I was eyed up and down with slight suspicion by a young thin man wearing skinny jeans with a t-shirt and a shiny jacket. Having come straight from the office, I was standing there, a stranger in a strange land, wearing my gho (Bhutanese traditional dress). I was awkwardly conscious of being a foreigner in national dress following this far hipper gentleman as he walked me into the studio. There he left me alone to think about what I would say on entrepreneurship while waiting for my host, Dasho Paljor Jigme Dorji, or Benji as he likes to be called.
Benji and I had met before on many occasions, including dinners at out house and others, but had never had a meaningful conversation about my work and private sector development. Most of the time Benji did the talking, though it was much more storytelling, and did he ever have some fascinating stories to tell! By his own admission, he was jester (and cousin) to the Fourth King, Ambassador in Geneva, founder of Bhutan’s first environmental NGO, and host of his own Monday radio programme, on which he talked about anything that inspired him.
I sat alone in front of the DJ’s desk and stared at the two intimidating microphones mounted on spring-arms, like some bipedal spider. The walls and ceiling were made of acoustic paneling, and everything else was covered with red industrial carpet, even the desk. Above the door, a Bhutan Telecom clock ticked away the seconds while I thought about quickly looking up some numbers to justify the points I was about to make.
Dasho Benji was definitely an affable sexagenarian, but I still wondered whether I’d be able to answer his questions. Should I have a checklist of success factors? Advice for entrepreneurs? Suggestions for the government? I was nervous about being critical, something that many expatriates find all too easy, especially in developing countries.
Just then Benji came in and bellowed a greeting. As the DJ queued up the programme, Benji came on with his radio voice that reminded me of Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam. I sat there silently for a few minutes before being introduced as a special guest, and Benji turned to me.
The conversation went quickly, and skipped around from one topic to the next, but entrepreneurship was a thread that tied the conversation together. I needn’t have worried about being critical, as both Benji and the DJ were content to play that role. I mostly balanced the conversation, pointing out the responsibilities of both business and government to create a more trusting environment in which business can thrive. Clearly there is room for improvements in the business operating environment, but then the business community can also be more forthcoming, transparent and initiating.
A few interesting points came up including the definition of entrepreneurship. While I don’t consider myself an expert, I have recently guest lectured on the topic of entrepreneurship at a couple of the colleges here in Bhutan. For practical purposes, I have been defining entrepreneurship as, “the capacity and willingness to develop, organise and manage a business venture along with any of its risks in order to make a profit.” For me, entrepreneurial spirit is characterised by innovation and risk-taking. It is an essential part of a nation’s ability to succeed in an ever-changing and increasingly competitive global marketplace.
One of the biggest challenges to entrepreneurship here is risk aversion. While quick wins are welcome, there is little appetite for the downside risk that comes with starting up an enterprise. In fact most of the 20,000 graduates that come through Bhutan’s education system every year aspire to take their civil service exam and work for the government. The challenge is that at least 90% won’t make it. Then what?
My host challenged that access to finance was the biggest deterrent to entrepreneurship in Bhutan. Finance is certainly an issue here and the financial system needs to get over the idea of land as collateral and embrace ideas as collateral. However, I suggested that even deeper than the financial challenge is a culture in which families pressure students to aspire for government jobs, teachers are not generally encouraging of new ideas, students are not taught enough critical or creative thinking, local entrepreneurs are not heroes, and the majority of young students who don’t get into the few state school spots are branded as ‘dropouts’.
Fortunately, this is slowly starting to change. Speaking to 400 students at Gaeddu College of Business, some 20 hands are raised when asked how many are looking to start their own ventures upon graduation. A year ago there were only two exploring such options. While guest lecturing a couple of classes at Royal Thimphu College I heard some good ideas for businesses, even though not a single student had an entrepreneur in their family.
While nosing around, I have also been pleased to learn that there are some heroes to be found that can hopefully inspire and lead others: Greener Way is a social enterprise which is Bhutan’s only recycler of cardboard and PET plastic, started by a group of young college graduates; ShoeVival shines and cobbles shoes into a condition for profit or for redistribution to the poor; and Mountain Hazelnut Ventures is building major hazelnut production capability using sustainable agriculture and best practice farming techniques.
These examples and others are starting to appear, and there is plenty of room for more. Now there is a chance for each of these new and thriving enterprises to take my place as special guests in the media, and really inspire Bhutan’s youth with the potential to take risks and make big ideas real.