Entrepreneurship As a Revolutionary Resource
Here’s a classic definition of entrepreneurship:
Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.
It’s from Harvard Business School professor Howard Stevenson. It’s more than 20 years old but Inc Magazine editor Eric Schurenberg recently called it the best definition of entrepreneur ever.
Notice that it is about enterprise and not exclusively about business. A mission, an NGO, a revolutionary social movement can be entrepreneurial in this sense. Because it is about finding ways of doing things without much in the way of resources.
Finding ways to use social media to organizer a revolution, for example. Or using long-distance land line calls to get around an Internet shutdown. Creating makeshift hospitals and recruiting heath practioners and supplies through Twitter. Selling gas masks at Tahrir Square in the middle of protester-police clashes. Or… but the list goes on and on.
In Connected In Cairo (and in a related article in Research in Economic Anthropology) I write about the ways the Mubarak regime encouraged using the concept of entrepreneurship within the broader discourse of national development. Although the regime did very little to change the economy in ways that would benefit actual entrepreneurs, it held up the ideal of entrepreneurship as a way out of Egypt’s many economic difficulties. Successful entrepreneurs were celebrated–sometimes overcelebrated–for turning obstacles into opportunities. The idea seemed to be that “real” entrepreneurs were able to overcome these difficulties through their creativity, while entrepreneurs whose businesses were strangled by
- the need to pay bribes,
- Byzantine import and export regulations,
- unwieldy tax laws,
- infrastructural failures,
- lack of bank credit for small businesses
simply weren’t, well, entrepreneurial enough.
But the entrepreneurial spirit–if that means doing things people need without regard for resources–has been something I’ve observed in Egypt ever since I started going there in 1998.
There is a real difference, though, between real entrepreneurship, at every level, and the discursive use of entrepreneurship and innovation as “magic bullets” that will solve the very real economic crisis into which the Mubarak regime was plunging Egypt and which was precipitated by the uprisings. As I describe in Connected in Cairo, the Mubarak regime and its Western advisors were using “entrepreneurship” in just this way.
And I fear that this discourse is returning.
There’s a recent Reuter story about a rise in entrepreneurial business since the uprisings, which the reporter’s informants ascribe to three things:
- The fall of Hosni Mubarak and the consequent sense that things can change
- The entrepreneurial nature of the uprising itself
- Growth of awareness of web technologies and the degree to which they can be innovated
And last but by no means least, there’s this Jan 25 90-minute presentation “Awakening Arab Innovation” by Marwan Muasher, Inger Andersen and Rami Khouri at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:
One year after the outbreak of protests in Tahrir Square, Inger Anderson and Rami Khouri assessed the economic opportunities unlocked by the Arab Awakening and discussed the steps policymakers can take to help ignite a new Arab renaissance driven by innovation and technology. Marwan Muasher moderated.
This is all well and good, but such entrepreneurial ventures will not save the Egyptian economy.
Economic conditions in Egypt are grim and getting grimmer. A currency devaluation is likely, tourism is discouraged by reports of rising crime and video of clashes between protestors and police (I just read that post-Mubarak tourism revenues have fallen 45%), and local businesses and foreign investors alike are equally uncomfortable with the continued uncertainty over how much power the military is willing to hand over to a democratic government, and with the disruptions caused by continued protests over that very issue.
Daniel Isenberg has made a similar point about Israel–that people talk about Israel’s “entrepreneurial revolution” of the 1990s as if economic innovation sprang forth fully-formed from the brows of Ayn Rand style heroic entrepreneurs–ignoring the decades of infrastructure laid down since the 1950s without which the entrepreneurial revolution could never have happened.
On the plus side, it seems likely that if the military can get out of the way, the first several elected governments will be putting economy front and center if they hope for re-election. And with the right infrastructure in place, innovative entrepreneurship will certainly become an important engine of Egypt’s future process.