Putting entrepreneurship in context: review of Elmira Bayrasli’s book

Entrepreneurship is the kind of endeavor that we place a pedestal. It carries a mystique. The same way that being an artist, joining the clergy, or writing a book mark unique career paths, creating a company seems to transcend normal livelihood choices.

Being an entrepreneur sets someone apart in our rhetoric, but not in practice. Far from being a solitary activity, it is a career more integrated with the world around it than most. In building teams, finding customer bases, navigating regulators, forging supply chains, and much more, entrepreneurs interface with more aspects of society that many other professions.

These interactions make entrepreneurship incredibly dependent on its context. How an entrepreneur builds a company is shaped by political institutions, cultural norms, talent pools, and customer expectations. While technological or design breakthroughs may spring from brilliant minds in relative vacuums, entrepreneurs create businesses in quite the opposite.

This dynamic is well illustrated in a new book, From the Other Side of the World: Extraordinary Entrepreneurs, Unlikely Places. The author, Elmira Bayrasli, profiles seven entrepreneurs building businesses far from the accelerator programs, business schools, and venture capital funds that typify technology entrepreneurship in the United States.

Each of the seven cases is crafted around an entrepreneur, a context, and a challenge. The first focuses on how Bülent Çelebi built a technology company called AirTies in Istanbul. The major challenge he faced was developing a talent pool and company culture that would be willing to take risks and innovate. These characteristics are in the groundwater in Silicon Valley, but he had to dig deeper to find them in Turkey.

In a separate case, Shaffi Mather created a private ambulance service called Dial 1298 in Mumbai. He faced the challenges of corruption, from the moment he tried to register the phone number through to managing the service’s drivers.

In Pakistan, Monis Rahman created two collaborative spaces that challenge the global perceptions of Pakistan: a matchmaking site called Naseeb, and job site called Rozee. The latter was initially created simply to fulfill the recruitment needs of the former, before taking off in its own right.

Other chapters profile an energy efficiency company in Mexico, a technology manufacturer in China, and a mobile payments platform in Nigeria.

A bit of an outlier case focuses on Yana Yakovleva, who co-founded a chemicals company in Russia the mid-1990s. In 2006, she ended up in jail after resisting extortion efforts by the police. After her release, she moved from entrepreneur to activist, creating an organization to protect the rights of businesses and entrepreneurs. Though a key enabler of economic growth in most countries, the rule of law is under constant threat in Russia.

Each story is an instance of Schumpeterian entrepreneurship—i.e. those that cause creative destruction and lead to new markets. Smaller scale entrepreneurship of local businesses or self-employed hustlers are deliberately left out. This is a critical analytical choice. We muddy our understanding of entrepreneurship’s importance when we blur the lines between local businesses and industry-changing enterprises. Bayrasli focuses on the latter.

What results is a picture of entrepreneurship that highlights the personal histories of the individuals involved in each company, but with more nuance than the cults of personality surrounding many tech titans. The teams immediately surrounding the entrepreneurs get their due treatment, as do the broader networks. In fact, the importance of the returning diaspora bringing networks and skills shows clearly in several of the chapters.

The emphasis also lands clearly on the institutional and historical contexts for each enterprise. With a style that makes this as much foreign affairs as business book, Bayrasli takes detours into China’s economic history, levels of mobile access in Nigeria, and public service expectations in India. The larger forces driving such contextual factors can dictate the fortunes of entrepreneurs. Even when creating something new, history matters.

Where the book falls short is extrapolating broader lessons and trends about entrepreneurship around the world. This is admittedly a tricky balance: the move from evidence to recommendations trips up many nonfiction authors. Still, some amount of insight for policymakers, investors, or entrepreneurs themselves would have been welcome. Bayrasli leaves readers to make their own inferences.

That minor complaint aside, From the Other Side of the World makes a worthy addition to our understanding of how entrepreneurship happens. Putting a human face on it and placing it in context allows us to take the activity off the pedestal and to better understand its role in the world. For those wanting to promote it or pursue it, read this book.