How does a country go from lifting a national ban on television in 1999 to nurturing tech startups in 2019? What does a startup ecosystem look like in a United Nations’ classified Least Developed Country? What role does startup culture play in a country that measures success via Gross National Happiness rather than Gross Domestic Product?
This is the remarkable story of a country building a startup culture from the ground up. Since 2016, Techstars Startup Weekends have been introducing entrepreneurship to the Bhutanese people—with strong support from the government—and little by little, this agrarian economy is changing to make space for innovation.
Watching entrepreneurship take hold in Bhutan provides a fascinating view of how an economy can grow from literally zero technology to one where people don’t just use tech to enhance their lives—they problem solve with it, and build businesses that meet their unique needs.
And it demonstrates that startup success really can happen anywhere—with a little help.
Building a Better Future
In Bhutan, youth employment, especially for college graduates, is a pressing concern. In 2016, the youth unemployment rate was at 13.2%, and the number of male unemployed youth doubled in 2016. Many young Bhutanese see civil service and government jobs as their only options—and there aren’t enough of these jobs to go around among college graduates. Farming still provides employment for nearly 60% of the population.
At Techstars, we strive to help entrepreneurs around the world succeed because we believe that entrepreneurs build a better future. Youth unemployment and a desire to transform what is still primarily an agrarian society are exactly the kinds of problems that entrepreneurship can solve.
Enter Techstars Startup Weekend
The first Techstars Startup Weekend Bhutan took place in January 2016, in the capital city of Thimphu. Techstars Regional Manager for South & Central Asia, Anurag Maloo, remembers the event: 25 people showed up, and they ambled in nearly two and a half hours after the start time. Startup hustle was clearly not yet a priority. But after 54 hours of innovating hard, they left energized and enthusiastic.
“We are bringing Startup Week to Thimphu because the proven opportunities and successes that stem from SW will propel our growing startup community in the right direction” said Kitso Pelmo Wangdi, Research Analyst from event sponsor QED Consulting Group and one of the local organizers. “We would like to put Bhutan on the map.”
Progress For a Startup Nation
Anurag worked with local community organizers to bring the second Startup Weekend to Thimphu in June 2016, and this time they got 55 attendees.
By the end of 2018, eight Techstars Startup Weekend Bhutan events had attracted over 750 participants, with the then Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay attending three, and loudly praising the efforts.
“We live in a startup nation,” he said, in a speech at the close of the event. “It is up to all of us to fulfil the potential that we have here to create the startup nation together. We are unique. Our startup journey started many decades ago as a small impoverished country. Our Kings decided to give us free education and healthcare and to focus on Gross National Happiness. Your ideas reach out to community and the environment. They reach out to the poor and to the community. Here in Bhutan, it is clear we go beyond the bottom line.”
A Techstars Startup Weekend Bhutan For Women
In 2018, organizers of Techstars Startup Weekend Bhutan events realized that their participants were skewing heavily male: about 70%. This is, of course, an issue that plagues entrepreneurship and tech worldwide.
In late 2018, a team of passionate local organizers held Techstars Startup Weekend Bhutan (Women). As with the first ever Techstars Startup Weekend Bhutan, turnout was low: about 35 participants, 25 of them women. But if anything, enthusiasm was even higher than usual.
“Almost all the women participants pitched an idea. Women were very excited, keen in learning and in just 54 hours the transformation of women participants were so visible through their final presentation and showcasing of their prototype. The community building bond has been established so beautifully,” said Deepika Rai, Startup Weekend Bhutan Community Leader and ICT Professional at Department of IT & Telecom (DITT), Ministry of Information and Communications (MoIC).
Next Step: National Editions
With so much success in the first couple of years, the Techstars and local organizing teams were motivated to go even bigger. The next step: a national edition of Techstars Startup Weekend Bhutan, bringing together winning teams from Techstars Startup Weekends held at colleges around the country.
Building momentum for entrepreneurship? Check. Getting college students involved? Check. Growing startup culture across the nation? That, too.
The first national edition ran in the spring of 2018. Students from seven different colleges around the country pitched 600 business ideas the first night, and built out 157 businesses in the first round of the event. From these, the 20 best were selected to compete at the national edition.
In 2019 thus far, there have already been 14 Techstars Startup Weekends across Bhutan in 10 cities, around themes like education, HealthTech, FinTech, AR/VR, IoT, and construction. These events attracted a total of over 1000 participants, clearly demonstrating that among Bhutanese youth, interest in entrepreneurship is strong, and on the rise.
Bhutan’s current Prime Minister, Lotay Tshering, attended the finals, and live tweeted the pitches from the finalist teams as well as congratulations to the winners.
As Techstars Regional Manager for South & Central Asia, Anurag started out by attending every single Startup Weekend in Bhutan. But as more and more local organizers learned how the weekends worked, Anurag started hanging back. Today, he no longer needs to attend every event. He’s empowered local people and communities to facilitate their own Techstars Startup Weekends across Bhutan—and the events are thriving.
And that startup hustle? At the most recent Techstars Startup Weekend Bhutan, 120 people arrived two hours before the event kickoff.
A Truly Worldwide Network
When we say that Techstars is the worldwide network that helps entrepreneurs succeed, we really do mean worldwide. While some new entrepreneurs are lucky enough to live in hotbeds of innovation where resources are plentiful and startup culture is the norm, others are farmers in Bhutan with a vision for showcasing their beautiful nation to eco-tourists. We believe that successful entrepreneurship can happen anywhere, and we support entrepreneurs literally everywhere.
If you ever think that you can’t be a successful entrepreneur because of where you live, or that your community can’t support a Techstars Startup Weekend—think of the fledgling entrepreneurs in Bhutan. You can do it. Techstars will help.