While no direct discussions have occurred yet between Washington and Tehran on coordinating efforts to stabilize matters in Iraq, the United States and Iran clearly have shared interests in weakening the al Qaeda-linked militia that continues to take control of much of western Iraq. I recently met with Mohsen Malayeri, cofounder of the Iran Entrepreneurship Association and CEO of Khavarzamin, who is the driving force behind building stronger entrepreneurship communities in Iran to learn more about our new relationship with Iran fueled by entrepreneurs.
If you look closely, you can see global entrepreneurs busy at work. For example, you have probably not heard of the Iran Web Club which is a community of Iranian web startups that provides networking and mentorship along with other services to its members. Its IranWebDirectory (IWD), a database of active startups and their teams throughout the country, has more than 2,000 comprehensive entries. As you witness the energy among these people, it is easy to forget the many Internet and telecommunications restrictions imposed by authorities. These and other entrepreneurs are not letting politics stymie their startup ideas. In fact, there is such a critical mass of Iranian technology entrepreneurs, that a recent Iran Web Festival (IWF) had 6,000 participating entrepreneurial ventures.
The story is similar on university campuses which are shaping the future of a country that has two-thirds of its population under the age of 35. Amir Kabir University, Sharif University and the University of Tehran all boast vibrant entrepreneurial cultures and collaborate not just with each other but across the globe.
Malayeri’s spirit of entrepreneurship is visible throughout the region. Investor and entrepreneur “evangelist” Christopher Schroeder in Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East offers dozens of interviews from throughout the region that show that a quiet, unnoticed revolution was slowly building during and even continuing after the Arab Spring revolutions.
Schroeder recently visited Iran, where he heard from a variety of perspectives: Iranian business leaders, startup entrepreneurs, clerics, students, and others. While the media highlights the government’s strict restrictions for access to social networks, Iranian leaders are also seeking ways to become more proactive in supporting innovation. In fact, the Iranian government has funded 31 tech incubators.
That entrepreneurial and innovative spirit among Iranians, however, is not the product of a government campaign. In fact, even before the change in leadership last year in Iran, a National Foundation for American Policy study of the top-50 venture-backed companies in the U.S. found that the most common country of origin for an immigrant founder was India, followed by Israel, Canada, and then Iran. The brain and entrepreneurial stamina drain is costly for the country.
Startup champions from other countries, such Kristján Kristjánsson, CEO of Reykjavík-based Innovit Entrepreneurship Center, have been among the first to feel comfortable showing up to help Iranian startup communities. Kristjánsson facilitated the first-ever Startup Weekend event in Tehran—a 54-hour boot camp that groups participants into cofounder teams and guides them from ideation to validation—organized by Malayeri. More recently, others have followed in greater numbers. The New York Times reported that those who travel to Iran, including Canadian, American and British entrepreneurs, enjoy visiting investment firms, Tehran’s stock exchange, factories, farms and high-tech startups. In addition, Iran’s rapidly growing IT and nanotechnology sectors have caught their eyes. Like me, they probably imagine how ag-tech can boost its renowned fruit production, among other sectors.
The story is the same in other spots where there are geopolitical tensions. You will find a similar atmosphere and as many tech entrepreneurs in shared work spaces as you might find along the banks of the Thames in London or the River Spree in Berlin. When more than 6,000 startups and their ecosystem leaders from 153 economies gathered in Moscow for the Global Entrepreneurship Congress last March in the midst of the Crimea crisis, it felt like one global startup community void of suspicion and committed to the notion that all boats rise on an incoming tide. Iran offers yet more evidence that messy entrepreneurship can co-exist alongside strong and even very strict government.
While President Hassan Rouhani continues to offer several olive branches to the West, it is taking time for trust to be reestablished between Iran and most global powers. Entrepreneurs however, are not waiting on governments but getting on with thinking, inventing, testing, reinventing, bootstrapping and then acting on their data-verified ideas. When they come across government barriers, they simply think on their feet just in the same way they did when facing other challenges with the formula for their new venture.
As tensions heat up once again in the Middle East this week, before they sit down across the table from their political “adversaries”, our political leaders might do well to check out what unites us, like the local accelerators or startup hubs and communities working across national boundaries in common pursuit of peace and prosperity for all. Who knows, it may just be those relationships among entrepreneurs that convince politicians they can trust each other in uniting against common violent and militant forces at play.
Photo credit: WorldSkills