Talent is the most fundamental of the white paper’s five ingredients to “Make Your Own Silicon Valley”, as it is through human talent that dense, funded centers for innovation become possible. The capital, culture, policy, and density of startups are inanimate by comparison—while the concept of a ‘thriving ecosystem’ in biology demands life.
Tehranian entrepreneurs face significant obstacles in terms of regulatory environment and access to investment capital. The government’s lack of support in these variables has an interesting cultural watershed: it places responsibility for startup innovation directly upon the city’s entrepreneurs. Organization, community outreach, and educational programming– including the idea that the entrepreneur is not just a self-employed shop owner– proudly reflect Tehran’s developing talent pool.
One advocate for Tehran talent is Hamidreza Ahmadi, who returned to Iran from New York City to work directly with entrepreneurs. He identified a disconnect between available talent and startup development in Tehran.
A candid photo of Ahmadi at #swtehran on Nov. 20, 2014 (taken by @srfarzaneh)
A computer science graduate from City University of New York, Ahmadi, 32, has come to embody the current demand for startup organization in Iran’s capital. He organizes events for Startup Weekend, the Iran App Fest, the Iran Web Fest; and Hamfekr, Tehran’s weekly coffee-meetup for entrepreneurs. He serves as the vice president of the Iran Entrepreneurship Association (IEA).
“Despite the many Startup Weekends that we’ve hosted, there hasn’t been a second step to support all the projects,” Ahmadi said. “The average age of Startup Weekend participants in Tehran is [26-years old]… and of 500 entrepreneurs surveyed over five separate events, ‘team building’– or finding co-founders– ranked as the greatest ‘challenge’ for Iranian entrepreneurs.”
For their ability to connect startups with mentors, investors, and technical talent, Ahmadi sees organized events– and ‘accelerator’ programs, in particular– as the next step in Iran’s entrepreneurial progression.
“Self-organization, cultural conversation about entrepreneurship, and helpful participation of regulators is vital towards creating dense talent clusters,” Ahmadi said. “It’s really hard to showcase success stories without accelerators, because such programs help spread the news about our community. Iran is ripe… [but] most Iranians think about ‘entrepreneurship’ as owning a small business or farm or shop, rather than working in technology.”
Ahmadi intends his work with Hamfekr, the IEA, and technology festivals to help startups find and keep employees.
“We are planning an advocacy campaign to change the way technical professionals in Iran think about risk and entrepreneurship,” Ahmadi said. “We believe that [Iranian contractors] are taking more risk by freelancing, rather than building ownership in a company.”
UP Global’s white paper found that once talent becomes available, government can encourage entrepreneurial growth through sponsoring physical hubs, creating flexible labor markets (to attract people with a variety of skills and experience,) supporting STEM education, and promoting diversity in the workplace.
Entrepreneurs in Iran also hope to address severe hiring disparity in their country.
Women account for 86% of the student body in Iran from secondary education onward, and the integration of Iran’s women is essential to addressing the country’s startup and innovation challenges; however, engagement of women in startups and managerial positions has been disportionately low (just 4% of management jobs in Iran are held by women.)
Arezoo Khosravi helped organize Startup Weekend Women’s Edition in Tehran last September in an effort to address this hiring discrepancy; 62% of attendees were female entrepreneurs and academics from Tehran’s community.
Participants at Startup Weekend Women Tehran.
Khosravi’s entrepreneurial journey in Iran– from attending university, working with the United Nations, and creating a startup with her husband– compelled her to help other young women create their own jobs in the face of hiring inequality.
“Despite the high rate of graduation among women, there is not enough job vacancy to employ men and women equally,” Khosravi said. “The startup trend in Iran is very new, but it encourages young people to realize that they can turn their ideas into a job.”
Khosravi says that theory-focused Iranian universities do not actively assist students in the quest to find work, and that hiring markets are extremely competitive for all Iranians. She says that often, women do not seek management positions because of the competitive nature of the hiring process, and are content being hired into staff positions.
“When women want to find work, if they are in the same [educational] position with a male candidate, the male will be preferred… All the highest positions are given to the men,” Khosravi said. “For myself, it happened a lot. Most of the men had low experience in comparison to me.”
Ahmadi and Khosravi both acknowledge that the growth of accelerators, self-organized events, and startups in Tehran is reassuring news for talent in the city. Startups are bucking the trend of inequality in hiring, and providing technical, challenging jobs to young people in the city.
“Startups help women improve their leadership and initiative skills,” Khosravi said. “It’s effective for the youth, and especially girls, to see a way to make their own employment.”
Wherever an economic ecosystem hangs in the balance, it is human talent that must find a solution to the mental and physical challenges therein. While several of the white paper’s key ingredients are still missing, Tehran’s talent is on its way to solving the broader organizational challenges facing Iranian entrepreneurs, and is a driving force for greater, more equitable innovation within the city’s startup community.
We invite you to read along and lend your perspective.
What challenges are you facing in your community?
What solutions have you developed?
What questions do you have about these communities?