This is a Tale of Two Irans

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a special series on tech startups in Iran, part of a larger theme around global tech and how software — including mobile — is eating the world and creating new opportunities within it. This post is from guest contributor Christopher Schroeder, who is an tech entrepreneur, investor, and executive in Washington, D.C., and the author of Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East.

There wasn’t much exceptional about my recent lunch out with a couple dozen young, aspiring entrepreneurs. It was a typical, crowded, buzzing, Nandos-like joint—good food cheap, easy to pull tables together so we could talk. These were men and women debating the latest technologies, describing their recent ideas, regularly interchanging their physical engagement with checking their SnapChat, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook apps.

I asked one woman how she best prepares for the rigor of building a company. “By doing!” she smirks at me. She pauses, and adds, “Oh, and I read all the top Silicon Valley blogs and take a few classes from Stanford, Wharton and other colleges around the world for free on Coursera.” Several at the lunch put down their forks and show me their smart phones, each open on Wifi to courses like “Introduction to Marketing, “International Leadership and Organizational Behavior” and “Better Leader, Richer Life.”

One young man describes to me his startup. It is a bit like AirBnB for an adventure traveler though more low-tech, more, say, a tech-enabled travel agency. The new generation, he explains, doesn’t just want to “see” a place, they want to understand how people live, think and engage. He has found countless families recently near the area’s beautiful mountain/hiking areas who are happy to open their homes, feed young people, take them to unique cultural sites and gatherings for music and art.

“Where are you taking the next cohort of travelers?” I asked.

“The Kurdish area—it is one of the most beautiful and most interesting parts of our country.”

And that was the one exceptional, or at least unexpected, thing about my lunch: just last month I was sitting with young entrepreneurs in the heart of Tehran, Iran.

Before lunch, I had only met perhaps five Kurds in my life. “The Kurdish area” for me conjured up terror attacks and ISIS, though its long, rich history is split among three countries—Iraq, Iran and Turkey.

“Is it safe?” I asked, “Are you at all concerned being so close to the Iraqi border?”

He smiled and said, “Well, we are fine in Iran but as we got within a few miles of the Iraqi border, our mobile phones started buzzing. I looked at my texts and here’s what I saw.”

I imagined at best some warning, at worst outright threats. I looked at his phone and it read:

“Welcome to Iraq. Feel at home while you roam on Korek Telecom network [the local mobile provider]. For any inquiries please call +9647508000400.”

This is a tale of two Irans. This is, specifically, the tale of the other Iran. . …MORE

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