAYRASLI: I don't think you have to entice women. I think, if the opportunities are there, they are ready to take them. Just in my work with the State Department, but then also just writing this book, I have traveled to several dozen countries, talking to both young men and women.

The women are as equally interested in doing different things, but also very globally aware. I think the challenge is really—literally, I am going to take a term from entrepreneurship in the start-up world—to "disrupt" the status quo to really change the mind frame of what women can be involved in and bringing their voices to the tables and having them participate.

Justin Trudeau, who was just elected the prime minister of Canada, has an equal number of women and men in his cabinet. His response to "Why did you do that?" was, he said, "Because it is 2015." I think that is refreshing, and I think there is no lack of organizations that try to support women and try to get them to be interested, whether it is in technology or foreign policy or politics.

I think where the challenge does lie is really at the top. I think you really need to have leaders who own this issue and who say, "I really want to make a change in this." I think you have seen a lot of changes here in the United States, whether it is the president of the United States, or whether it is a CEO that actually takes diversity and inclusion really seriously.

It has to happen in both; you have to have people moving up. But you also have to have a change at the top. The disruption doesn't need to happen through a mass revolution with people storming the White House, but I think that there is an opportunity for people at the White House to change their mindset.

I was working for Madeleine Albright in the early 1990s when they had the 1996 elections, and Bill Clinton appointed her to be the first secretary of state. You look back at it now and it may not seem like "So what? There was a female secretary of state." But even in 1996, it was a big deal to appoint a woman to that position. She got questions of, "How are you going to deal with world leaders in the Middle East?" That turned out not to be an issue. People respected her for the position that she was in, and she was perfectly capable of doing that.

I think it is about shattering the stereotypes and just not acknowledging them, just moving forward with them.

HAZAMI BARMADA: But a part of that is also very much societally ingrained. When we still do have taboos—as noted, I am an entrepreneur myself, and my parents until this very day say, "What do you actually do?"—So I think there are some stigmas and there are some challenges from our ecosystems that do need to change.

I see a lot of that with young women who are very confused as to what route to go down. There are obviously policies that impact some choices of some females into entering different fields—issues of maternity leave, all these various things.

There are policy issues, but I want to ask you your opinion about the societal norms that need to be shattered. How can we do that? How can we actually empower young women to say, "No, this is the career I would like to take," and "You would never understand me, my dear father; however, I am doing it anyway." Where can we find those support systems, where they don't exist, where ecosystems do not exist? There are ample examples of those lacks of ecosystem globally.

ELMIRA BAYRASLI: Certainly, sign up for our newsletter in Foreign Policy Interrupted. We have a fellowship. We are taking applications for a fellowship program where we actually address this issue of trying to encourage more women to raise their hands and put out op-eds and get themselves on television.

I think the barrier there is, again, women just do not have the networks. Then also, I think there is this mindset of: "What do I do when I get up there?"

We ran our first fellowship program. It was so interesting to hear the women and what challenges they face because all of them were so amazing. We had a cybersecurity expert, a woman who does defense in China defense matters. Yet, they asked this question. They said, "I don't know what to do with my hands," and "I am so energetic," and "I don't know what to do with my enthusiasm."

I said, "There is nothing that you can do; you should harness it." People should just be who they are, and I think we need to shatter the mindset that there is only one way to be on television.

I think that when we start to accept people as they are and listen to the substance that they are delivering, that is a value added. One of the reasons that we set up Foreign Policy Interrupted is to provide that kind of service for women.

I also think another important thing is to highlight the examples of women. We are inspired by the stories and the role models that we are exposed to, and there is a reason that a lot of young men in the United States want to be entrepreneurs, because a lot of the entrepreneurial stories in the United States are about Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Michael Dell.

Well, where are the stories about the women, the female entrepreneurs? I think that the magazines and the newspapers that actually devote the time to talk about those stories make a difference, because when you actually are reading about someone or seeing them on television, psychologically there is a mind shift where you think: "There is a woman doing things in cybersecurity; maybe I can do that too." It just takes that one individual to be able to break that path. But I think it is up to the media, too, to actually highlight those examples, and not just the ones where you are talking about the Facebooks and the Googles.

HAZAMI BARMADA: Absolutely. Talking about writing stories, you have written this wonderful book. For those who have not read it, go read it tonight; it will be your bedtime story. Tell us about your book.

ELMIRA BAYRASLI: From the Other Side of the World: Extraordinary Entrepreneurs, Unlikely Places is very much about shattering the perceptions of what entrepreneurship is. I wrote this book primarily for two reasons. One is when you say entrepreneurship here in the United States, you automatically think of Silicon Valley, and you associate it with Facebook, Google, Intel, Microsoft, and these globally changing companies.

Yet while I was working at the State Department, and then when I was living in Bosnia working at the OSCE, if you say the word "entrepreneurship," it has a different connotation. It has this connotation of it is micro, and it is something about handcrafts, and it is not innovative, it is not globally competitive, it is something very small-scale.

I was meeting men and women around the world where I knew that that simply was not true. I was meeting men and women who were leading globally competitive companies, and it wasn't just the tchotchkes that people were selling on the side of the road. So I wanted to tell these stories, but I also wanted to do it in a way where we have to understand that entrepreneurship is about problem-solving. It is not necessarily about capitalism and wealth. Yes, it is associated with it, no doubt, and there is capital and wealth that is required to launch a business and to run and scale up a company.

But ultimately, the reason we call entrepreneurs entrepreneurs, and why they are distinct from someone who starts a small business or someone who goes into finance and is working on Wall Street, is because they found something where they can solve a problem not just for their community, but that is globally relevant, that is going to add value and actually disrupt and change our lives and move society forward.

Ultimately, entrepreneurship is about community and it is about progress. I saw men and women around the world doing those things and meeting the challenges and problems in the places that they were doing it.

The book profiles seven entrepreneurs from seven different countries overcoming seven different obstacles. I highlight the obstacles because primarily that is what has actually been the barrier for the next Steve Jobs, wherever he or she may be. I don't think the United States has a monopoly on great entrepreneurs. I do believe that great talent exists everywhere. I think that these obstacles have held men and women back, whether they are in Turkey, Nigeria, Pakistan, Mexico, India, Russia, or China.

Looking at what these obstacles mean, and how entrepreneurs are overcoming them, and also putting entrepreneurship in a context where we remove it from the individual, while I profile the individual entrepreneurs, I also take entrepreneurship off the pedestal that it has been put on. There is a certain mythology that we have created with entrepreneurship. It has become this thing on par with being an artist or a musician, or being a movie star where there is lots of glitz and glamour in it.

The reality is that it is hard to be an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship is very easy here in the United States because the conditions are conducive to being an entrepreneur. We have good infrastructure. We have good rule of law. We have low incidences of corruption. We have great competition. We have great skilled talent. A lot of those things do not exist elsewhere in the world, and they are just starting to build those ecosystems. I also wanted to show how entrepreneurs who are pioneering these globally competitive companies are contributing to that.

HAZAMI BARMADA: That is wonderful. I think one of the key principles of entrepreneurships is fail fast and iterate. That is something that a lot of us do not do, and do not allow ourselves to take the risk in failure. There is a lot of taboo around the idea of failure.

To ask one last question before we open it up to Q&A, what has been your biggest obstacle, and how did you overcome it?

ELMIRA BAYRASLI: It is interesting. When we started Foreign Policy Interrupted and when I set out to do my book, I was so excited, like we are going to go and do this. I had this one opportunity where a producer from a major television show called up and she said, "We love what you are doing with Foreign Policy Interrupted and we want to embrace it, we want to have more women on our show. Could you recommend someone who knows about Turkey?"

I kind of sat there and I was like, "Well, I kind of started this organization; maybe I should volunteer myself," but I actually had to stop and I thought, "Who am I? I can't possibly go on. I am not qualified to do that," this own psychology that I think society has conditioned a lot of women to believe that you have to have a PhD or you have to have written five books in order to actually go out there and talk about these things.

I stopped and I said, "Okay. I started this organization precisely because we have this problem where women don't raise their hands. So you have to raise your hand." I said, "Yes. Me."

But, I had to overcome that obstacle of can I actually do this. I think it was the same thing that I encountered when I went out to write my book. It was a long process; it took me about five years. Along the way—I mean not only starting out, but also just along the way even trying to finish and get over the finishing line—it was always this question of can I actually do this.

Happily, the answer is yes.

HAZAMI BARMADA: Thanks for doing it.

ELMIRA BAYRASLI: But, I think that because there aren't a lot of examples out there and just the networks that you are in—I think the psychological obstacle that I had created in my own head to believe that I wasn't good enough to do it, I just had to overcome that. I am happy that I have actually put that aside.

Now, when I actually talk to editors and producers, they are like, "Oh, no. Elmira is calling and she has no shame whatsoever."

HAZAMI BARMADA: I love that. So no shame.


QUESTION: My name is Arindam Mandal. I am from Sienna College.

I have this quick question regarding the empowerment of women. We know that, especially in the upper management and executive level, there is a clear underrepresentation of women. This is very much true in the financial sector. Thanks to our neoliberal policy for the last 25 or 30 years, we have been able to exacerbate this problem.

Recently, Great Britain is planning to pass legislation—at least I think it is in the Parliament—where in the financial sector the bonuses for upper level management will be tied to the number of women they have in their boards and upper executive level. There are a lot of hues and cries about it. There are people who are supporting it, some people who are opposing it, and clearly this is a brute force policy.

What are your thoughts on this kind of policy? Clearly the free market is not helping to achieve the goals that were set forward. Do you think legislation should be brought in? Should this kind of brute force situation be helpful?

ELMIRA BAYRASLI: My thought on just legislation in general: I think overregulation is a bad thing. Especially after spending so much time talking to entrepreneurs, I think the less government and less complications that you have, the better it is.

I do think that there is merit in creating quotas and in working with corporations to actually require them to have a certain number of women and minorities on their boards because I think that is the only way you really create opportunity and change.

Quotas may seem—I know it is a controversial thing, but it is a disruptor, and it does bring people into a group of networks that they otherwise might not have access to. If there is one thing that I took away from writing my book, it is success is really tied to who you know. Yes, it absolutely depends on what you know and the substance that you bring, but it is also about the networks that you are operating in.

So at every opportunity I get—young women come to me and I always say, "Go out there and talk to people. Ask them to go to coffee. Ask them questions, and ask them if they will talk to you because you need to build your network." I think that creating quotas in a boardroom is actually a really good thing because, unfortunately, I think that there are still people who have outdated notions about the capability of people who don't look like them and who are not within their circles.

Once you actually bring those people into contact with people who are not like them, I think magical things happen, and that is how you actually change mindsets.

QUESTION: Sana Mustafa, Bard College.

Thank you for your great panel. I think I am inspired enough as a woman who is aiming to be an entrepreneur and coming from a closed civic space in Syria. I think the problem is for women, or just people who live in closed civic spaces, is that we don't know even about the notion of entrepreneurship; it doesn't exist. It is not about the obstacle of being an entrepreneur; it is about we don't even know there is something we can do that is called entrepreneurship and we can be entrepreneurs.

How do you think, on a policy level, those who live in open civic spaces can help those who live in closed civic spaces?

ELMIRA BAYRASLI: That is a great question. I actually devoted an entire chapter in my book to the question of space. The question of space came up when I traveled to Pakistan. I was asked to be part of a delegation to look at Pakistan's entrepreneurial ecosystem.

I had assumed—you go to Pakistan and everyone is like: "Are you going to be okay, is it going to be safe?" I definitely had those questions in my own head. You get to Pakistan and it is a perfectly vibrant place. I went to all three major cities: Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad. People are at a café; there are lots of shops. It is very vibrant.

When you dig deeper, you actually realize that insecurity is a symptom of a greater problem in Pakistan. There is corruption, there is poor infrastructure, and there is bad governance. But, there is also lack of space.

What I saw the entrepreneurs doing, and I thought it was fascinating, was a lot of entrepreneurs in Pakistan were creating spaces. It wasn't quite what we have here with WeWork or the various workplaces that are gathering individual freelancers to come, but it was for individuals to come and just network with one another. They would have poetry nights and musicians come in. They would allow entrepreneurs to come in and exchange ideas. They had computers there, they had books. There was a café. There were a number of these spaces.

Then also I sat with them. The entrepreneur that I profile in my book is an Internet entrepreneur. He talked about how the Internet is actually changing the dynamics in Pakistan because it is allowing Pakistanis to overcome the problem of poor infrastructure and gather in a place where they can be online and they communicate online and they can collaborate online.

I think this is one of the reasons that you have seen entrepreneurship flourish around the world. Whether it is through mobile technology or through the Internet, I think those platforms in and of themselves are certainly not going to solve Syria's problem. It is not going to solve Pakistan's problem. But I think that it does serve as a basis for people to actually come together and build things.

In a country like Saudi Arabia, there is a high percentage of female entrepreneurs, and they are primarily entrepreneurs doing e-commerce and things on the Internet.

I think the biggest thing—I actually was at the State Department two weeks ago and they asked the question: "What can we at the State Department do to encourage entrepreneurship around the world?" I actually think there are more entrepreneurs around the world because they need to be.

Here in the United States, only 14 percent of the population is involved in entrepreneurship. Around the world, the percentage is higher. That is primarily because around the world people have to create their own jobs, and they have to create their own opportunities. They may not think of themselves as entrepreneurs, but they are.

It is a word, again, that we mythologize and we romanticize here. It is not romantic in those places. It is not romantic to actually start your own business in a lot of these places. They do it because they have no other choice.

So I think that on a policy level things like what the State Department can do, but also governments at a government level can do, is to create those spaces where people can come together because government provides security. They can actually facilitate different people from different networks to come together. That is actually a great use of government, to host things where they are having maker fairs or demo days where entrepreneurs can come and pitch their ideas.

Governments have access to a variety of different people, so if an entrepreneur has an idea, he or she may not have access to an investor or to the talent that is required to actually scale up an operation. I think the government, through the different networks that they have; that is something that they can actually facilitate, and not just at an executive level. They do it here in New York City, and I think they do a good job here in New York City at a very local level where they support local events and local teams here to do that. I think that government at every level can participate in that.

HAZAMI BARMADA: I will just add one quick comment, the necessity-breeds-innovation concept. We see entrepreneurship taking off globally, but I think there is also a challenge internationally when you talk about the idea of entrepreneurship being imposed on the rest of the world.

It is this idea that innovation is there; it has been there. So many innovations have actually stemmed in the world that then get branded and packaged in the United States and beyond. It is a very interesting concept how we perceive that and define that.

QUESTION: I am Maria D'Albert. I do digital and data product development and strategy, and I most recently left MasterCard where I was doing something for small businesses.

First of all, I want to thank you for your candor around the need to give yourself permission, because I actually think we mythologize leadership in general. So the act of somebody being in a leadership role, visible, recalling how important it is for each and every one of us to give ourselves permission to take action and give ourselves voice is very important, because I think we mythologize that there is some sort of magical pixie dust that certain people have.

ELMIRA BAYRASLI: Nobody has magical pixie dust.

HAZAMI BARMADA: I do. I've got it in my pocket.

ELMIRA BAYRASLI: Maybe Beyoncé. [Laughter]

QUESTIONER: You wrote in 2012, ancient days, about a challenge in the distinction between micro-enterprise and microfinance and entrepreneurship and the need to draw a clear distinction between the role of each. Do you still feel that that is an issue, and in what context do you think that one plays the most important role, and then in what context do you think entrepreneurship plays the most important role?

ELMIRA BAYRASLI: That was a piece—I actually went and found the very first microfinance recipient. He was in Bogotá, Colombia. Opportunity International extended the very first microfinance loan in 1971. It was not Muhammed Yunus. Muhammed Yunus started the Grammen Bank in 1973, two years later.

I went to go visit Carlos just because no one had written about his story before, and I wanted to understand what inspired him to become an entrepreneur. I sat down with him and he said, "Oh, I am not an entrepreneur." He had grown up in Colombia, which is a predominantly Catholic country, and he had become an evangelical. He wanted to start Colombia's first evangelical church. He said, "I became an entrepreneur because no one would give me money and I needed to raise the money to create this church."

We talked a lot about microfinance and the phenomenon of that. When I went and researched it a little more, I did realize—and one of the reasons I wanted to write that piece is because—I think it is the organizations and a lot of government bodies that have associated microfinance with entrepreneurship, like, "Let's support these individuals; they are entrepreneurs, and let's do these things," because they are working in development.

I think it is great that the World Bank and USAID [United States Agency for International Development] and the UN and all of these bodies are focused on entrepreneurship. I think that is absolutely essential, and I think that they should be involved in that. But I wanted to write that piece to take a step back, because people who are getting microfinance loans and just setting up a small storefront are not necessarily trying to be globally competitive. It is a different type of an entrepreneur than someone who, say, wants to actually create a mobile money app. I just actually wrote today about a great entrepreneur today in Egypt who created a jobs website, but very different from LinkedIn, really catering to and working with universities in Egypt and meeting that need. These microfinance recipients are really just trying to get by and create an opportunity for themselves.

I wanted to make that distinction because I think the danger in calling all these people entrepreneurs is that we say, "We've given them a loan; they've started their business," but then there is no follow-up. My question is always: "Where is the macrofinance?"

Where I think a lot of the countries around the world have the challenge is if you want to get a small loan, there is certainly microfinance. But, there are also ways to get it through friends and family and through other mechanisms. I think the challenge comes in if you are an entrepreneur. One of the reasons I think a lot of entrepreneurs around the world don't scale up is because they don't have that middle financing and they don't have that large-scale financing.

So I wrote that piece primarily not targeted to dismiss anyone who is taking a microfinance loan and starting an enterprise. I applaud those people, and we should continue to support them. I think where I have a problem is with the big organizations. They wash their hands and they say, "Okay, well, this is it; we've solved this problem." You haven't solved the problem. You have just chipped away at the ground floor, and now you need to really go in because there is a lot more that needs to be done. You need to think about the financial mechanisms that are required to actually lift these entrepreneurs up and then provide them with the skills to do it.

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson, president of International Consultants.

As I have been listening to this very lively conversation, I felt that maybe there is another stage that we should be getting to. That is, it is a real challenge to become an entrepreneur, to go into business for one's self or whatever.

But, that is not enough. What happens when you are in business? How do you grow the business? In my own case, I was extremely fortunate because the man of my life had of course dropped out of college and was a true entrepreneur and had been in business for many years. He took me to Europe to a trade show, and I brought him his biggest order ever, not even knowing the products, but because of the international background.

A Swiss gentleman came in from a Swiss trading company with department stores in Nigeria. I said: "I've been to Switzerland, I've been to Nigeria, and we have excellent products for you," which were aluminum ice cube trays engineered by General Motors. I hadn't even used them really, but it was this international exchange that I had been doing all my life.

The man in my life died and I continued on my own. The point I think I am trying to make, to encourage people, is once you get over the threshold, it is very important to build the business, and by using all our skills.

Everyone here has travelled and you are interested in other parts of the world. That is the secret to developing business. The first rule is always: Listen to the other person. Ask the other person about his or her background. "Where are you from? What do you want to do? Oh, by the way, I have products that could fit into your plans." That is the major secret of selling, of developing a business. Always be concerned about others, and don't just sit there and say, "Oh, I am scared; I don't know. Can I do this?" No. The moment you are interested in other people, you have a much better chance of succeeding. [Applause]

HAZAMI BARMADA: Thank you. That does need an applause. I think that oftentimes the humanity is left out of our business these days, and you are absolutely right. You brought up that point: network, network, network. I think we treat people in very transactional ways, and that is not how most businesses thrive.

ELMIRA BAYRASLI: To add to that, I think that is an excellent point. It was so refreshing to actually go around the world and spend time with entrepreneurs because they were so different from the policy people that I was used to meeting in Washington who were always convinced that they had the answer to everything.

The entrepreneurs, they were the ones asking questions. They listened, and they wanted to know everything. It was so refreshing to actually be with these entrepreneurs who were asking more questions than proclaiming what they knew.


QUESTION: Hi. My name is Benjamin Powers and I work for an organization called The B Team.

You have obviously done a lot with your life and worked in a lot of different areas. I was hoping you could just contrast some of these large public institutions with things like social entrepreneurship and B [benefit] corporations and small and more versatile organizations that you seem to have started to pursue your areas through, and if you see it going for the way entrepreneurship works, if there is going to be more emphasis on social entrepreneurship and on B corporations in the private sector as agents of change than there has been in the past.

ELMIRA BAYRASLI: A B corporation is a hybrid of—can you explain? I am not really familiar with it, but I know it is half non-profit, half profit, and it is a special tax designation.

QUESTIONER: A benefit corporation really focuses on triple bottom line, of people, planning, and profit, and performs a social service as well as makes a profit, kind of to go against the idea that the only way to do social change is through a non-profit, in that manner.


I actually started my book out wanting to write only about social entrepreneurs. I had been living in Bosnia. I had come back to New York. I started learning about entrepreneurs and I was interested in the men and women who were solving these problems around the world, whether it was in health care or in energy, poverty alleviation or education, or transportation.

I started getting into this, and what I quickly realized is, again, the definitions and words matter. So I think social entrepreneurship has a certain connotation here in the United States and it is associated with good. There is a lot of great value put on it. But, it is still seen as something that the non-profit sector does; it is not serious business.

I did not want to write about men and women around the world and label them social entrepreneurs and dismiss the things that they were doing because I think that they have a hard time and they struggle just because they are in Nigeria or Mexico, or wherever they are around the world. I wanted to strip that label because I think anyone who is solving a problem in starting a business is an entrepreneur—entrepreneurship without adjectives.

I think that there is much more of an awareness and a move towards social entrepreneurship, and I think it is not just about non-profits anymore. I think more and more, social enterprises are adopting for-profit models and seeing that you can solve questions like clean water or lighting and improving roads and transportation through for-profit means while you are addressing social need.

The entrepreneur in my second chapter is Tayo Oviosu who runs a company in Nigeria called Paga. Paga is a digital payment company. When I spent time with Tayo—and it is all about money; it is about transactions; he is talking to banks. It is about moving money, it is about how you actually get Nigeria into some sort of formal financial framework and sector.

I was surprised to hear Tayo call himself a social entrepreneur. He calls himself that because 80 percent of Nigerians don't have access to a bank. He is saying, "I am actually meeting a need that Nigerians need." So, while he is very hardcore, finance, capitalist, it is all for profit, he is also as an individual entrepreneur aware that he is providing a social need for people.

Talking earlier about mind frames, whether it is you as an individual raising your hand or shifting the framework of people at the top to have them bring in people, whether they are minorities or women, I also think entrepreneurs need to actually change their mind frame and start thinking about what is the social value that I am creating.

QUESTION: [inaudible name] First of all, I am from Pakistan, so thanks for bringing a good name to the country.

I have worked under two women CEOs, Ginni Rometty at IBM and Safra Catz at Oracle. I have worked very, very closely in trying to entice women to come into software development. We've got several programs around that, but it is so hard to recruit women software engineers—just engineering.

I am also teaching a class in Florida at the industrial engineering school where the demographics is 99 percent are men, and out of those, probably 80 percent are from India or China.

What is happening at a policy level to entice women to come into science and technology?

ELMIRA BAYRASLI: I think that is really kind of above my pay grade.

HAZAMI BARMADA: Then, how do you solve Middle East peace? [Laughter] Let's lump them together.

ELMIRA BAYRASLI: I think you are right. I think there is a challenge of not enough women going into science and engineering and technology. I know that there are a lot of organizations trying to fix that.

I know that IBM works a lot on trying to encourage women. There is a great organization here, based in New York, Girls Who Code, to try to encourage young girls to actually think about technology at an early age. I think that those programs are really great.

But I think it comes down, again, if you are talking about a policy level, to systems. This is where my mentor, Anne-Marie Slaughter, who has a book out now, talks a lot about this issue where at a policy level we need to have family-friendly policies where there is improved caretaking. [Editor's note: For more on Ann-Marie Slaughter, check out her Ethics Matter and Thought Leader interviews.] I think caring for a family, whether it is a child or a parent, there are no mechanisms in the United States to do that. We do not have maternity leave. There is nothing here about that. We treat everything with the bottom line, but we need to start thinking about caring and how do you care about those things.

Someone actually pointed this out to me, and I thought this was an excellent point. There is this question of can women have it all. Women have to balance family and work. Men have families, too, but we never ask them that question primarily because we put the burden on the woman. The woman physically gives birth to the child and then we think that the woman actually has to take care of the child. If we actually had policies that gave paternity leave, and at an early age, right from birth, actually started to reframe the mindset where a father has to be equally as responsible for the child as a mother is, I think you are going to have a change of mind with people at a senior level, but also the generation that comes up with that.

It is so interesting hearing little boys and girls now talk about, "I want to be president," or "I want to be the secretary of state." I actually even heard someone talk about when Hillary Clinton became secretary of state. I remember him saying—I was on the subway and I thought this was so funny—"What's the big deal with Hillary Clinton becoming secretary of state? All women become secretary of state."

I lived in a generation where that wasn't true. He was just like why is that a big deal. He was young enough where he didn't So, to actually grow up with this mind frame of why is that a big deal for a father to actually have that responsibility, I think that has a big thing to do with it.

It is not just about encouraging women to go into these fields. We also, at an institutional level, have to actually change these frameworks where we are treating men and women equally. That includes paying women equally, as well. [Applause]

HAZAMI BARMADA: That moment of awkward silence. All the women are like, "Yeah." The men are like, "No." I am just kidding.

QUESTION: Hi. My name is Oliver. I am a Bard graduate. My question is about government and economic trade, international trade.

You mentioned government twice in your talk. You said that on the one hand, government has to provide security, and on the other there should not be too much regulation because it tends to hamper entrepreneurship.

My question is: What do you think the role of the U.S. government internationally should be with regard to international trade and free trade in particular? If it wants to promote entrepreneurship abroad, what should the policies be?

I am going to give you an example. The mobile industry in China and Taiwan is extremely well-developed because they have put in place blocks so that international corporations, international companies cannot go into that market and destroy burgeoning young entrepreneurial tech start-ups, for example. So what is the role of the U.S. government in formulating policy and creating free trade, like the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership], and how does that affect entrepreneurship?

ELMIRA BAYRASLI: I am definitely very pro-free trade. I think that open borders and open trade policies is a benefit. I don't think you benefit from closing anything.

Yes, China has done that. But there is a question of how much China will grow. I think China is actually incurring that question right now. You have all of these billion-dollar companies in China that are only selling in China. What happens when those companies actually want to go global? Is the quality the same? Are they up to global standards? How are they actually going to go overseas?

I think the Chinese are actually thinking about those questions. So there is a flip side of that coin where you can actually grow in your market, but then how do you test that out when you go overseas?

Just before coming here, I sat down with someone from Uber and talked about how the company was evolving. It was interesting to hear him talk about how they take ideas from the places where they rolled out Uber. He was talking about an interesting model that they took from Nairobi, Kenya, and applied it here in the United States.

I think one of the reasons that Silicon Valley is iterating and progressing so fast is because Silicon Valley is open. Silicon Valley accepts ideas from all over the place; it accepts people from all over the place. In fact, Silicon Valley encourages immigration and wants more people from around the world to come to Silicon Valley to work on their ideas and to share those ideas. I think where you have that vibrancy is where you are actually going to have innovation. I am a free trader.

HAZAMI BARMADA: She's a free trader. We all love free trade.

Your freedom is very important to us, too. We are at time, and thank you all very much for coming, and to the gracious hosts.

Let's give a round of applause to our wonderful hosts and our wonderful Elmira.

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Credit: <a href="" target="_blank">Philip Brewer</a> (<a href="" target="_blank">CC</a>).

OCT 24, 2008 Article

Beyond Microfinance: Entrepreneurial Solutions to Poverty Alleviation

Although microfinance has helped millions of individuals to survive, it doesn't create much real economic growth, says Michael Strong. But some organizations are moving beyond ...

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