High Tech Erases Politics for a Moment

Could the iBridges conferences help bring together a divided people?


I was going down the escalator when I saw him through the glass window. I couldn’t believe it. Shorter hair, a big wrinkle in his forehead, but it was definitely him. I was in the middle of a conversation, but I had to excuse myself. “It’s a friend, I haven’t seen in 10 years.” I ran down the escalator and rode it back up. I walked though I wanted to run and give him a big hug with the force of my excitement. I walked outside and there was a crowd of men around him. I waited behind him as they talked. It felt like it would never end, so I interrupted.

I said his name and he turned around and looked at me. At first, just a casual glance, then a focus in his eyes, and then his mouth dropped.

“Woa.”

I didn’t know what was next, what we were allowed to do. Can we hug? He lived in Iran and worked in Iran, and had even been jailed in Iran. He put his hand out and I thought, god a handshake will certainly not do and then he pulled me in and kissed me three times on the cheeks like they do in Tehran. As he pulled me in, I was grateful for that moment of closeness which words wouldn’t fill.

We were both at a conference, iBridges, meant to unite Iranian diaspora and Iranians on the issue of high-tech entrepreneurship in Iran. Everyone had questions about how this would go down, and came with hope that it would, at best, be productive, at worst, civil. Iranians and Iranian diaspora often disintegrate into their basest aspects when thrown together, differences in political realities and opinions usually thwart productive conversations and somehow somebody always gets into trouble.

The hope was that high-tech, with its technical and financial nature, could be the convener that had been needed for the last 35 years. That at least we could all talk tech and entrepreneurship, if nothing else. And indeed, money does talk. Louder than anything else, in this case, and that was a blessing.

While the first meeting in Berkeley, California in August had about 10 Iranians, the second one, in Berlin, had over 400 Iranians with rumors that the German embassy shut down for a week just to process the visas. This round of the conference there was also an added component of business pitches from 30 student teams that would get advice from the venture capitalists that were attending from the diaspora.

The pitches were the best part. I watched one girl, 22 years old, stand in front of a room of men, each likely worth over a million dollars, and pitch, in English, her team’s idea for improving the shipping system in Iran. She was representing her team who were back in Iran. She worked hard to stay focused on getting out all the important bits of information she and her team had created, many words it seemed she’d learned just for the presentation. All the while, her headscarf kept falling around her shoulders and she’d forget about it for long stretches of time.

It was clear that she’d practiced, that her data of the need in the market, to the potential revenue was all carefully calculated. A question she was asked a couple of times that she couldn’t answer, was “Have you tried this out, yet? Do you have any data from early attempts?”

She would answer confidently. She was impressive, regardless of her lack of answers to some of the hardest questions, or her new English, she was working hard, and ambitious. Mostly, she was dead serious, she wanted this.

Later, I saw her in the line for a meal and told her I saw her pitch. Immediately, she starting clarifying some mistakes she made in revenue projections. I told her she killed it. But she didn’t care, she wanted to get it right.

The other highlight of the conference was the expertise from Iran. Former ministers, and policy people presented on a panel about macroeconomics and there was no sense that this is some pie-in-the-sky, Soviet-esque, fix the books, got-the-job-because-of-my-networks, group of people. They were extremely literate in the levers of macroeconomic policy and equally honest about the pitfalls in Iran, from improved exchange rate policy, to liquidity, to customs policy. Throughout their panel talks they dropped recommendations for policy changes, “after the war we had 70 different exchange rates and we were able to consolidate them, we need to do it again,” and honest about the problems, “liquidity is our biggest problem.” The most jaw dropping fact I learned was about the real estate boom that occurred during the last administration, “over 400,000 apartments are vacant in Tehran, and 1.4M in the whole country.”

They also commended the most recent administration on its ability to decrease inflation and begin to clean up the spending spree that the previous government was on. In the larger plenaries, similar honesty was present about future policies from major executives within the country like the founder of Afranet, the leading ISP in Iran. “We need fast broadband and mobile Internet.”

One VC who had been very active in Iran with the largest valued tech start-up, explained “we have cultural issues, Iranians are not comfortable giving up equity, would rather not grow and instead hold on to ownership, and we have major deficiencies in management skills.” This was echoed by other founders, who said they have hard time finding and keeping competent teams.

And unlike the last meeting where the sanctions were like the big pink elephant in the room, sanctions were constantly addressed, “if the sanctions are dropped we can find ways to bring smart investment into Iran.” Smart investment was a major point raised over and over again, mentors with money. Many emphasizing the mentorship over money.

Since the negotiations between the Irani and the US started, many investors’ mouths have been watering to get inside the country and the so-called “untapped” market. Speaking to a young investment banker I happened to be sitting across during lunch the first day, he said people should be careful when they think Iran is up for the taking. “We already have a lot of companies that are sophisticated in their structures and highly valued. A lot of the industry is already being filled by local products and investors.”

Regardless of the obvious challenges that require fairly long-term solutions, the energy was pervasive throughout the three days. Over a hundred volunteers from around the world came to iBridges. I spoke to one, he said he lived in Hamburg, and was one of 300 that applied to volunteer and only about 100 were chosen. I asked him what he had to do to apply, he said they wanted a motivation letter. He was a student, getting his PhD, and like all the volunteers, he had to cover his costs of getting there, and his housing. That level of commitment tells me that iBridges has met a demand that is long in the making. Iranians, inside and outside, want to get to work, real productive work, together. I asked him what he wanted, why he came. He said he wanted to meet people that might be interested in the social network analysis he was doing. He said he’d made good contacts.

By the end of the three days, I’d seen several faces I hadn’t seen in a long time. The fears of bringing the outside and inside together had completely evaporated. The girl from the pitch won, and the last 15 minutes of the conference were full of suggestions from the crowd for the next steps, “More activities in between conferences, a conference in Iran…and more.”

Walking out of the conference, I saw a friend from DC. She said “What do you think? I can’t help but get excited, but I know better.” It’s natural for people to temper their hope about a grand change in Iran. But what’s important is not the future, but the present. And for the present, over 1000 Iranians from around the world and from inside Iran got together and got down to business, with relatively no hiccups, for the first time. Maybe Iran won’t change, but Iranians did. Go ahead, enjoy the goosebumps.

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