I've met entrepreneurs all over the world, from all different walks of life, and many of the valuable lessons I've learned were in far-flung places. From being in the Peace Corps to combing through refugee camps, I was often awestruck by entrepreneurs from Bolivia to Uganda who were creating amazing businesses with little funding and resources. These were mothers setting up small shops to feed their families; ambitious, responsible children trying to build better lives for themselves; and teens who created a product or service that addressed an everyday problem. These people didn't think of themselves as entrepreneurs--this was their way of life--yet they possessed incredible qualities that every entrepreneur should have. Here's what I learned from them...
1. How to be resilient
The most impressive entrepreneurs I've met were people who leapt over hurdle after hurdle and kept going, no matter how seemingly insurmountable the barrier was. I've seen refugees who have shown up to camp with literally nothing and created businesses within two weeks, whether it was Somali girls who created makeshift beauty shops or people in Myanmar who'd resell their rations to make money. These people embody the idea that you don't need venture capital funding to create a business that impacts the community--you need to be resilient and keep going in spite of the challenges. With a little ingenuity, the entrepreneurs I met were able to recognize what their communities needed and find a way to provide it. This brings me to my next point...
2. You have to understand your market
In the developing world, knowing what your community needs is obvious. Food, water, shelter, access to healthcare--these are all starting points for businesses. But you also have to know when there's a demand for something less crucial that will have widespread appeal outside of the community. In Bolivia, I saw a number of people halt their everyday work during avocado season so that they could pivot and profit from corn harvest. They did well for themselves by jumping on an opportunity that came from knowing what people would want. Pivoting is driven by a need to survive, and you're only successful at it when you understand the market. No matter where you're from or what you do, you have to be selling something that people not only need, but want--and this comes from having your finger on the pulse of what people are going to want next.
3. What it really means to bootstrap
We've heard the startup stories of the founder who built a business out of a garage. Or of the entrepreneur who lived off ramen noodles and a friend's couch for a year or two as they worked 18-hour days in pursuit of entrepreneurial success. But across the world, bootstrapping takes on an entirely different meaning. One of my favorite stories is of a group I met in Bolivia that sought out $400 to acquire a degrainer machine, which extracts corn from the cob and is significant to the region's food production. The group traveled four hours to a bank for a loan, then took a 12-hour bus trip to Santa Cruz de la Sierra to buy it, loaded the heavy machine on to the bus and finally pulled it up an enormous hill using a wooden cart to deliver it to the community. The profits they made from selling the corn were used to pay back the loan. More importantly, though, the community had enough food for a year and bought grain silos. Sometimes it takes going to great lengths to start a business, but enduring those hardships usually leads to great rewards. The entrepreneurs subsiding off ramen noodles should remember that!
4. Why you should fail fast
The ability to recognize that your business is failing and move on to start another venture is important for entrepreneurs, but it's even more vital for entrepreneurs in developing nations. There, failing fast is a matter of survival. In Bolivia, a group of women I knew created a chicken farm. But before they could build the business enough to support their families or the community's food supply, all the chickens died. Rather than ditch the land they had cultivated and quit, they buried the chickens and quickly redeveloped the property so that they could grow crops. Within two weeks, they were growing snap peas, feeding the community and profiting. In business, failure is all too common. What sets successful entrepreneurs apart is they recuperate quickly in the face of failure and invent new solutions rather than dwell on the past. Failing here could mean lives--so knowing how to pivot quickly was key.
5. Saving lives can be profitable
When we think about entrepreneurship in the United States, we're often thinking about entrepreneurs who have simplified life as we know it--delivery services like Postmates, carpool apps like Scoop or personal-assistant services like Alfred. There's no denying these startups have provided value to us, but plenty of startups are doing even more valuable--saving lives--as they profit. There's evidence of this all over the world. One example is Green Char, a startup created by Kenyan Tom Osborn that makes clean charcoal briquettes and smokeless cook stoves for people to use. Since it launched in 2014, Green Char has saved millions of people from lung-related illnesses caused by indoor smoke, reduced emissions significantly, driven economic growth and created jobs in Kenya. Osborn founded his startup after his mother was diagnosed with a respiratory tract infection from indoor air pollution. He saw the dire need for a product that would prevent respiratory illnesses, which can be life-threatening, and figured out a way to make it a profitable business--starting by selling it to groups of women who would collectively pay for it in installments. Green Char has been so successful that it is now rolling out across Kenya and has partnered with Echoing Green, MIT and World Bank's Climate Innovation Center. Entrepreneurs should take a page from Osborn's book and recognize that they can create a truly life-changing product, not just one that makes life more convenient, and still be profitable.