A Conversation with Christopher Schroeder

November 11, 2013 • Online Content, The World at Yale • Views: 666

BY HANNAH FLAUM

On Thursday afternoon, Davenport Master Richard Schottenfeld and the Yale Arab Students Association cohosted a Master’s Tea with Christopher Schroeder.  Mr. Schroeder is a seasoned U.S. Internet executive, venture investor, and advisor who has worked for both the White House and the State Department.  He has made extensive visits to Dubai, Cairo, Amman, Beirut, Istanbul and Damascus and has met thousands of talented, successful, and intrepid young entrepreneurs willing to take on political, cultural, legal and societal challenges.  A collection of Yale students gathered to hear Mr. Schroeder speak about his new book, Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East, and his personal experiences while traveling and throughout his career.

After selling his own startup, HealthCentral.com, Mr. Schroeder decided to take a year off to write about startups in the Arab world, a story he noted is a very niche one.  He was inspired to start HealthCentral.com mainly due to his best friend’s lost battle with bipolar disorder as well as his wife’s mother’s diagnosis with terminal cancer.  After his wife’s mother’s diagnosis, he found online message boards with communities of people he could connect to dealing with the same specific issues.  Through his personal experiences, Mr. Schroeder realized he was in the midst of a revolution.

With only two investors, Mr. Schroeder knew very well the possibility of failure, yet he explained that the acceptance of this possibility is what makes entrepreneurs who they are.  He explained that entrepreneurs experience only two emotions: “complete euphoria and abject terror” and that “entrepreneurship is a serious of near-death experiences.”  However, entrepreneurs are willing to build whatever they want to build and will find a way to do so despite any and all obstacles they encounter.  In his own career – the twists and turns of which he admits he could never have planned nor foreseen – he made many poor decisions, but he learned from them and moved on from them.  As a word of advice to those in attendance, Mr. Schroeder said that those with the mentality that they can always fall back into a government or consulting job, for example, are not made for entrepreneurship.  Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart and is for those with passion behind their ideas and the willingness to confront failure.

Moving his discussion forward and onto the Middle East, the core of his book, Mr. Schroeder asserted that the area is one of the central stories of our generation and the potential there is something that has always intrigued him.  Violence, instability, and terror are the only views of the Arab world that Americans are exposed to in the media.  Mr. Schroeder says that prior to visiting Egypt, he was unable to fathom the notion that Egypt had its own technological ecosystem.  Though he admitted his embarrassment of his ignorance, it exemplifies how (negatively) powerful the media can be in promoting single-mindedness.  However, although the story he tells and his optimism in the rise of Middle Eastern startups, Mr. Schroeder makes clear that the terrible things we see in the Arab world are realities as well.  Given the instability of many of the countries he has visited and sees hope in, he cautions, “emerging markets are not for the faint of heart.”  We all know the bad, but Mr. Schroeder suggests that we learn about the good and the potential in the Middle East to see how we can get involved.

At the first major Middle Eastern entrepreneurial convention in 2010, 2,400 young people interested in technology gathered to exhibit and share their ideas.  Mr. Schroeder, extremely impressed by those he met at the convention, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post that was met with substantial positive attention and over 350 emails from people in the region thanking him for writing about the ‘real Middle East.’  A notable aspect of the rise of startups, Mr. Schroeder explained, is the change in mentality of entrepreneurs.  Innovation created here, in Silicon Valley, is now being placed in the hands of everyone.  For the first time, people from India, for example, are staying in India to grow their startups.  There is now the opportunity to build around the world and many entrepreneurs realize how lucrative their home countries are.

Though his interviews with over 150 young entrepreneurs, Mr. Schroeder has been able to categorize Arab startups into three distinct categories: copycats, problem solvers, and global players.  Copycats model themselves off successful startups in other countries, which should be commended rather than criticized as it often is.  Problem solvers reject the common assertion, often by governments, that many of today’s problems cannot be solved by today’s generation.  Global players are cognizant of the fact that now, through technology, the world is at their (and everyone else’s) fingertips and global expansion is highly feasible.  Mr. Schroeder noted that the smartphone contains the same technological power as what put a man on the moon and he is shocked at how unreceptive Washington, big business, and most Middle Eastern governments are to its potential.

We are at a historical moment in which technology can offer an impactful change for government, big business, NGOs, etc. that are top-down focused – and as we have seen with HealthCare.gov, our government institutions have not kept up with technology.  Mr. Schroeder asserts that technology has moved so far beyond our government’s capacity because the government has put so little effort into it despite technology being the face of the future.  Had it hired Google or those in Silicon Valley, for example, Mr. Schroeder believes that HealthCare.gov would be in a significantly different and better place.  Top-down institutions, such as governments, think of people as problems while bottom-up institutions, like startups, think of people as assets that can solve problems.

To close, Mr. Schroeder noted that there are two certainties for technology and the future: first, that there will be a lot more technology in the hands of a lot more people and second, that we can now discuss a type of problem solving that was not even in existence ten years ago.  Although most governments have not responded to the rise of startups whatsoever, there is still so much being built from bottom-up.  However, in the longer run, the top-down is necessary for startups to continue to expand and to thrive.

Hannah Flaum is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at hannah.flaum@yale.edu.

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