An inspiring start to a new year.
This past month I had the opportunity to travel to South Asia for two weeks for an entrepreneurial and cultural exchange. I spent a week in Mumbai, India, and a week in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It was an inspiring trip with some incredible people, and I’m excited to share my reflections on the trip here.
But first… how did I get this ultra, super cool opportunity?
The U.S. State Department Professional Fellows Program is a two-way, global exchange program designed to promote mutual understanding, enhance leadership and professional skills, as well as build lasting, sustainable partnerships between emerging leaders from foreign countries and the United States. The State Department selects organizations across the U.S. to facilitate the grant program for various participating countries. The University of Oklahoma (specifically Gaylord College and I-CCEW) facilitate the exchange for Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Twice a year, 20 entrepreneurs from these countries travel to Oklahoma for a month, where they’re placed with local businesses who do something similar to what they do back home. Then, hosts from Oklahoma have the opportunity to travel on a reciprocal exchange to see the entrepreneurs in action in their home countries and learn more about entrepreneurial ecosystems abroad.
The trip was an inspiring way to start the year for a lot of reasons, but I’ve worked to synthesize my key takeaways from the trip below.
Takeaway #1 — I’ve never been more confident in entrepreneurship as a pathway to make a better life for oneself and one’s community.
I’ve always believed in the power of entrepreneurship to change lives, build community, grow economies, and democratize access to wealth creation, but getting to see this up close and personal in a developing region was particularly inspiring. A few examples –
- Microfinance — While in Bangladesh we were privileged to visit a BRAC microfinance operation on the outskirts of Dhaka. BRAC provides small loans to women in the village to start businesses and support their families. We were humbled to attend the women’s monthly meeting where the women shared (through a translator) how they used their loans, how things were going with their businesses, and made their monthly loan payment. One woman used the loan to buy a rickshaw that her husband drives to support the family. Another invested in some basic computer parts and tools to set up their own repair shop — she was so proud that her son has learned to build computers and will now have more opportunities than she did at his age.
- SMEs — In Dhaka I got to spend a day with Sharmin Ahmed, one of the Professional Fellows and the founder of Clay Station. I loved Sharmin’s story. She had previously been in the tech startup world in Dhaka, but on a trip to the U.S. a few years ago, she was inspired to start a small business that would provide a creative outlet for people. At the time, wine and paint classes, music/art lessons, crafting workshops, etc. weren’t really a thing in Dhaka like we see very commonly in the U.S. After a lot of research, Sharmin opened a small pottery studio where people can drop in and throw on the wheel or paint pre-made ceramics with family and friends. Her studio is charming and trendy, and they now have 3 locations in Dhaka and get hired for all kinds of special events, custom orders, and festivals. Not only has she created jobs through Clay Station, but she’s building community in Dhaka in a fun and unique way.
- Tech entrepreneurship — Most of our trip was focused around tech entrepreneurship (visiting coworking spaces, incubators, venture funds, startups, etc.), so I have a ton of examples that I could include here. But one of my favorite visits was the riidl incubator at Somaiya Vidyavihar University in Mumbai. riidl has helped dozens of entrepreneurs to launch their own startups, and I was so impressed with the resources and support riidl provides to its incubatees. riidl boasts everything from a fab lab to wet lab space, to a sleeping space (yes, a bunk! So you can prototype all night and then snag a quick nap before your first class of the day!). But even more importantly, their staff is busy night and day providing hands on mentorship and guidance for early stage tech startups. Most fun? We got to play with a Square Off chessboard. Square Off is an physical, automated chessboard that was founded and prototyped at riidl’s fab lab. The company was acquired by U.S.-based Miko Robotics and the chessboards are now sold all over the world. Se the chessboard in action here.
Takeaway #2 — I have a new attitude toward tech outsourcing/offshoring to countries like India and Bangladesh.
One of the best aspects of this program is the potential to create business connections between Oklahoma and South Asian countries. We have a massive opportunity to help Oklahoma startups build tech capacity through talent in India and Bangladesh. I wouldn’t say that I was previously against outsourcing, but being on the ground and building relationships with people definitely gave me a more positive mindset toward it. Over the course of the trip I met at least three technologists who run dev shops that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to early stage startups in Oklahoma looking to supplement their local development teams. These firms are using modern technologies and solving hard tech problems alongside great developers in the U.S., and they’re doing so while creating high-paying jobs for Indian and Bangladeshi citizens.
Looking to hire dev talent immediately? I loved meeting Sayem Faruk, the founder of Airwrk. Airwrk is a talent marketplace that helps tech companies in the U.S. easily find and hire top remote talent from across South Asia.
Takeaway #3 — A tech wave is coming in South Asia, and the people there are smart, hardworking, humble, and resilient enough to pull it off.
Being surrounded by South Asian entrepreneurs, I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were on the verge of something really exciting. There’s an energy in the air and progress happening everywhere you look (new construction/infrastructure, new technology, new business models, etc.). The entrepreneurs we met in South Asia were scrappy — sometimes running 2 or 3 businesses at a time. Software companies that are doing agency/outsourcing work are using the revenue to fund innovative products they want to build in the renewables, logistics, etc. space.
In terms of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, it actually didn’t feel dissimilar to what’s been happening in Oklahoma the last several years. For example, in Dhaka, groups like Better Stories have been working with entrepreneurs and building entrepreneurial communities for a decade, but recently with an injection of capital from new venture funds and government support programs, all that work is really paying off with a tremendous growth in startup activity.
I can’t wait to go back in 3 or 4 years and see how much has changed — I feel confident it will be a great deal.
If you’re in Oklahoma and interested in hosting a South Asian entrepreneur in your business for a month, let me know and I’m happy to pass your info along to the program organizers. Hosts are chosen based on a number of factors (relevancy to one of the selected Fellows, location, etc.) and may have a chance to participate in a reciprocal exchange to one or more countries in South Asia.