Discovering The New Builders
On January 27th, Elizabeth MacBride, Seth Levine, and Malia Lazu joined the Legatum Center for a conversation on the upcoming book from Elizabeth and Seth – The New Builders. In this discussion, we learned about the communities of entrepreneurs they discovered in writing this book, entrepreneurs who don’t fit the tech unicorn headlines but who are the backbone of economies across the world. This book highlights a generation of US-based entrepreneurs who are women, people of color, and older than those conventionally profiled. We discussed the critical economic contributions of these entrepreneurs and their invaluable impact on the social fabric of our communities.
We also explored the systemic issues facing entrepreneurs from marginalized communities and discussed the changes that are needed in our cultural, economic, and educational systems to catalyze their growth. You can watch a full recording of the conversation here.
Below Elizabeth shares an account of her journey to writing this book and introduces us to some of the incredible entrepreneurs she has discovered along the way.
In August of 2016, when I was working as a journalist for an office of the United Nations in Jerusalem, I traveled the few miles south to Gaza. I wanted to meet an entrepreneur I’d heard about there, a fisherwoman who was breaking the taboo against women running fishing businesses in order to feed her family. And I wanted to better understand the conflict that was hurting so many innocent people, especially children.
The people of Gaza were welcoming and wonderful. But I felt a suffocating sense of abandonment, like I’ve almost never felt anywhere else. Nobody was stepping in to help the Gazans; they were going to have to do it themselves – and they were, in places like a tech incubator called Gaza Sky Geeks, or on the waterfront, where the woman I was meeting with worked.
“I am brave and have goodwill,” she told me when I asked her to describe herself.
Over my years writing stories about entrepreneurs in the Middle East, Asia and Africa for Forbes and others, these were the stories I loved the most. For every story about the high-tech world that I wrote, I always tried to write one about the other kind of entrepreneur, about someone who was much more under the radar. I went to the Burj Khalifa and wrote about Sell Any Car, a software platform for car sales. But I also wrote a story about one of the “lady taxi drivers,” an Ethiopian immigrant. The role of a journalist is to speak truth to power and to give voice to the voiceless.
As much as I love the world-changing entrepreneurs that come out of MIT and Stanford, I found so much inspiration in people and communities who pulled together to create their own energy from the tiniest of sparks, like internal combustion engines. They defined both entrepreneurship and agency. I didn’t care that those stories weren’t the sexy high-tech unicorn stories so beloved by other journalists and some of my venture capitalist friends. If everyone else was busy hunting gazelles and unicorns, I was deep sea diving, on the lookout for tiny but beautiful nudibranks.
Eventually, other global and U.S. journalists stepped up to cover the tech ecosystems in developing markets, and I came back home. And it was as if my lens on the world had reversed itself. I found the stories I’d loved most from the developing worlds, the ones I had found in Gaza, or the Kibera slum in Kenya, or the outskirts of Phnom Penh, were similar to those I was finding in smaller cities and communities in the United States. Shockingly similar, in fact.
People assume that the infrastructure in the United States tops that of developing markets, and that enables more opportunity for mobility between social classes. But I would never assume that, though I do think the legal infrastructure is a big help here.
Last week, I found myself in Helena, Arkansas, driving down streets lined with abandoned houses, in a community scarred by a century of racial violence and redeemed by a century’s worth of efforts to overcome it. In this community in one of the poorest parts of the country, the low-lying land near the Mississippi, the median income is $22,000 a year. The population is 77% Black. I felt the same sense of abandonment as I had in Gaza, though it is a different set of circumstances.
And there, almost alone on the bleak street, was a shiny new storefront: a distillery, started by a couple who had grown up in the Arkansas Delta and come back to invest their life savings in the community. They sought a bank loan, but were unable to get it. However, they’d managed to get the sweet potato vodka distillery, going all the same.
“I want the Delta to be more than what the Delta has always been in terms of economics or race relations,” said Harvey Williams, who has had a long career managing food processing plants for big companies, and now owns this business of his own with his wife, Donna. Their son, Thomas, is the master distiller. “I want this to be a catalyst for change.”
Steve Jobs once said that to understand a problem, you have to understand it more than one way. I understood entrepreneurship by looking at it across different lenses, comparing the United States to the developing world; comparing the high-tech entrepreneurs with the broader category of entrepreneurs; and looking at the patterns of class across the global world of entrepreneurship and finance.
Many people believe that high-tech entrepreneurs are at the top of the pile. They get the most funding and the most press. But contrary to what I might have once believed as a business journalist right out of school, I know now that funding and power networks do not come to the best ideas that can benefit the greatest number of people. Our system of capital allocation is not efficient, in any Milton Friedman-esque sense. Otherwise, money would not keep falling so squarely into the hands of the families, sexes and races who already have it.
These days, I believe money and networks do not flow to great entrepreneurs; great entrepreneurs are more often created by money and networks flowing to them. The self-made entrepreneurs, when they exist, are by far the exceptions, not the rule. The real breakthrough innovations are rare. And the finance system, which is the inner keep of the castle of the patriarchy, tends to keep money and power where it has always been: inside the castle.
On one hand, this was a depressing realization. On the other, it was a liberating one. There have been great innovations in software and technology. But the key to the financial success of the follow-on incremental innovations, the key to most of those unicorns, millionaires and billionaires, was a purpose-built system of high-speed finance for that particular kind of software innovation, which not coincidentally was in the hands of the world’s elite classes and races.
If that is the truth, then propelling change in the communities of people that I love to meet around the world, the ones outside the elites, who are motivated by community and beauty, is not a question of importing high-tech companies, founders, or practices. It is about designing the right finance and mentorship systems for those communities that will propel change in places other than the high-tech enclaves.
In a world full of smart people, which now seems to be waking up to injustice, this seems doable.