The Daily Beast’s Foray into E-Books

•September 28, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Today, The Daily Beast announced a joint venture with Perseus Book Group, with Tina Brown noting that there is “a gap between online writing and full-length books that [is] no longer being fully met by a dwindling market for magazines.”

The effort will utilize Daily Beast writers to publish books of 150 pages or less on a shorter cycle than traditional publishing houses.  The books will initially be available in digital form, but the original announcement did not outline how much they would cost.  Writers, however, would receive a greater % of profits than under the current book publishing model.

I applaud the Daily Beast for this experiment.  In the spirit of new paradigms of media consumption, consumers will have yet another option– more timely, in depth articles, at (hopefully) price points that reflect their inherent value to the readers.  Writers can have access to a broader audience, opportunity to publish more in-depth pieces, and better monetize their talents. 

I also see crowdsourcing potential here, with readers suggesting topics and/or voting on them, so that writers can gauge their potential audience’s interests before writing an article.  Of course, I’d also hope that writers will take risks, spurring demand for topics post-publication.  Above all, it is encouraging to see companies pushing the boundaries of current business models, and acknowledging that market forces will prevail as more power rests with the consumer. No doubt business models will continue to evolve across industries with greater velocity than ever before, which makes this a fascinating time to be a an investor, consumer and entrepreneur.


Development Through Self Empowerment

•September 1, 2009 • Leave a Comment

While in Rwanda, I went on long drives, for it’s the only way to see this beautiful country.  Some roads are paved but many are not — one day, it took us 10 hours to travel a little over 200 kilometers on a bumpy dirt road winding through the hills.  Along those drives I’d get diverse glimpses into local life, from the suburbs of larger cities to bustling villages to remote standalone houses.  I’d see people transporting everything, from tea to water jugs to clothes, on their heads (one particular source of amusement was a group of women who had dug some dirt with shovels and then carried the full shovels on their heads, balancing them perfectly!)  And then there were the children.  They would all stop and stare.  After recovering, they would inevitably react in one of two ways:  they would either wave with a big smile, or outstretch palms, yelling out, seeing foreigners as a source of free money.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about aid to developing nations, especially after my summer working on a UNIDO (United Nations Development Organization) project in Tanzania training women entrepreneurs.  I was based in Dar es Salaam and saw two aid vehicles for every car on the road.  This in a country that has enjoyed a long stretch of political stability.  I was perplexed on how little there was to show for the large amounts of aid seemingly pouring in.  The project I was working on taught women basic business skills, including microfinance management, marketing and production. This aligned with my belief in self-empowerment and giving people tools, including education, to better their lives.  During my time there, I started to see how some of the foreign aid was creating a culture of dependency and entitlement, and not of self sufficiency.

Education, building businesses and technological development all take a long time to show results and success metrics can be hard to measure.  This is the reason that many companies stop investing in R&D and longer term projects during economic downturns.  However, it is imperative, especially as we look at developing countries, that both shorter term needs (such as food, immunizations, healthcare) are coupled with longer term initiatives that promote development for the future.  Technology can be a key driver here, and we are seeing it in agricultural innovation and in the alternative energy sector.  Education (including teacher development) and preventative healthcare are other areas that are important to invest in.  The Gates Foundation has been a leader in using private enterprise principles in holding NGOs accountable for their strategy and the proliferation of social venture funds (including Echoing Green, which I have been a supporter of for years) are positive steps towards finding innovative solutions to some of these difficult issues.

On my next trip to Rwanda I hope to see only smiling faces waving and none with outstretched hands.  And with that thought, I bid this wonderful country adieu and look forward to returning someday….

A Gorilla’s Eyes

•August 30, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Yesterday I went mountain gorilla tracking in Volcanoes National Park in the Virungas. Unlike the elusive chimpanzees I tracked a few days ago in Nyungwe Forest, visitors are able to get very close to the animals. Several habituated groups exist, and the one I visited was a particularly playful one, so much so that one of the toddlers kept coming up to me to peer into my camera lens. This was much to the chagrin of my guide, as the dominant silverback was a few feet away and kept looking over. The hour I spent with them was magical, as it gave great insight into the lives of these creatures. They are inquisitive, gentle, massive and muscular and therefore quite destructive as they move through the forest (graceful they are not!), but love to play. I sat transfixed watching the silverback grooming one of the younger ones, while several others engaged in a well spirited wrestling match nearby, and others tumbled out (quite literally!) of the forest to watch. Looking into the eyes of the youngest ones was not unlike looking into human babies’ eyes, with that same look of wonder and curiosity staring back at you.

As I watched them, I wondered what these gorillas think of the destruction that humans have caused in the region. Despite their size, the mountain gorillas subsist on a vegetarian diet and will fight only to defend their groups. Yet many have been the victims of poachers and rebel groups in the Congo. Their habitat has been disturbed by refugees fleeing the genocide and the Congo civil war. In 2007, National Geographic chronicled the murder of a gorilla family with moving photos taken by Brent Stirson.

Then I read the NY Times this morning, with news of a bloody week in Afghanistan, more bombings in Iraq, and increased violence in Chechnya. And I know what these gorillas would think. They would come close, peer into our eyes, shake their heads, maybe lift their fingers to their heads, and return to their play.

Mountain Gorilla, Rwanda

Mountain Gorilla, Rwanda

Children in Goma

•August 28, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Today I crossed the border from Gisenyi on Lake Kivu into Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. One of the first sights I saw were large UN and Red Cross vehicles. The Indian Army, via the UN, was out in full force. And the terrain changed drastically. The city and its surroundings are covered in black lava stone, remnants of a major volcanic eruption in 2002, and the destruction is still very visible. Yet another example of nature wreaking havoc on a population that already has seen so much suffering.
My hope for the people in DRC is that they may one day soon be on the same path to development as its neighbor Rwanda is. It is truly tragic that countries with so much natural resource have the most conflict and suffering inflicted on its people. But two of my favorite pictures I took today are below, two girls who manage to laugh and play amidst it all and boys gathering around a makeshift “cinema” (a TV with a VCR) to see what is playing. Proves children are children wherever they are in the world….

The Gender Issue

•August 25, 2009 • 1 Comment

In Rwanda, everyone walks.  They walk to school, they walk to work, they walk to the well to refill their plastic yellow jugs, they walk to the market, they walk to the fields.  In hours of driving through urban and rural areas, I have yet to see a stretch of road without activity.  And today I saw an encouraging sight roadside: groups of schoolgirls walking proudly in uniform, chatting animatedly as schoolgirls do everywhere in the world.  Clearly, girls’ education is a priority in Rwanda today. Many countries such as this which are developing quickly understand that in order to continue their growth trajectory, they need to educate women and utilize the talents of both men and women. Similar stories abound in the urban areas of India and China, although much progress remains to be made in the rural regions.

The Obama administration is also placing a high priority on women’s rights globally as it is clear that women are a key to ensuring future stability.  Nicholas Kristhof and Sheryl WuDunns’ excellent article in the NYTimes this past Sunday addresses this issue with stories from Pakistan, India, Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe. As the article highlights, there’s a reason that microfinance organizations focus on making women self sufficient.  Women are more likely than men to use increased earning power on their children’s health and savings, multiplying the eventual benefit of that initial investment.  They also serve as role models for their communities by empowering other women and encouraging men to view them as partners, not subordinates.  These attitudes then trickle down to their children.  The Grameen Bank, through founder Muhammad Yunus’ vision, saw this over 30 years ago, starting in Bangladesh, and have recently brought their model to inner city neighborhoods in the United States through Grameen America.

In addition to the societal benefits of encouraging women to participate in the world’s economy, I also believe that the female perspective is crucial in today’s business world.  At Davos this past year, there was a conversation on how the global financial crisis may have been lessened if more women had been in charge. Several of the women there agreed with that viewpoint, as discussed in an article in the International Herald Tribune.  While this may be a controversial conclusion, as you can argue the structure of business institutions encourages behavior that risks long term stability for short term gains (by both men and women), it is difficult to argue with the benefits of bringing diverse backgrounds and perspectives into the boardroom.  For too long, companies and boards have brought in people just like them, creating a myopic view and herd mentality. Perhaps decisions were not debated as fully as they should have been because there were not enough different viewpoints in the room.  Business schools teach theory on the importance of diversity but we are a long way off from this reality.

So in this increasingly global complex world that needs all the brainpower and talent possible at its disposal, we all have to pay attention to this issue.  We also should ensure that these women are fully supported as they transition into the workforce, and that institutions of all types, from corporations to village societal structures, can take their unique needs into account so that these women remain in the workforce.

Listen and You Shall Hear

•August 23, 2009 • 1 Comment

Yesterday I visited the Genocide Memorial Centre in Kigali.  I had heard much about the disturbing videos they show, of the rooms full of pictures of the dead, of the skulls and bones in glass cases.  However, the most chilling moment for me was walking through an exhibit which showcased children who died doing the violence.  Above each plaque was a large picture of the child, donated by the family, and underneath, a few sentences describing the child:  Favorite Food, Favorite Book, Child’s Nature, Best Friend, Last Words….and most searing, How Killed.  At least half were killed by a machete, but one 2 year old little girl was smashed against a wall.  The litany of crimes are horrific and well documented by now, women raped by men who were known HIV carriers, people thrown into mass graves alive and friends killing friends.  Over 2/3 of the population was displaced and close to a million died. But it was the last innocent words of the children, free of hatred but full of fear, that were so jarring.  These children had so many dreams and potential, little lives snuffed out before they could even begin to live.

What is equally disturbing, however, is that these events were preventable.  An informant went to the UN, just weeks before then-President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, with very specific information about what was about to transpire.  By many accounts, the genocide was premeditated.  The informant was ignored.  Even after the violence started, there was opportunity to contain it.  However, the UN, and the rest of the international community, pulled out soon after the killings started.

The world needs to listen more.  The Rwandan genocide is an example of a large scale tragedy that could have been prevented if people listened, but this happens on a smaller scale on a daily basis.  When I mentor people one piece of advice I always give them is to remember to listen, no matter what stage of their career.  Even if you don’t agree with what’s being said, it still makes you better informed and thus better prepared to deal with other points of view.  Ignoring others will not make them go away, as the world found out in the spring of 1994.

The Supermarket Test

•August 21, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Today I was awoken by a symphony of birds chirping, I couldn’t make out how many but while I was sitting in a tiny restaurant garden eating lunch I counted no less than 8 different types of birds (and a couple chameleons climbing trees).  It was literally music to my ears, against a silent backdrop.  The peace and quiet emanating from this city are startling, given the underlying growth spurring the economy thanks to a President committed to a prosperous future for his people.

I am staying near the embassy district in Kigali and its leafy, sleepy tropical streets remind me somewhat of Rangoon, which I visited in 2007 just weeks before the monks’ protests started. But physical appearances are deceiving.  Burma is a country spiraling in decline, run by authoritarians who want to ensure their people remain weak.  In Burma I burned my leg during a motorbike ride and I couldn’t find a band-aid that actually stuck to my leg.  Wary of a potential infection, I took a WetOne cloth and a rubber band which was wrapped around a newspaper for a souvenir I bought and covered the wound until I got out of the country and to the Bangkok airport. Burned once (literally and figuratively!) I came on this trip stocked with band-aids and body lotion and toiletries galore.

But today I visited a supermarket here in Kigali.  Supermarkets, or at least markets, are always part of my sightseeing agenda wherever I travel.  In addition to having fascinating people watching opportunities, they are an indicator of a) what is available to the local population b) the relative prosperity of the people based what they are buying and at what price points and c) openness of the government to foreign investment and/or imports.  Needless to say there were band-aids aplenty, as well as toiletries from the US, Europe and Middle East — a much more multicultural selection than even at my local Duane Reade pharmacy.  And there were chirpy young employees with uniforms at every corner, willing to help me find whatever I desired, from an imported biscuit to pasta to Italian wine.

I also visited a 24 hour shopping mall across the street from the supermarket. Its tenants included an electronics store, a lingerie store, and a small food court that housed Bourbon Coffee (an upscale version of starbucks with local art, a terrace overlooking the hills, and frapuccinos and snacks galore.  it’s going to be hard drinking starbucks coffee after this).  I am sure that once I start traveling to the countryside I will see more poverty.  But let’s not forget this country was in shambles at the end of 1994.  A survey done in 2000 unveiled that 99.9% of the population had witnessed violence, 91% believed they were going to die and 58% witnessed killings with a machete during the genocide (stats taken from Bradt Rwanda TravelGuide).

But now enterprise is alive and well, and there is palpable optimism in the air, thanks to a forward thinking President that united the people, spurred economic development through local enterprise and foreign investment and invested for the long term with free education and sustainable tourism initiatives.  The people responded by forgiving and healing the best they could and seizing the opportunity for a different future than many of its African neighbors.  While Rwanda’s future is TBD, these are lessons that the rest of the world can learn from.