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Lessons from Haiti for tech entrepreneurs — and opportunities, too

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Ben Horowitz, co-founder and partner of Andreessen Horowitz.
Ben Horowitz, co-founder and partner of Andreessen Horowitz. - ()

Recently, it was my privilege to speak at the Haiti Tech Summit, where 500+ leaders from throughout the western hemisphere shared a remarkable conversation about technology, entrepreneurship, innovation, and ecosystems. The summit attracted executives from Google, Facebook, Uber, LinkedIn, Airbnb, PayPal, and many other leading tech companies — but for me, a highlight was the keynote address by Ben Horowitz, co-founder and partner of top VC firm Andreessen Horowitz.

I’ve heard hundreds of keynotes. Based on that experience, I didn’t expect to learn much. I was wrong. Horowitz shared a fascinating history lesson about Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of Haiti’s slave rebellion — the era’s only successful slave rebellion. L’Ouverture not only won: he built an independent country that earned the world’s respect, and negotiated as an equal with foreign leaders including John Adams. Under L’Ouverture’s leadership, Haiti built a larger export market than the U.S.

How did he do it? Horowitz distilled four lessons that are powerfully relevant to the challenges faced by entrepreneurs who need to build a robust culture that can scale:    

  1. Keep what works. L’Ouverture sought ways to build on the strengths of “legacy” slave culture. One of those strengths was music. So, he recruited women to quickly communicate military plans by singing in a local language code the European authorities couldn’t understand. Similarly, Steve Jobs revived a struggling Apple by building on a strength embedded deep in its corporate DNA: the ability to vertically integrate brilliantly-designed systems to deliver an exceptional user experience.
  2. Create shocking rules. Horowitz says you need shocking rules to make people seriously reflect on why you’re doing things as you are. So, in an era where conquerors routinely raped their victims, L’Ouverture demanded that his officers remain faithful to their wives — one key way he aimed to develop a culture of loyalty and integrity. Centuries later, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg told his developers to “move fast and break things.” This sent a powerful message. Zuckerberg didn’t just want “generic” innovation: he wanted relentless experimentation and light-speed iteration.
  3. Incorporate people from other cultures at senior levels. L’Ouverture knew Julius Caesar had retained local rulers after his conquests, leveraging their unique knowledge of local culture. To integrate elements of foreign culture he needed, L’Ouverture recruited defeated officers into his military. In the 21st century, Google saw it could only succeed in the enterprise by bringing in outside leadership that deeply understood enterprise culture. By recruiting former VMware CEO Diane Greene, it did precisely that.
  4. Make decisions that demonstrate your priorities. L’Ouverture knew he needed former slaveholders’ skills in managing Haiti’s plantations. So, instead of killing them, he transformed them into employers and lowered their taxes to make this new business model viable. More recently, Reed Hastings accelerated Netflix’s transition to streaming media by evicting the leaders of its DVD rental business from his executive strategy meetings — even though they were still responsible for nearly all company revenue.
From left are Michele Perras, Pivotal Summit organizer; Christine Souffrant and Zassmin Montes de Oca, Women Who Code.
From left are Michele Perras, Pivotal Summit organizer; Christine Souffrant and Zassmin Montes de Oca, Women Who Code. - ()

After L’Ouverture’s era, of course, Haiti has often struggled. Most Americans know it’s one of the world’s poorest countries. But many don’t realize that it has a remarkably entrepreneurial and resilient populace: a legacy of L’Ouverture himself.

A key goal of the Haiti Tech Summit was to promote collaboration between American and Haitian companies, and to deploy technologies in Haiti as a test bed. Based on what’s learned there, entrepreneurs can successfully scale their services and products throughout the developing world.

This model works. I saw it first hand while visiting the Haiti Business Incubator run by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jim Chu. He’s rapidly deploying a clean water technology franchise which will offer inexpensive clean water and create more entrepreneurs at the same time.

On behalf of the Tech Council, I participated to deepen our collaboration with Haiti: both an important market and a new source of entrepreneurial and technical talent for our regional tech hub. Our region also boasts one of the world’s largest Haitian communities. We have a powerful stake in helping Haiti’s economy succeed, and direct financial opportunities in promoting our own services and products there. These are the same motivations that led the Council to our pioneering 2015 Cuba trade mission.

Seeing Haiti’s tech community first-hand, I’m convinced of the country’s immense potential — and the crucial importance of deep, long-term collaboration to actualize it. 

James C. Barrood is the CEO and president of the New Jersey Tech Council.

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