Christopher Schroeder

Young Leader discusses new book, investment potential of the Middle East

August 20, 2013

Christopher M. Schroeder, a 1998 Foundation Young Leader and prominent Internet entrepreneur and angel investor advisor, discusses his new book, Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East(Palgrave Macmillan, August 2013), and shares his thoughts on start-ups and investments in the Arab world, the current upheaval in Syria and Egypt, his affinity for France, and his Young Leader experience.

Read a review of Startup Rising by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius here. Order the book here. Follow Schroeder on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.  

Schroeder has held multiple executive positions, including CEO of Health Central, CEO and Publisher at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, and CEO and President at LEGI-SLATE.  

Christopher M. Schroeder is a Washington, D.C. and New York City-based entrepreneur and venture investor. He co-founded HealthCentral.com, one of the nation's largest social and content platforms in health and wellness, backed by Sequoia Capital, Polaris Ventures, The Carlyle Group, Allen & Company, and IAC Corporation. The company was sold to the health media publisher, Remedy Health, in January 2012, where Schroeder remains a board advisor.  

Previously, Schroeder served as CEO of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive and Legi-Slate.com, the B2B interactive platform on U.S. and state legislation and regulation that he sold in 2000. He is currently an active investor in and advisor to top U.S. venture-capital funds and more than a dozen consumer-facing social-media startups. He served in President George H.W. Bush's White House and Department of State on the staffs of James A. Baker, III, and Robert B. Zoellick. 

In 2010, Schroeder was invited to speak at the Celebration of Entrepreneurship in Dubai, one of the first major gatherings of tech start-ups in the Middle East. This experience sparked his journey that became Startup Rising. In thirteen subsequent trips to the region, interviewing more than 150 entrepreneurs, investors, and global tech leaders, he has written extensively about start-ups and technology in emerging growth markets for The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, AllThingsD, TechCrunch, Pando Daily, Harvard Business Review, and Business Insider, among other publications. He speaks regularly around the globe and sits on the board of advisors of The American University of Cairo School of Business, the Jordanian incubator Oasis500, the Middle East online entrepreneur information platform, and network wamda.com. He was named one of LinkedIn’s top 50 Influencers.

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Chris, we were thrilled to have you participate in our Young Leaders program in 1998. What does this program mean to you? What lessons or people from this experience have most significantly impacted your life?
I was recently reflecting that among the most special friendships I’ve maintained over the years many came from the Young Leaders Program. You all create such an intimate environment of well-selected people who really are trying to change the world. As I think of the handful of people I turn to for counsel or honest feedback, they have come from that experience.   

What has been your relationship with France and Europe since the Young Leaders program? Did the program invigorate an interest in France?
I’m not sure the Young Leaders program started my admiration, if not love affair, with France and Europe more broadly, but it assuredly and forever confirmed it. I’ve been pleased to return many times and introduce my kids to it (they’ve been to Paris and the South – but would tell you that Normandy was among the most beautiful and moving of any experience). When I ran online news, the new media editors in Paris were the most forward thinking and outstanding partners. Now that I travel the world with tech and entrepreneurs, while the “ecosystem” and regulatory environment can be frustratingly hard in France – and I believe has lost a step to some remarkable centers like Berlin – some of the most exciting innovators are still there building great things.

Let’s talk about your new book, Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East, which came out last week. What inspired this work?
In a way, it started with my own bias. I’ve travelled all around the world, including the Middle East, and have had partners and software developers from South America to Eastern Europe to India to Israel. But the narrative in the West – especially in the United States – about the region is so based on political instability and sectarian unrest that, say, Mubarak’s Egypt allowing world-class tech startups seemed improbable. In 2010, I was invited by great friends, business builders, and investors there to the Celebration of Entrepreneurship in Dubai – one of the earlier major startup gatherings in the Arab world. There were 2,400 young people from North Africa to Yemen, with a waiting list of another 2,000 – none wanting to talk politics, all wanting to build often-awesome tech companies. It was an “aha” moment for me – and I felt kind of dumb, candidly. Why would a new generation who never knew a world without technology – with all its connectivity, collaboration, transparency, and ability to cheaply implement ideas – NOT create great startups? I wrote an op-ed about what I saw for The Washington Post, and this led to further invitations to speak, mentor, judge startup competitions. Friends in the blogosphere and news media asked me to write more – and eventually it was clear I had a book. 

The legend of the Arab Spring begins with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor. Bouazizi set himself afire in December 2010, protesting government restrictions on his right to engage in enterprise. You travelled to Dubai, Cairo, Amman, Beirut, Istanbul, and Damascus to research your new book, which describes the Arab Spring as an “entrepreneurial revolution.” Was this sort of frustration with the hindrance of personal entrepreneurship common among the people you spoke with?
There is no separating what happened in Tunisia and the subsequent Arab uprisings with what is happening with startups. One perhaps is more about political voice, the other about economic future – but it is a collective cry of people saying, “what the hell were my parents thinking? Is this truly all they wanted for me? Well, I see better every day online. Why not me? I’m going to stand up, and I’m going to stand up politically, socially, culturally, economically.” It is no coincidence that almost every entrepreneur I have met was also active in every aspect of the protests. It is deeply moving – even as the path is anything but straight and easy. The jury is still out, as we tragically see in Damascus (where I met some of the most remarkable people and entrepreneurs I’ve met anywhere), but the entrepreneurs I have met are clearly on the right side of history. I can’t tell you what will happen in one year, but I can tell you in ten years, two-thirds of humanity will have smart phones – super computers – in their pockets. Problem solving will change, bottom up. Innovation will come from everywhere. 

In your new book, you analyze the new commitment to the Arab world by various regional and international private equity firms, venture capitalists, and global tech players. What is the relationship between the street-level struggle for entrepreneurial freedom and larger corporate investment in this region?  
I have found two stories here. Some great businesses and leaders from the region have stepped up in huge ways. I tell the story of Fadi Ghandour, the great entrepreneur who built Aramex – which is the Fed-Ex of the Middle East and Africa. He is now giving back in massive efforts of corporate responsibility and backing startups across the region. Google, Intel, Microsoft, Cisco, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and PayPal, among other global tech players, are not only “doing business” here but actively supporting the startup ecosystem, as are many of the local and global mobile providers. But there are many wealthy and successful businesses that aren’t as comfortable with the risk associated with startups or are not convinced yet that this will happen at scale there. They are missing a great opportunity not only as businesses but to make enormous impact on societies. 

A common Western interpretation of the Arab Spring focuses on “democracy” and “freedom of expression,” embodied by the use of social media to encourage uprising against the status quo. Subsequent outcomes have led many to rethink this interpretation. In your travels abroad, did you see a commitment to “Western-style” democracy? Do you feel that the emergence of free-market enterprise could beget a social and political system closer to that which we know as democracy?
I try to remind all my friends here that our own constitution took TWENTY-NINE months to ratify, and that was TWELVE YEARS after the Declaration of Independence. Democracy doesn’t come easily, and it’s hardly a straight line. We should worry less about “Western style” anything, and just support, as equal partners, efforts of individuals trying to create more open and transparent societies on their terms. We have plenty of our own issues and challenges at home we should be looking to fix, and hopefully our collective experiences can help better outcomes. We should also get comfortable with the fact that big, top-down institutional approaches not only have had debatable success in the past, but are becoming less relevant in a tech-driven world where individuals have more and more ability to solve challenges and build new ideas bottom up regardless. 

The most prominent residual conflict from the Arab Spring is the unrest we continue to see today in both Syria and Egypt. How do you perceive these events in the grander tale of the Arab Spring? Do these two conflicts coincide with your interpretation of the Arab Spring as frustration with entrepreneurial repression?
We, in the West, tend to lump the entire region into one narrative, again, without understanding that what is happening in any one country consists of vastly different histories and realities on the ground. What we do see playing out everywhere is a 20th–century government approach to top-down control, and trying to constrain capital and opportunity to a few select favorites, versus millions saying they want something different. Syria has crushed its people for the time being, quite literally, and opened up other forces that are deeply concerning.  Egypt, in my view, has seen a remarkable, almost daily, check on a government that appeared to be slowly and deliberately consolidating its own power base. What happens next is anyone’s guess, but I’m in awe of the bravery and consistency of so many fighting to have their shot at opportunity now. I hate it when pundits say, “it will take 15-20 years for things to work out,” not because I think they are wrong – many scenarios bad and good are certainly out there – but because they are cavalierly turning to anyone in their 20s and saying, “you’re out of luck.”  Well, the 20-somethings I’ve seen haven’t conceded the point. 

Let’s step away from the Arab Spring and talk more generally about global business. You write about investing in the Middle East in your book and have considerable experience in international entrepreneurship and start-ups. How would you explain growing investments in places like the Arab World, where corporations have historically shown hesitation?
Nothing I’ve seen or written should suggest that the challenges in the region, especially in this period of uprising, aren’t hard. But emerging markets are hard. Corruption, favoritism, lack of rule-of-law, poverty, education issues, and on and on can be found anywhere. What intrigues me is that we now have more than 20 years of both investors and major corporations (local, regional, global) finding incredible success and impact in emerging growth markets – and this, and the entrepreneurial spirit creating real opportunities, are creating middle classes where all but the most audacious thought it impossible in the 1980s. With all the lessons, mistakes, challenges, successes in those experiences – and add massive access to technology – I believe emerging markets today in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere will move much faster. 

Much concern has been vocalized in the international business community about opportunities for growth and investment in Europe and, more specifically, France – Europe’s second largest and the world’s fifth largest economy. Some claim the nation lacks an entrepreneurial spirit. How do you perceive Europe and France’s future economic standing? Can France, and its EU partners, recover from their current economic woes, and what are the necessary steps for this to happen?
I am not an expert here, but I’ve seen outstanding ideas and entrepreneurs in France and Europe. The regulatory environment, however, will simply be an enormous challenge for the region to be competitive globally in the coming decades. 

What is your favorite book, and why?
Surely you jest. I have hundreds. I’ll dodge that question with a very telling – at one level shocking – piece of counsel a friend told me from the Young Leaders program. He told me calculate how long you might – might, of course – live and how many books you read a year. That is how many you have left. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow, but if I lived to 80 – that is a bit over 30 years – and if I read say 25 books a year on average (it is more like one a week, but let’s be conservative), I have 750 books left!!! It is a wonderful discipline in choosing the books that matter, and now I will stop books early if they don’t grab me. Obviously, I hope Startup Rising would be worthy of one’s criteria…. 

If you had to choose one person, who would be your role model, either professionally or personally? Why?
It is cliché to say Mandela, but with all my experiences from the State Department – after the fall of the Berlin Wall to watching what is happening around the world today – and despite my firm belief that individuals, bottom up, will change enormous dynamics in society, I do believe a great leader who leads beyond his or her own ambition, who pushes an environment of openness and transparency and individual potential, matters. This is as true for a great company as it is for a great country.