If Startups Can Be Built In Ghana, Africa, They Can Be Built In Cleveland, Ohio

This is a guest post by Adam Jackson is a San Francisco-based serial entrepreneur and angel investor. He issues a rallying cry to get startups happening outside the Valley, using the methods used in the developing world. You can find him on twitter at @adamjacksonsf.

When you are a busy founder, startup executive or tech investor, life is all about focusing on the activities that provide the most leverage toward achieving your objectives. As Tim Ferriss has taught us, anything that isn’t a leveraged activity should be outsourced. My recent trip to Ghana as a guest lecturer at the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) got me thinking about how we entrepreneurs and tech investors could best leverage our time when it comes to giving back to the startup community and society in general. I hope to someday be able to financially impact a community to the extent that they name a hospital after me, but until then, it will have to be more leveraged, time-based activities.

MEST was founded in 2008 by successful serial entrepreneur Jorn Lyseggen. He and his staff hand-pick 20-30 students per year to go through an intensive, two-year program that is part business school and part engineering school (that teaches programming languages and skills that are actually useful in today’s tech world!). In their second year, they must boot-strap their own tech startup. If, at the end of the program, the startup and team are showing promise and traction, they are eligible for a seed investment from MEST’s incubator (conveniently located right next door). Investments range from $30-200k. You can read all about it and watch an interview that TechCrunch’s Mike Butcher did with Jorn here.

Being a guest lecturer at MEST was an incredible experience for me, and not only because it was my first time visiting Africa. I got to spend time with the entrepreneurs-in-training (EiTs) and the staff (who also dedicate 1-2 years of their life working as teachers in the school). The raw intellect and determination I saw in the EiTs was impressive. They look at global markets as closely as they do their own local African markets. They are expert in the latest programming languages, understand agile development, minimum viable product, rapid iteration, and, of course, lean startup methodology. Some of the EiTs make great sacrifices to complete the program, as most college graduates in Ghana enter the workforce and start sending money back to their families and these students forgo that route in exchange for the chance at starting their own business.

Jorn started MEST when Meltwater (his SaaS company that has since grown quite large) was still a pup. He made a $20mm pledge (over 10 years) to MEST when Meltwater was only doing $22mm / yr in revenue! I think that’s nuts. I would never have the courage to do that! I asked him why he made such a large philanthropic commitment so early in his (and his company’s) life. “You never know, tomorrow you could be hit by a truck. And then it’s all over…, “ he replied. Indeed.

What about those of us who aren’t quite as bold as Jorn and are afraid a commitment like that may jeopardize our other goals? Donating your time, experience and competence is an excellent, high-leverage option. This can be done through advising startups, being a mentor at an incubator, helping young entrepreneurs at meetups or hack-a-thons, etc. In fact, there is even an organization that encourages entrepreneurs to give back called impact.

If you’re interested in helping Jorn and his team with the MEST project, you can learn more about being a guest lecturer or mentor with the program. I highly recommend it.

A MEST for the US?

After I guest lectured at MEST last month (and subsequently joined the Business Council of the MEST Incubator) I wondered, “why don’t we have more programs like this in the US?” It may be that one of our most viable solutions for growing our way out of the current unemployment problem is through backing entrepreneurs and small businesses. We (at least in Silicon Valley) can also agree that there is a morbid shortage of engineering talent in the US. Immigration law lags our growing demand for engineers so why don’t we do more to train them here at home?

I’m from Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland is part of the rust belt – a region of the US that has fallen on economic hard times largely due to globalization and the permanent export of manufacturing jobs. Because of these conditions, the cost of living in places like Cleveland has fallen sharply. The fact is, there are still plenty of smart and motivated people there that would be thrilled to have high-paying tech jobs. The problem is, there aren’t enough schools or organizations teaching them the actual skills they need. I believe the MEST model would work well here. Develop an intensive school that teaches people how to run a lean technology business and even build the tech side of it themselves. It’s much easier to bootstrap in places like Cleveland than it is here in Silicon Valley. That could serve as a huge advantage to this type of a program and its participants.

Any fellow midwesterners want to brainstorm this with me?

Whether you donate some time with a young entrepreneur one-on-one or you start an entire entrepreneurial school in West Africa, I can attest that this form of giving back is incredibly satisfying and has a great impact on our society and economy.