LAHORE -- Talking over the hum of a power generator, Monis Rahman settles into a plush black chair in a glass-paneled conference room at his offices in Lahore, Pakistan. The midday sun peeks through vertical blinds behind him. Though the power is out yet again, the 40-something tech entrepreneur who runs Naseeb Networks, the job site Rozee.pk, and matchmaking platform Naseeb.com, is unfazed. He's energized about an upcoming event in his country called TiECon, a conference hosted by the Indus Entrepreneurs Network. "We're promoting entrepreneurship in a major way," Rahman says in near-perfect English.
Back in the 1990s, Rahman was working at Intel where his team developed the revolutionary Itanium 64-bit microprocessor chip, the device that acts as a computer's nervous system, routing information and allowing multitasking. "It was my dream job," he says.
His family considered it a godsend. Rahman's father, a UN diplomat, bragged that his son, an engineering graduate of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, had landed a position with a reputable firm. Employment in an established business was the fallback alternative for every Pakistani parent whose son or daughter didn't make it to the truly coveted medical school.
"But once I got there, I realized that Intel wasn't enough," Rahman continues. In Silicon Valley, it never is. Everyone around Rahman was launching an enterprise. It was the late 1990s, when billions were being poured into dotcoms and everyone aspired to found the next Yahoo or Hotmail. Abandoning traditional Pakistani prudence and the safety of corporate life, Rahman quit to try his hand at creating the next big thing.
Today, especially in Pakistan and in scores of other developing countries, he is not alone. Across the globe, people argue that entrepreneurs are the job creators and wealth generators who will pull developed countries out of their economic malaise and developing nations out of poverty. In Brazil, China, India, and Turkey, startups have driven astronomical growth. Over the past several years, Monis Rahman and a host of other entrepreneurs across Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East have said it's not so simple. In order to launch successful enterprises that create jobs and book revenues, they first need to overcome numerous obstacles before they can attract investment capital and put their countries on a growth trajectory.
These hurdles are wide-ranging. Poor regulatory environments, weak governance, complicated bureaucracies, capital shortages, underdeveloped supplier and customer networks, and corruption make it difficult for struggling entrepreneurs to scale up, let alone survive. To paraphrase Aid Thoughts' blogger Ranil Dissanayake, what distinguishes techies in Silicon Valley from textile sellers in Pakistan is not their sophistication. There are simply fewer obstacles blocking techies in Silicon Valley from launching and sustaining their business ideas.
Tech entrepreneurs in the developing world, however, are working to break down the barriers themselves. These are not the traditional entrepreneurs of the developing world, setting up mom-and-pop shops as a means of survival. Instead, they are focused on applying Silicon Valley's best practices--identifying opportunities, sourcing mentors, building trust, and shifting foreign perceptions in their countries to build competitive enterprises that will attract investments. Ultimately, investment spurs progress, and understanding what attracts that investment is the first step toward success. No country understands that better than Turkey.
Istanbul is a confusing warren of streets lined with houses locked together like a stack of Lego blocks. The oldest homes are made of dense and impenetrable concrete that makes each unit a separate, isolated entity. Sound does not carry easily between or within these thick walled units nor do the continuous wavelength signals emitted by wireless routers designed for American drywall. That, Bulent Celebi recognized, was his opportunity.
Though Celebi is an entrepreneur, he's always impeccably dressed in tailored clothes, looking straight out of the pages of GQ. He founded AirTies, a technology start-up that develops and markets wireless electronic devices for those who operate in specialized environments. His firm is based in Istanbul where the debonair Celebi was born but left as a teen. It's a place he'd dreamed of returning to despite being happy in his adopted home of San Francisco. In 2004, he launched an enterprise that would unleash Turkish innovation--a perfect route back to the country of his childhood.
His idea was to create WiFi for the rest of the world. It would take off from Dutchman Vic Hayes's invention, conceived in 1991 for cashier systems--the customers of NCR Corporation and AT&T. With no dialup or cords, it became a staple in...