Drop entrepreneurs, not bombs

jason saltzman
New Yorker Jason Saltzman was sent to Kuwait to promote entrepreneurship on behalf of the State Department.

My business is based on collaboration.

I founded a co-working space in New York City called AlleyNYC on the thesis that, if you brought a bunch of entrepreneurs into the same room to work, they could solve problems faster. Not only has it worked, it's spawned the growth of a community that is working on tech apps, software, hardware -- you name it.

The furthest thing from my mind when I started the company in 2012 was the impact that a collaborative environment would have on my life and the lives of others. I never thought this idea would work for something as grandiose as Middle East diplomacy. Yet it did.

Last year, I was offered an unusual request by the U.S. Department of State: Could I travel to Kuwait to evangelize the power of entrepreneurship? Working with diplomats and businesses on the ground, could I help foster the same kind of entrepreneurial spirit that drives jobs and innovation in the U.S.?

Under any circumstance, it's a tall order. Entrepreneurship needs a certain economic ecosystem to grow. It requires good ideas, smart people, access to technology and research, and supportive, free economic systems.

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As a region, the Middle East is a mixed bag. Kuwait -- thanks largely to our military intervention in the early 1990s -- is a fairly free economy. But there's still a heavy reliance on the government and the oil industry, rather than innovative high-tech. Plus, regional conflict moves between active simmer and full boil, particularly with the United States and Israel.

I'm a Jew from Long Island. And diplomacy was never my thing. Would they even listen to me?

Truth be told, there were reasons to be optimistic from the minute I landed, despite the hurdles. The youth of Kuwait are educated, discerning and innovative. They come up with awesome ideas, and have a tech infrastructure that rivals many other Western countries. Plus, Kuwait is affluent, so, in theory, there is money to fund some of these projects.

I also found that people were willing to take risks, which is key to any entrepreneurial venture. Meeting with people on the ground, I sensed that they were tired of business as usual. They wanted change. They wanted to be known for innovation.

The issue was that there is no culture of collaboration. I have learned that this is very common in the early stages of building startup communities. Collaborative environments are a product of a seasoned ecosystem. It is something learned through habit, and when it's missing from the culture, it can be tough to implement.

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To start, I decided to organize a tech meetup. These are common in the U.S. and insanely simple: Invite a bunch of entrepreneurs and let the magic happen. Here, there's usually a cool keynoter and a bar (not going to happen in alcohol-free Kuwait). But, in Kuwait, just the existence of such an event could itself be a draw.

It was more of a risky undertaking than you might imagine. Few people knew what we were even offering. A small turnout would mean the whole effort was a flop.

But it exceeded our expectations. Over three hundred people registered for the first ever Kuwait Tech Meetup. The first NY Tech Meetup had only two people show up.

We started with a surprise cameo from the U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait, Douglas A. Silliman. He talked about how big companies start as ideas, and events like this help turn those ideas into viable businesses.

As is custom in NYC, we had everyone get up and introduce themselves to someone they didn't know. There was a loud roar of people connecting, exchanging handshakes and business cards. I almost cried from excitement.

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After the chatter wore off (i.e. I had to physically get on the microphone to stop the talking), we had three great startups pitch their ideas. Talabat CEO Mohammed Jaffar talked about how important it is to do business with good people, which had a big impact on the crowd. In February, Talabat was acquired for $170 million

(We documented the event in a video collaboration with Entrepreneur Magazine.)

Last week will mark Kuwait's eighth Tech Meetup. It's held once a month and has tripled in attendance since we left. I'm now in talks with the State Department to travel to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and even Iraq.

Did my trip solve all the problems in the Middle East? Hardly. But any entrepreneur will tell you big problems don't always call for big solutions. Often small, incremental change is a much better approach.

Jason Saltzman works with hundreds of NYC-based entrepreneurs through his startup, coworking hub AlleyNYC. The U.S. State Department recently tapped him as an adviser to its foreign diplomacy efforts.

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