Not so fast food

As a child, Anne, that’s the Turkish word for mother, took us to on her grocery store run every Saturday. This wasn’t just any grocery store, but a fresh food market that required us to walk twenty minutes to reach. “Here,” she would say, “they have the best fruits and vegetables. Not as good as the ones in Turkey, but better than what they sell at the supermarket.” My milky-skinned mother was, like most Turkish mothers, picky about her produce, just as an artist is picky with his or her palette. Produce is what she created fresh, warm Turkish meals with, every day. Meals were how she showed us the abundant love and passion she had, but was forced to subdue because she was a “proper” Turkish girl.  Proper Turkish girls had only two passions: cooking and cleaning.

Anne’s fresh and warm meals made my father, Baba, happy. At the age of seven, however, I didn’t have the same appreciation for her buttery and flakykavurma borek made not out of philo dough, but her own rolling pin and specially brought feta cheese. I craved fast food.

On occasion Anne would indulge this craving as she did one Saturday after we picked up our groceries. From what I remember it was a sunny day and Anne, who had a tendency toward mood swings, was in good spirits. I know this because when she wasn’t in a good spirits the arch of her dark brow would silence my brother and me into uncharacteristic obedience.

On this day, however, I dared my little brother to a race, which I knew his little three-year-old legs would never win. (My torture of men began at an early age.) I recall my mother batting her long dark lashes at us a la Snow White, “Let’s we go to Kentucky Fried Chicken today.” My brother and I erupted in excitement.

Going to Kentucky Fried Chicken was a big deal for Anne too. It was not something she could do when I was a toddler. Back then she spoke practically no English, which I wish I had realized on my first day of Kindergarten.

It was, I imagine, a first day like most others – the local schoolyard teemed with energetic children and their chatty mothers. Interestingly, one of the first things I noticed on that schoolyard wasn’t the other kids, some of whom were running around and shouting. It was the shiny lips and blue eye shadow of their mothers. Anne didn’t wear any color on her face. Nor did she stand with the other mothers who were engaged in such deep conversation that none noticed the sudden burst of tears that erupted as our Kindergarten teacher Mrs. Levin told us to line up. “Okay everyone, it’s time to start your first day of Kindergarten.” Anne just stood and stared at me, her hands inside her jacket pockets. It was as if she was the one who needed to be brave. I waved at her as I walked into the red-bricked school building.

After school, Anne was in the same spot that I had left her a few hours later, which made me wonder if she had ever left. “Look at all the things that my teacher wants us to bring to class,” I waved a piece of paper in my hand, jumping up and down. My mother had to put her hands on my shoulders to keep me still in order to see what it was I was talking about.

She stared at the list and then handed it back to me and kept walking. “So are we going to go to the store to buy these supplies?” I continued my elated dance, which had left me breathless. “We’ll have to wait ‘til Baba gets home, okay?” she said without looking at me.

I stopped in my tracks. “Why?” I whined. “I don’t want to wait for Baba.”

“If we wait for Baba it will be too late. I need to get this stuff now for tomorrow. All the stores will be closed later. I need to have this stuff TO-MORR-OW or else my teacher won’t like me.”

“OKAAAY,” Anne replied, fixing her short dark hair. She replied OKAAAY whenever she: 1) didn’t know the answer to a question, 2) didn’t’ want to answer or 3) wanted me to shut up.

“But NOOOOOOO.” I hadn’t cried earlier but couldn’t help tearing up then.

“Elmira, we have to wait for Baba. You can buy your supplies tomorrow.”

“NOOOOOO!” I started to cry. Anne did not respond.

“WHY WON’T YOU READ THIS!?” I belted out with all my red faced five-year-old might, outraged at what I assumed was some sort of punishment. “If you can’t read this, then I’m not going to tell you what the bank man says anymore.”

As early as I can remember, long before Kindergarten, Anne would have me talk to bank tellers, electricians and telephone repairmen. She would speak in Turkish and I in English. They would speak to me in English, I to Anne in Turkish. I never thought much about how or why we did this. We just did. And I didn’t like it all that much. I especially didn’t like the bank tellers who preferred to talk to other customers and made us wait; tellers who when they did talk to us I found always in a hurry to get rid of us. To this day I clench up when I walk into a bank.

After I enrolled in Kindergarten things changed. Every day after school, Anne sat down with me and had me go over that day’s lesson. She’d tell me to read her the new words and letters I learned and put them into a sentence that I had to translate into Turkish. She would sit with books and have me read to her, with her following along intently. This, I now realize, is how she learned how to speak English.

On that Saturday at the Kentucky Fried Chicken, however, Anne’s English was still rusty and unconfident, which is what I suspect the young woman behind the counter picked up on. Her long hair tucked into a red cap, bubble gum in her mouth, this woman snickered when my mother started reading off from the menu above in her heavily accented English.

“Shicken?” the server laughed at my mother. “You want shicken?”

Confused, my mother looked down at me, her face reddening. “Yes,” I chimed in. “We’d like to order the XXX-piece chicken please,” looking up at the server and my mother.

“Tell them we’d like it to go,” Anne said to me, even though we had agreed we’d eat in. She, on the other hand, wouldn’t look at anyone. She just stared into the air.

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Whole Foods Education?

David Boudreaux wants to fix education badly. Stymied by unions and low standards, the economics professor makes a case in this Wall Street Journal piece for learning to be unshackled from government in order to be courted by capitalists. Sadly, in comparing public schools to supermarkets, he fails. To advocate that our children’s learning be improved by modeling it after the market forces that bring us produce is, while provocative, preposterous.

“Suppose,” he starts out, “that groceries were supplied in the same way as K-12 education,” where there are free “public supermarkets” and for-fee “private supermarkets” that are “largely protected from consumer choice.” Well, I can’t. Supermarkets, Boudreaux wants you to believe, fill the same need in a society that education does. None of us can live without either. That we can’t compels us to want access to the very best. Fair enough. Trouble is, the ultimate goal of supermarkets is to consume, where as education aims to produce.

Education is part of our collective social contract. It prepares and provides the tools to the next generation. To leave that preparation and those tools in the hands of market forces might create exceptional learning for the few. In the long run, however, it would leave the majority on the margins. Given that the U.S. political and economic system have already been pulled to the extremes, that is a risky outcome, one that Thomas Hobbes hinted at long ago.

In the Leviathan, the English philosopher asked “what life would be like without government – each person has a right or license to everything in the world.” He concluded that it would be like war. May be. What it wouldn’t be like is shopping at Whole Foods. Competition advances both good and bad options. By its very definition, someone loses. Is that what we want for our children?

Last October, I traveled to three cities in Pakistan, Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore. In each, I was astonished to find that every building had its own power generator and security. Energy and safety are public needs that are normally provided by government. Unfortunately Pakistan’s doesn’t, forcing the country’s residents to opt for their own. No wonder Osama bin Laden went undetected. With everyone watching out for his or her own welfare, no one was overseeing the collective.

Public education in America is broken. As a “product” of it, I know. Reforming it is of paramount urgency. Market forces, however, isn’t the answer. That we have made it one for everything in society and masked it as “democracy” is, as David Brooks points out in today’s New York Times, lamentable. It is also dangerous. “Impatient with any institution that stands in the way of popular will,” or in Boudreaux’s case “shopping,” our elected officials “see it as their duty to serve voters in the way a business serves its customers.”

What is completely lost on us is that “the customer is always right,” is nothing more than a slogan. Our children’s future is not. We should not relegate it to being a shopping list where every wo/man is for him or herself. Doing so would only be a recipe for disaster.

My regular blog appears every Monday on: http://blogs.forbes.com/elmirabayrasli/

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What if they were Muslim?

A gun rampage outside of Amsterdam last night left seven people dead. A 24-year old Dutchman, Tristan van der Vlist, has been identified as the suspect. The story is buried under the fold, on page 14 in the New York Times. The Wall Street Journal relies on the Associated Press for the information. The incident doesn’t even get a mention in the Financial Times. But what if Tristan had been Muslim?

Earlier this week the New York Times ran a story about Azra Basic, a Croatian émigré who was living in Kentucky until her recent arrest for alleged crimes she committed during the Yugoslav wars from 1992-1995. According to the front-page piece by Malcolm Gay, Azra is accused of being “part of a vicious brigade of Croatian Army soldiers that tortured and killed ethnic Serbs at three detention camps in the early years of the Bosnian war.” She is said to have “carved crosses into prisoners’ foreheads;” “slitting one man’s throat and forcing others to drink from the dead man’s wound;” “One witness says Ms. Basic made him drink gasoline, then set fire to his hands and face.”  She is awaiting extradition to Bosnia-Herzegovina where she would stand trial for war crimes.

Basic “confided” these details to her American “family,” Steve and Lucy Loman, long before the FBI came for her. For whatever reason neither of the small-town mid-Westerners were disturbed or concerned. “It wasn’t like it was a secret or anything,” Steve Loman told Malcolm Gay. Their neighbors agree. “I don’t think she’s guilty of anything but being a human being,” Eli Vires is quoted in the piece. “They should just let her out of jail and be done with it.” Wonder how they would feel if Azra were not a Catholic Croatian but a Bosnian Muslim?  Would they be willing to forgive her then?

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Stop it

The news that CBS’s 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan was beaten and sexually assaulted in Cairo’s Tahrir Square is infuriating.  I’m literally shaking as I type this.  And I’m not sure why I’m typing other than to say this:

How many violent acts against women must occur, in how many different places before we, as a society, stand up to stop it?

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In Egypt, entrepreneurship isn’t all business

In Egypt, the all-entrepreneurship, all-the-time Kauffman Foundation’s Dane Stangler and Bob Litan say, revitalization in the post-Mubarak era “can start by making it easier to start and operate a business.”  Yes.  This is why I love those Kansas City guys.  In Egypt, give ‘em entrepreneurship.  I’d go two steps further:

1) @lajump, aka Leslie, rightly pointed out that the private sector has an important role too.  While the government is key to reducing red tape and facilitating start-ups, the Egyptian private sector must help by opening up its networks and taking risks on promising enterprises. “I am ready to put more money in,” Egyptian billionaire and telecom titan Naguib Sawiris told Businessweek.  Recognizing that it was the source of pain, he believes in “spreading” the country’s prosperity.  That will be key in order to protect his own.

2) Celebrate the ones that are there, but make sure that everyone knows about it.  Everyone wants to guide an entrepreneur and tell him or her how to do it.  What about telling the rest of us how he or she did it?  We in the West do it through publications such as Fast Company, Inc. Entrepreneur and entire newspaper sections devoted to the topic.  The same is not true in the developing world.  As a development and media junkie, I’m dismayed by the absence of entrepreneurship coverage in places like Egypt.  The stories of the incredible Egyptian men and women that have launched enterprises have the power others to believe in their ideas.  Perhaps that will inspire them to become entrepreneurs.  Better yet, perhaps it will inspire them to become writers, architects, designers and anthropologists (see earlier post).  Reading about someone turning an idea into reality builds confidence.

Journalism training is a must anywhere, anytime.  In this post-Mubarak era it an opportunity to equip Egypt’s talented reporters with the skills to report on entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship.  Reuters, the Soros Foundation and the European Center for Journalism are organizations doing just that. The fourth estate made all the difference in the French Revolution.  Let’s make sure it does the same in the Egyptian one.

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Bring in the anthropologists

The FT’s Gillian Tett makes a strong case for why Western for-profits should consider having an anthropologist on staff.

“Cross-cultural exchanges,” she says are gaining relevance.  Proctor & Gamble discovered this when selling diapers in Brazil.  Instead of biodegradable, the American multinational observed that waterproof was more important for Brazilians.  Now, companies are reconsidering how innovation flows.  West to the developing world, or rich to poor, isn’t the direction any more.

As the emerging markets and businesses grow in economic importance, some global business executives are now less focused on transplanting ideas from the “west” to the “developing” world (or from rich to poor) – and are asking instead how emerging market innovations can be brought into the west too (from poor to rich.) “In the west we assume that innovation is there to make products more powerful, flashier, faster – but in emerging markets, innovation is about commoditization, about cutting costs,” observed the chief technology officer of a giant American multinational. “But maybe cheaper, simpler products are what western consumers would prefer too.”

There’s much the West can learn and benefit from the developing world.  Innovation is but one area.  Judging by Friday’s events in Egypt democracy might be another.  But I’ll leave that thought for now.

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Egypt: not just an Arab tale

On Wednesday, I listened to “Mr. Soft Power” Joseph Nye and the Financial Times’s Gideon Rachman discuss the state of U.S. foreign policy and its future. Not surprisingly Egypt came up in the discussion. Nye, ever the scholar, made an incisive observation that in Egypt “it’s not whose army wins, but whose story.” Rachman, who is most definitely not a scholar, surprisingly added to that. He noted that the tale of Egypt’s uprising is also the tale of two Americas.

There is the America that is holding onto Mubarak, albeit with frustration and antipathy, and an America that is caught up in the freedom fervor of Tahrir Square. Which will win will say a lot about our own story, and perhaps relevance.

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In Afghanistan Hearts & Minds = Jobs

“We can make you guys richer,” says Captain Dan Kearney to a group of bearded men in eastern Afghanistan. Yet, they remain suspicious of his and his Company B’s motives for building Restrepo, a camp overlooking the Korengal Valley. It’s known to be the most dangerous in the region. That makes it all the more riveting to watch (which I did tonight) Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s documentary entitled Restrepo.

Restrepo is named after a fallen soldier whom we see in a shaky home-made video in the opening. We never get to know his story, but are treated to the one about the men he fought alongside. And it is one not to be missed. Unlike many war movies or documentaries, Restrepo doesn’t glorify war, vilify the enemy or enable political purposes. It’s the dairy of men doing a job. In a most interesting scene it shows one explaining that he’d like to create jobs for the Afghans amid this mountainous terrain. No ideology. No politics. Just jobs.

Here’s a great review from the New York Times.

Here’s the trailer:

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Move over MBAs…

Last week it was this “tweet” by Kenneth Cole.

kenneth cole

This week Groupon‘s Super Bowl ad.

Both went into immediate damage control. But it was Groupon CEO Andrew Mason’s “mea culpa” that grabbed my attention:

“I’ve been spending the day listening to the negative feedback about our Tibet Super Bowl commercial, and want to take a crack at explaining why we created this campaign…We take the causes we highlighted extremely seriously – that’s why we created this campaign in partnership with many hallmark community organizations, for whom we’re raising money at SaveTheMoney.org….The last thing we wanted was to offend our customers – it’s bad business and it’s not where our hearts are.”

Groupon created these ads with the organizations for whom they’re raising money?  Hmmm… I hope not.  But then again non-profits seem to be caught up in the cult of the all-knowing, all-efficient MBA.  Given the tremendous inefficiencies and waste in the field, that is understandable.  MBAs are needed to improve non-profit operations and systems.  But MBAs do not, as I note in this post, have no more a value add than a designer, artist, economist, sociologist, historian or mathematician.  They bring in a skill.  Skill without careful application, understanding or context is careless. The Kenneth Cole and Groupon examples speak to that.  And that is unfortunate.  Worse, it is unnecessary.

As much as a non-profit needs MBAs, the private sector needs do-gooders.  Those who have dedicated their lives to fighting poverty, human rights or global health bring a skill as well. More importantly, they bring in insight – insight that would have anticipated the gasps that Kenneth Cole and Groupon perhaps regret. Move over MBAs.. if Kenneth Cole and Groupon taught us anything this week, it’s that you need to learn something too.

(And take a crack at explaining it Andrew Mason? Really classy choice of words).

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In Egypt, give ‘em entrepreneurship

In the frenzy to understand, analyze and predict the historic events unfolding in Egypt, many rightly have focused on the Egyptian economy.  Here are some interesting data points:

  • A year ago, Egypt’s government released figures on the country’s poverty.  It showed that it had reached 23.4 percent, “up from 20 percent the previous year.”
  • In June 2010, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) released its Human Development Report for Egypt.  That report noted that among the country’s unemployed, estimated to be 8 million, “90 percent were under the age of 30.”
  • Business Insider has this informative piece about Egypt’s “economic tragedy”, in what it calls “3 simple charts.”

In a special report in 2010, The Economist ran this set of social indicators:

Egypt is more populous and poorer today than it was 20 years ago.  But it is also more literate and connected to the world.  That is good and bad.  Young Egyptians are developing skills and becoming more aware of the opportunities around the world – (and the lack of them in their own country).  You extrapolate.

Increased freedoms would go far to ensure that these youth can access those opportunities.  Expanding entrepreneurship would guarantee it.  As much as Egyptians need and deserve freedom, they need and deserve the tools that will allow them to build vibrant and sustainable businesses.

Endeavor is one of the few non-profits working to do that.  It is working to support “high-impact” entrepreneurs through world-class mentorship and high-level networks.  They are entrepreneurs such as Hind and Nadia Wassef who run Diwan, a boutique bookshop committed to reviving Egypt’s rich literary heritage, Mostafa Hafez, a young techie who creates video games at Timeline Interactive, the company he founded with the belief that Silicon Valley isn’t the only place where innovation comes from and Fatma Ghaly, who as the CEO of Azza Fahmy jewelry, has created a highly-coveted Egyptian designer brand.  These entrepreneurs are shattering perceptions that entrepreneurship in Egypt can’t succeed.

Last year, following the April 2010 Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship, the State Department launched the Global Entrepreneurship Program (GEP).  ”Focused on supporting and empowering entrepreneurs,” GEP is another program helping Egyptians realize their entrepreneurial potential.  It’s one of the few government programs that doesn’t make me cringe.  That’s because, rather than doling out funds or ideology, it is tapping into its platform to identify entrepreneurs and connect them to mentors and networks in order to help start-ups thrive.  From the looks of the crowds in Tahrir Square, thrive is something Egyptians are hungry to do.

Earlier this week the White House and the Kauffman Foundation announced Startup America Partnership, an initiative aimed to allow Americans to test “new ideas, bring new products to market and generate new businesses.”  Isn’t there a way to replicate and adapt this for Egypt?

Hat tip to @krmaher and @auerswald who have enriched, through their smart and measured Tweets, my experience of the events in Egypt.

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