An Ethos of Freedom and Possibility

Christopher Schroeder, CEO, Venture Capitalist and Author, opens up about the intersection of entrepreneurship and development

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The spirit of Entrepreneurship is truly incredible. Unknowingly, it is the art of using oneself as the vehicle and agent of change be that for profit through creating enterprise or non-profit for social impact. Through it all, because it involves the active engagement of oneself, the pursuit becomes an extension of thyself. It is consequentially self-development. 

If we continue to look into the entrepreneurial spirit, we find it creates a space for us that does not always exist within the environment we rest in. Being an entrepreneur is experiencing ultimate freedom and participation in human and economic development. The journey is education of its own with the only cost being trials and tribulations. I have a series with Global Thrive where I speak with thought leaders across sectors on their passion and circle it back to development. Christopher Schroeder, a dear friend of mine certainly is insightful in that space.

I met Christopher Schroeder about 10 years ago as he worked actively to dispel myths and show the great realities that bespeak of the Middle East under the umbrella of entrepreneurship. Schroeder is a CEO, he is the co-founder of Next Billion Ventures, a venture capital firm that invests in entrepreneurs working in developing markets around the world, and the Author of Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East. 

He spends his days building entrepreneurial ecosystems and supporting the future companies and organizations of the world through venture capital or advisory. I got the chance to speak with him on his experience and perspective.
 

1. SMZ: How has your upbringing or background shaped your career in entrepreneurship and venture capital? 

CS: I’m the grandson of Italian immigrants and was raised with a very strong work ethic and belief that unleashing individual potential is almost a religion to succeed in creating something of value and for society more broadly. I was also taught by my parents and mentors the power of asking questions, learning and having a wonder at being wrong – that being wrong actually is an exciting opportunity to get things right in your beliefs and in increasing your success in whatever you are building. They taught me to take my work and not myself seriously, and that persistence after character is everything – you can slow me down but you can’t stop me. Finally, in all my experiences I found incredible power in being of-service. I never end a conversation without asking, “how can I be of help” and have found in running companies and investing in entrepreneurs that getting teams and various talent supporting each other was not only the right thing, but competitive advantage. 

2.  SMZ: Through your work over the decades in the Middle East how has entrepreneurship evolved?  

CS: I should note that I really have been engaged deeply in the Middle East; tech scene for about one decade, and I believe it is night and day different from a few years ago let alone from then. The quantity of quality women and men building ventures; the talent that has worked for successful companies IN the region (like Souq/Amazon, Careem and others) and really know how to build and scale enterprises now; the sophistication of local investors from very early stage through largest; the excitement of new money, new generations of family offices, and even from around the world — are all extremely encouraging. 

3. SMZ: You recently wrote an article in the Washington Post on the impacts of social media —such as Facebook and WhatsApp —and how they have in ways elevated communities around the world in particular in refugee camps. This made me think of the living situation in Gaza which is near and dear to my heart. I would love to hear from you how that area can be tapped into as they are a widely educated population but with restricted movement.   

CS: People underestimate the power of two related things: the ability to see new opportunities beyond what is often a very narrow lens of limited opportunity, and the ability to see people just like you taking control of something and making it happen. When one’s worlds look expansive and I see people like me pulling it off, then I begin to see paths of how I can as well. This is a network effect of empowerment. My point in that piece is that technology has offered tools for people to see outside of any one lens; attain knowledge, expertise, customers at very little cost; have concrete examples of how success can be achieved. No surprise that technology has not only opened doors impossible to open even a few years ago, but that entrepreneurial minded people will jerry rig technology – use it in ways those who developed it never dreamed of – to fit their realities and allow them to build.

4. SMZ:  In some ways due to culture and customs, the Middle East was ahead in e-commerce —Saudi Arabia in particular –women had owned Instagram and WhatsApp run shops long before it became trend in the US. Are there other trends similar in any emerging market that you believe to be ahead of its day we should pay attention to?  

CS: In the Middle East, as in most rising markets, the opportunities to both leap frog existing infrastructure and pull together often highly fragmented and very local but massive opportunities are everywhere. An example of the first is fintech. In many parts of these markets 50% or more people never had a bank account, could never get credit, move money easily and safely digitally. Through innovators and data we are seeing a revolution in financial inclusion, and economic growth so encouragingly that the governments themselves are working with entrepreneurs and investors to create better regulatory environments than many places in more “advanced” economies. An example of the second is somewhere between 50 and 90% or all retail sales go through Mom and Pop stores in these markets – highly fragmented, often without basic CRM/Inventory software, beholden to attaining inventory from costly middle men, and little access to affordable credit. Addressing both is in full motion now in the Middle East and beyond. They will be unicorns. Some of them the first decacorns in the Middle East.

5. SMZ: You often refer to entrepreneurship as a global language. Have you seen entrepreneurship utilized in diplomacy I’m not sure I have seen it successfully prioritized in diplomacy and that may be a good thing. Entrepreneurship and innovation is most often a bottom-up phenomenon and the best things governments can do independently but also together is to open up ways to unleash innovators, enhance encouraging investment environments, and provide outstanding infrastructure from education to technological access.  

6.     Is there a space for philanthropy in entrepreneurship? What does the interaction between the two look like. Do you know any great success stories?  It depends what one means by philanthropy. Endeavor Global is the leading non-profit supporting tech ecosystems around the globe NOT by “donating” to entrepreneurs (though they now have several very successful Catalyst funds supporting entrepreneurs who are beginning to take off), but by helping to cultivate and support local, regional and global leadership to create the environments for startups to thrive. I have found too often — say in Africa — when philanthropies try to support entrepreneurs with grants, too often there are strings attached which may prevent the entrepreneur from aggressively going after what she knows the markets are telling her to pivot towards. Having said that, other groups like Omydyar have catalyzed important sectors whose impact may not lend itself to traditional venture returns and that is a good thing also. Many philanthropies have also created environments to tech kids in poorer communities to have access to technology and skills to build amazing institutions of impact. It’s a long way of saying “it depends.”

7.  SMZ: As the commercial relationship between the US and China grow increasingly more tense, have you seen the entrepreneurial space tangled in that —or is it still a safe space away from power politics? 

CSM: When you put any great entrepreneur in a room from anywhere, they are astoundingly similar – in tenacity, courage, problem solving, desire to build things never there before and more. I’ve found in rising markets, there is particular shared experiences among them which the West often doesn’t understand and China – having been a rising market not long ago — does. At one level this should create a special bond and potential for connection bottom up. The jury however is still out as the complicated top-down dynamics create tremendous uncertainty.

8. SMZ: Are you working on any exciting upcoming projects that you can share with us about?  

CS: I wake every morning at 5:00 AM, hope\ on Zoom first in Asia on my way to the Middle East, with a stop in East Africa all on my way to Latin America. By 3:00 I can’t see straight and go for a hike or work out, and then do a bit more of it. It is highly efficient and gives me an incredibly exciting dashboard of a very new global economy and opportunity. But it is also pretty soulless. So my most exciting project will be getting back on a plane in January, and have plans that include Pakistan, India, Egypt, Saudi, UAE, Mexico and more. But yes, I have a new book proposal I’m navigating and over Covid moderated over 100 webinars or podcasts and intend to do more of that also.

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