Every few years or so, the State Department sends me abroad to speak about small business and entrepreneurship. I have spoken about franchising in Mongolia, e-commerce in Jordan, business strategies in Turkmenistan, and so on.
But nothing quite prepared me for my recent visit to Palestine (no one there that I met called it “the West Bank” and they were surprised we did.) Would I be safe? Would I be welcome? Were there even entrepreneurs there? (Yes, yes and yes.)
Travelling from Jerusalem to Nablus and Ramallah every day took between 45 minutes to an hour. When we got to our destination and particular event – whether it be with young Palestinian women entrepreneurs or established businessmen and women (I was a little surprised to see that women clearly have a growing and significant business role there) – I was met by gracious, curious, well-educated entrepreneurs.
And as I spoke with them, and shared new ideas like e-commerce and social media (“What is social media?” one older gentleman asked me), it began to dawn on me that, despite their challenges, the Palestinians had as much to teach us as I them.
And make no mistake about it, the challenges they have are plenty. For instance, when I mentioned e-commerce as a strategy for growing their economy, they explained that exporting goods out of Israel is often difficult for them. Movement around their country is difficult because of checkpoints. So yes, they have challenges that we do not.
But by the same token, as indicated, there was something else going on there, something that may be gone here. For a lack of a better term, it was an esprit-de-corps. Miriam-Webster.com says that esprit-de-corps is “the common spirit existing in the members of a group and inspiring enthusiasm, devotion, and strong regard for the honor of the group.”
Yes, that’s exactly what it was.
For the Palestinians I met, creating a business had as much to do with the community as it did with themselves. They know that creating a business can not only improve their own lives, but also that of their family, friends and employees too. It can inspire others to dream and risk, and it can create the threads that build a community. For them, being an entrepreneur is akin to being a pebble tossed in a still lake: The ensuing ripples – of prosperity, stability and inspiration – seemed as important as the financial and business rewards.
Part of this phenomenon is cultural. In the United States, we venerate the individual. It is in our cultural DNA and is part of what makes us special, great. The Middle East on the other hand is more tribal. The group sometimes seems more significant than the individual. As such, maybe it is not surprising that, while entrepreneurship is a fairly new idea there, the goal seems bigger: to not only create a successful business, but a successful country.
And that was the big takeaway, the gift they gave me in return: A reminder that entrepreneurs aren’t simply the creators of businesses, but of dreams, of lives, of nations even. So, while there is no shortage of destruction in their part of the world, my new Palestinian friends are a reminder that entrepreneurs not only build businesses, but bridges too.