Silicon Valley is supposed to be ahead of the curve. It’s where entrepreneurs, investors and the world at-large look for mind-blowing innovation – the next wave of companies and technologies that will reshape everything.
But according to Chris Schroeder, a long-time entrepreneur and author of Startup Rising, Silicon Valley is woefully behind the curve in recognizing one very bright hotspot of tech innovation: The Middle East.
Schroeder acknowledges he was just as dismissive of the idea of tech in the Middle East until he went toe-to-toe with entrepreneurs in the region. “The idea that something powerful was happening in technology in Mubarak’s Egypt was completely not in my narrative. I just could not crack through it before I went there,” says Schroeder.
The reason: His world-view had been consistently reinforced to buy into the notion that developing high-tech companies and startups in the Middle East – a part of the world rife with violence and political unrest – just isn’t feasible.
“We all are amazingly caught in our own narratives,” he says. “It becomes very hard, and it almost ticks us off, to break through those narratives in a very powerful way.”
In some ways our echo chambers are reinforced by many of the personalized digital tools Silicon Valley helped build. Facebook, LinkedIn, Google and other social media serve up content based on what users already like. Yes, it surfaces the good stuff, but it can also make it more difficult to encounter new ideas; ideas that sometimes lead to revolutionary thinking. Schroeder admits falling victim to that trap.
It wasn’t until he was strong-armed to attend “Celebration of Entrepreneurship,” a summit in Dubai with tech innovators from the Arab world, like Aramex founder Fadi Ghandour, that his personal narrative began to change. There, Schroeder witnessed 2,400 young entrepreneurs coming together to build technologies “on their own terms, from the bottom up.” Thousands more were on a waitlist to attend.
The Dubai experience was an awakening for Schroeder. So much so, he spent the next few years speaking with and learning about the Middle East’s tech culture from entrepreneurs in Dubai, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. He found that roughly one-third of all entrepreneurs in this region are women – a ratio, he says, you’d be hard pressed to find in Silicon Valley; that startups in the Middle East are as much about technology and business as they are about social justice; and that technology gives communities a powerful voice and access to information and education.
“Almost every preconceived notion I had was shattered,” he says.
Schroeder isn’t suggesting that everyone pack it in, go on a world tour and then write a book about it (though it’s not a bad notion). Rather, we should all be aware of the hold our own narratives have on our thinking. Try and set your narrative aside for a time, Schroeder says. Just listen and watch. “It’s unbelievable what you learn by being quiet.”