Episode 31: How tech entrepreneurship exploded beyond Silicon Valley, with Christopher Schroeder

Episode 31: How tech entrepreneurship exploded beyond Silicon Valley, with Christopher Schroeder

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

America may be back, but the world wasn’t waiting on it.

Venture capitalist Chris Schroeder travels the world to invest in emerging markets. To the entrepreneurs he meets, Silicon Valley is just one of many models, China is everywhere and South-to-South exchanges are constant. To succeed in this distributed world takes humility, agility and a certain comfort with the uncomfortable.

Show notes

00:00 Intro
01:33 Can you travel over Zoom?
03:11 What's been on global entrepreneurs' minds?
05:51 How technology unleashed talent
08:01 Silicon Valley isn't exactly irrelevant, just less central
10:23 Why it made sense for so long for Silicon Valley to be ethnocentric
15:24 You have to find wonder in being wrong
18:41 America is back. But back to what?
26:48 A return to sovereign industries, or the balkanization of the economy?
32:09 Capitalism, democracy and the mind models we can't let go of
39:32 The skills required to succeed in this world
45:03 Outro

Sources & credits

Subscribe to Chris’s newsletter on Substack.
Follow him on LinkedIn

👀 “America is back!” But to what? by Chris Schroeder. The International Economy. 2021.
📚 Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing the World. Snigdha Poonam. Harvard University Press. 2018.

Music by Ofshane via Youtube’s audio library


Transcript

Transcripts are published for your convenience, but they are automated and not always cleaned up. Please excuse typos and occasional nonsense, and always check the audio before quoting.

Chris Schroeder: [00:00:00] If you can have wonder in being wrong, you're a different human being because it's like, "okay, so I got that one wrong but how wonderful, who knew?"

[00:00:07] Isabelle Roughol: [00:00:17] Hi, I'm Isabelle Roughol and this is Borderline.

[00:00:20] My guest this week is someone I've known for going on a decade. And I don't think we've ever met in person. Maybe once. That's the world we live in now.

[00:00:28] Christopher Schroeder is an American venture capitalist. And if they were all like him, I would have far fewer issues with the tech industry. I had the privilege of being his editor for many years at LinkedIn.

[00:00:39] Chris invests mostly in emerging markets and travels the world to understand tech and entrepreneurship outside Silicon Valley. He has been in the front row for profound changes over the last few years. We talked about how much more distributed the world of technology has become, why America may be back, as Joe Biden likes to say, but the world wasn't waiting on it and how the global South looks on it and on China. We talked also about the skills and the mindset that it takes to succeed in this fast-changing world.

[00:01:08] Chris has a talent for listening and asking very sharp questions. So he turned the tables on me a bit, and this is a conversation, not an interview. It's a tad longer than my usual episodes because I couldn't cut a second of it. As always when I talk to Chris, I found it mind expanding, challenging and pushing me to up my game. So without further ado, here's my conversation with Chris Schroeder.

[00:01:33]

[00:01:33] Can you travel over Zoom?

Chris Schroeder: [00:01:33] Good morning. Good to see you. Two days in a row, man. Yeah.

[00:01:35] Isabelle Roughol: [00:01:35] I know, I know I'm so privileged.

[00:01:38] Chris Schroeder: [00:01:38] I'm a lucky guy.

[00:01:39] Isabelle Roughol: [00:01:39] Thanks for doing this early in the morning. I guess you've talked to Asia already. You've been up.

[00:01:45] Chris Schroeder: [00:01:45] I've been up. You're my third call.

[00:01:47] Isabelle Roughol: [00:01:47] Oh my God. At what? 7:30 in the morning. Wow. Okay. well, let's, let's start there maybe. You're a guy who normally travels nonstop, so, so what's the last year been like instead?

[00:02:03] Chris Schroeder: [00:02:03] There's a, there's a personal answer to that and an intellectual answer. I mean, the intellectual answer is, I'm very lucky first and foremost. I've got space around me and I've been able to function. And so I've been able to migrate my life of traveling to meet entrepreneurs and to meet investors and just to be on the ground to this incredibly efficient Zoom experience.

[00:02:21] So I do I'm up every morning at five or five 30, and I started in Asia and I swing through maybe the Middle East with a dropdown somewhere in Africa, and then I speed over to Latin America, and then maybe have something with Silicon Valley or New York or here. And so it's been unbelievably efficient and it's like an amazing dashboard of this new globalism, which you and I have talked about in many ways and I'm sure we'll talk about here. But it's honestly soulless. I mean, it's, it's so, spiritually, it's not the same as being on the ground. It's not the same as really talking entrepreneurs in their territory and, having a meal with them and looking them in the eye and seeing the kinds of things that they're really thinking about and getting them to open up in a different way.

[00:02:59] So I think intellectually, and soulfully, it's been sort of vacant, but I think it's been very efficient, and it's been effective. I've done a whole lot of investing and it's worked, but I can't wait to get back on the road.

[00:03:11] What's been on entrepreneurs' minds throughout the world

[00:03:11] Isabelle Roughol: [00:03:11] Mm, I hear you. So what is it that you've been hearing on those many, many Zoom calls throughout, throughout the past year?

[00:03:20] Chris Schroeder: [00:03:20] No, I think there's so much I was seeing before zoom, but I think in many respects, it's almost a cliche now, but zoom has accelerated it. there is so much shared among entrepreneurs and the challenges they face and the opportunities that they're going after. Across emerging markets, right? It's actually, it's amazing that for all the geographic differences, for all the cultural differences, for the historical differences, language, religion, or whatever, when you get some women on the ground who are trying to solve a problem with Jakarta and Cairo and San Paulo, 80% of what they're navigating is the same. And... last mile logistics, governments that are changing all the time educating millions of people who never had a bank account, but for the first time now can move money mobily and all.

[00:04:04] And these shared experiences, this shared understanding, what we call the investment world pattern recognition, is not only fascinating to me, it makes me a better investor. And at the same time, I'm more helpful to the entrepreneurs because I could talk to someone in Cairo, and I've got four other analogies with similar circumstances that can help them think through.

[00:04:22] Because in the old days you always looked to Silicon Valley and say, well, Silicon Valley, I got to look at them and see what they do. And now what's happening is women and men are looking at each other and their own circumstances, and they're building very large outcomes, so they know that the track record and the lessons, are highly effective. And so that's, that's been one thing that's really come home to us.

[00:04:40] The second one is that it really is a period of acceleration. I mean, for many places that really had no bank accounts and had no choice now to figure out how to move value. For people who've never had anything delivered to them, had no choice but to have it delivered to them. For people who really didn't see a doctor regularly, but now could see one in the comfort of their own home. this is, this is literally 10 years of behavior that's happened in a matter of a few months or a year.

[00:05:06] The third is everywhere I go, I see China. China is certainly in these parts of the world I'm in in ways that I see America less and that has its own dynamics.

[00:05:16] And I think the last thing I would say is that for everything I've just said, and as staggering as it is that all these people who have access to technology have sort of adjusted their lives in many ways very positive, it is shocking to me and I do see this, that there are literally like 2 billion people who have access to none of it. And we, we have to get on top of this one, we here in America, but I think globally, because if you have 2 billion human beings who don't have access to the way the economy is shifting you don't need a crystal ball to predict the ramifications on the real, real, real people's lives.

[00:05:51] How technology unleashed talent

[00:05:51] Isabelle Roughol: [00:05:51] Alright.. That's a lot to unpack. I'm wondering which one I want to go with first. I think in order. I'm actually really interested in what you, what you were saying at the beginning there about kind of that South-to-South connection. Not everything sort of, has to travel back to the center, however you want to define that cause the center being the US is maybe questionable, but how did that... Like, how did that happen? Is it the technology that's just allowing people to, to connect more? Is it that people have kind of stopped looking to America as having the answers to everything? How does, how did that shift happen?

[00:06:31] Chris Schroeder: [00:06:31] If you start with the premises you've lived, you've known all your life as a global citizen, Isabelle, talent is always everywhere. Like, it's not like there's not been unbelievable talent and it's not like entrepreneurship isn't embedded. I mean when I've been to. Kenya and places like that, almost everyone I meet has six side hustles of ways to make money and do interesting things.

[00:06:51] So all the talent and all the spirit is there and certainly there are problems to be solved. I think what technology has done is it's unleashed the talent. It has allowed the talent access to tools to be able to solve problems and grab opportunities in ways that simply were harder. It wasn't that they weren't doing it. It was just harder five years ago, certainly 10 years ago. And you have a combination of the tools and their ubiquity and a new generation rising who's completely comfortable with it.

[00:07:16] You have models now from around the world that are very successful. It's not just looking at Silicon Valley because Instagram is a huge thing or WhatsApp is a huge thing. You can look at Mercado Libre in Latin America. You can look at Grab in Southeast Asia. You can look at Careem in the Middle East. You can actually see folks who have navigated their own ground now at massive scale. And you can look at them and say, well, there's a model. Now I can see how it's done.

[00:07:38] And then the ubiquity of information that you touched on is profound. So everyone is self-taught. You can talk to people and be in groups all the time to navigate any question that you have any idea that you have, you can almost instantly get someone somewhere in the world who's done something you've done and help you get through it in a way. And all of this stuff was brewing. but really just jumped, I think, profoundly in the last three to five years.

[00:08:01] Silicon Valley isn't exactly irrelevant, just less central

Isabelle Roughol: [00:08:01] Hum. Does that mean that Silicon Valley is irrelevant? Is that pushing it too far?

[00:08:08] Chris Schroeder: [00:08:08] I think it's pushing it too far. I mean, I think, in a way, the broader question is, how much does geographic hub matter, writ large? Because I mean, the old view was, it certainly is true in America in many industries, right? There's a reason why there's a lot of finance and fashion out of New York. There's a reason why there's a lot of movies out of Los Angeles and there's a reason why there are a lot of tech companies out of the Bay area. And it's almost a psychological thing. It's, it's what some of us call a network effect of talent. And so what that means is the more great people that are in a place, the more great people want to be in that place, because the vibe, the ecosystem, who you meet, who you talk to, the infrastructure in place just becomes a spiral of great talent wanting to aggregate. And I think if you'd asked me this question five years ago, I would have told you they were profound. And in fact, the question I often would get from people is, what is the Silicon Valley of X? Pick your favorite country.

[00:09:00] But I began to have a sense that that was the wrong question that everywhere is going to rise in its own way. The geographic hubs will be formed in multiple different locations, and we are going to have a much wider breadth of innovation. The reality now in COVID is I don't know how important geographic cups are going to be. It may be, this will become much more spread out and much more diverse because we can literally create communities of those network effects digitally.

[00:09:27] Now, having said that, the quantity of quality entrepreneurs, technology, science, innovation, spirit that's in a place like Silicon Valley, to say it's irrelevant, it's just wrong. And there's not an entrepreneur that I meet around the world who isn't looking at Silicon Valley in many ways and wouldn't be proud to have them invest in their companies or what have you. But they have choice. So it's not like I gotta get up in the morning, go to bed at night, figure out how to make that work. There are lessons there, there are lessons in China, there are lessons in Mexico. I will aggregate my lessons and I will build the best possible thing on my own terms, based on what I see on the ground.

[00:10:02] And so I think it's, it's, it's still a major place in the global ecosystem, in any foreseeable future. but there is choice, and China is certainly one of it, but the choice is now there are many China's everywhere. So there are going to be many opportunities to get that expertise in a way that no longer requires just physicality.

[00:10:23] Why it made sense for so long for Silicon Valley to be ethnocentric

[00:10:23] Isabelle Roughol: [00:10:23] It's interesting because you're describing kind of the US tech ecosystem increasingly as being, one of many, certainly an important one, but, but one of many.

[00:10:33] So one the things that really was my biggest battle when I was working in tech and it was the most frustrating to be honest, is getting people in American tech to think about other markets and to think about them, with, with genuine local knowledge and, and rather than just kind of saying, well, this worked in the US, we're going to do it there. To the point that, for a long time product research was literally like done in the U S and adapt the same strategy. and that was really frustrating. And to be fair, I think that's changed a bit in recent years, but how do American companies adapt to that? Cause, cause that's such a mindset shift.

[00:11:17] Chris Schroeder: [00:11:17] Well, why in all your experience, cause obviously you're from Europe and you're a global citizen, why do you think that was? I mean, do you think it was hubris or do you think there was something that was just actually in fact true at the time? Or how did you unpack it as you watched it?

[00:11:31] Isabelle Roughol: [00:11:31] it was, it was a bit, a bit of both and, and other things. I think it was, partly hubris, partly, you were talking about that geographic hub. forget, forget Kenya. It was hard to get people to understand Kansas, you know. And it was that those few square miles of California just had such a magnetic effect on people that they were building tools for their friends and the people that they saw every day.

[00:12:02] So there was that. To some extent it was just, I mean, we, we know that America is such a vast country and people don't travel internationally as often as people in other regions do. That always baffled me because actually, if you look at the people working in Silicon Valley, it's so many immigrants that, that shouldn't be a problem. Cause they have that in themselves. So, so yeah, I don’t know. And part of it was, was probably that they just didn't need to, right?

[00:12:34] Chris Schroeder: [00:12:34] I mean, I, I think, I mean, I would, I don't think I'd change a comma of that because starting with the last observation first. entrepreneurs are moving very quickly. They want as little friction as possible. Money wants security. Investors want to know that there's a rule of law. They want to know that there's easy money to move in, move out and these kinds of things.

[00:12:52] And in that series of momentum, you have a massive market in the United States. It is a factual statement: for many years, that which has worked in the United States across industries has been adopted significantly abroad. And so the old American playbook was effectively to say: look, man, if there's a country out there big enough, we'll get there. And when we arrive, they're probably gonna take on what we do. So I mean, the Facebook, the Instagram and WhatsApp of anywhere where we're sort of them. And so some of it was just that, I think. It was just sort of in the mindset and became part of the DNA. And it was successful. I mean, quite frankly, and there are elements of it, which are still important.

[00:13:26] I mean, as an investor, I have to size up very carefully, what's, what's going to happen to my money once it's in there. Am I going to be able to get it out and these kinds of things? But to your point, it changed very rapidly and there's much more opportunity in those regards. And I think that if you have a certain narrative bias, like if you have a certain story that you understand in your work, it becomes difficult to see a whole bunch of data coming at you and saying, well, wait a minute, the world is actually shifted profoundly.

[00:13:52] And so I can even remember a few years ago when there was a big success of a company, in fact, it still happens now, when people say to me, "yeah, well, that's a one-off, that's the exception that proves the rule." Mercado Libre is worth $14 billion a year ago. Everyone's like, well, "yeah, that's great. That's great. But that's the exception, right? That's one of, it doesn't... One company does not an ecosystem make." Well point of fact, one company does actually start to make an ecosystem. And by the way, a year later Mercado Libre is now worth over $70 billion. And there are a host of Latin American companies that have now valued at over five to $25 billion.

[00:14:24] Southeast Asia has a bunch of them this way. Careem in the Middle East was a $3.2 billion. All of a sudden you can't ignore it anymore. And so then the question becomes, how do I engage? And the fact is a lot of folks are still saying: "look, I get up in the morning, go to bed at night, and my LPs expect, my limited partners expect me to be successful where there's least friction. I still think there's great opportunity in America."

[00:14:46] But I think for the first time you see particularly a new generation of venture capital, a new generation of entrepreneurs, as you said correctly, many of which are immigrants, are saying: "you know something? Like, I know India, I'm going to make this work."

[00:14:59] I mean, it's not a surprise that the last class of Y Combinator, the great acceleration program, now a global acceleration program, a lion's share of their class is from South Asia, India, and Pakistan and other places. So things take slow. Narratives take a while to break, but at some point you either go with what's actually happening or you're going to be left behind. This is a crew that tends to be pretty good at not being left behind. So we'll see if they rise to it.

[00:15:24] You have to find wonder in being wrong

Isabelle Roughol: [00:15:24] One thing you touched on or alluded to maybe is age. I was just struck yesterday looking at news from the US census that the US has the lowest birth rate it's had since the Great Depression. And, we've seen this in Japan already. We've seen this in Europe, it's coming US. And even China now! Aging countries.

[00:15:47] And then you've got all these emerging markets that like everyone is under 35 and I'm, I'm an old woman there already. How does that, how does that impact all that? Cause it's so hard to break your way of thinking. It comes at you so fast, past 30, 35, that, you have to really actively try to not think the way that you used to think. And it's really hard to do.

[00:16:14] Chris Schroeder: [00:16:14] In some respects, the ability to do it, or the ability to think about doing it, I think is one of the superpowers that makes a difference between a great woman and man in this environment. And it's hard. I've read in the last year a whole bunch of books about the brain and how we work. We are wired to think that the next five years are like the last five years. We are wired to want to reject counterfactuals to the data that we have. And it takes concrete effort to be able to say, I am. I know by definition, everything I have is a story. And I've got to keep looking at that story, I think in a different way.

[00:16:46] And so I think it's very, very hard. But it is completely essential because not only is it important from a necessity perspective, but it's a sense of wonder, I mean, if you can have wonder in being wrong, you're a different human being because it's like, okay, so I got that one wrong, but how wonderful! Who knew that all of a sudden there are billions of new customers out there that I never really thought about before? Foolhardy me not being aware of it, but now I am. How exciting is that?

[00:17:12] And, and so there's also almost an attitudinal shift as well. I think as the substantive part of it. But there's a wonderful book written by a fantastic journalist in India. Her name is Snigdha Poonam and she wrote a book a couple of years ago called Dreamers. And she did nothing but delve deeply into like four second-tier cities in India to interview fundamentally 19- to 22-year-olds. And the book for me was just an epiphany at every level. And it was beautifully written. But what was so interesting is she told me that the reporting of it was shocking to her. She was like 30 when she did this book and she assumed that when she met a bunch of 19- and 22-year-olds, they'd be just like she was at 19 or 22. And their premises or attitudes, how they view the world, how they engage with social media, what their ambitions were, how they view culture, history, their parents, she said, "I felt like my grandparents." And that's like an eight-year gap.

[00:18:03] And so we just have to be humble is, is the bottom line to this. We have to all say to ourselves like her experience in her book, Dreamers, you have to just say to yourself, I'm going to listen, I'm going to dig in and I'm going to hear stuff that's not going to make me comfortable. It doesn't mean I have to accept it all, but it is part of the journey if you want to be effective and competitive in this world.

[00:18:24] Isabelle Roughol: [00:18:24] I like, I like that. You have to be humble. I think humility is probably one of the, the most underrated skills 📚

[00:18:33] Chris Schroeder: [00:18:33] it is not often that, I love my country dearly, but it is not often one of our greatest traits.

[00:18:41] America is back. But back to what?

Isabelle Roughol: [00:18:41] Well, is humility back in the US? I mean, you're in DC. So you have a new, a new neighbor, on Pennsylvania Avenue, who likes to say, "America is back." Are we seeing a different kind of America that we, I mean, yes, obviously that we've seen in the last four years, but how, how does that impact all that or is it just surface?

[00:19:03] Chris Schroeder: [00:19:03] I think time is going to have to tell, Isabelle. I mean and I'd be curious to how it looks to you in, in Europe. But I wrote a piece just recently in my blog on Substack and LinkedIn and I literally opened with what you just said. I said, the president says America's back, but back to what?

[00:19:18] And that's I think key because to our narrative bias and to our looking back, the suggestion that America is back may mean different things to different people. If we think it's back to our role, almost hegemonic of the 1990s or whatever, well, those days are long gone. If we mean back, meaning we're going to engage with the world in a different way than the previous administration, well that may be true, but that's not even back either because the world has changed so much and there are new dynamics and new expectations. And in the same way I said earlier that companies and entrepreneurs, investors have global choice on the ground, the ground has global choice. I mean, you would, I'll ask you this question because it's a, it's a kind of a case point in this.

[00:19:53] I don't think Europe wants to be put in the position of picking between China and America. I mean, there you have more trade with China than they do with us. And so that means that there's a new back. And that's great that there's an engaged with America, with our market, our size and our history and our affection for each other. Wonderful to engage, but it's a different engagement. And it's a different kind of attitudinal thing.

[00:20:14] And I must say to you that when I talk to friends of mine here, many of whom are, over 30, they still have almost a post-Cold War mentality. They have a set mindset which often come from what you said earlier, which is they just don't get out on the road.

[00:20:29] So I met about a year ago, I met a senator, very impressive guy, a thoughtful guy, a global traveler, but he had never been to China. And a friend of mine actually toured him in China with some other people. And he had his first day in Beijing looking around, just watching what was going on. At the end of the day, the first question he asked was, "where are all the bicycles?" And that's, I don't shame him for that, but the fact is our mindsets get stuck in an early view, in an earlier position. If we don't lean into that, we don't understand what changes and therefore, back to what? But you tell, how do you, how does it look in Europe to you in that way?

[00:21:06] Isabelle Roughol: [00:21:06] Yeah. well go to Amsterdam for the bicycles.

[00:21:10] Chris Schroeder: [00:21:10] bikes, different kind of bicycles.

[00:21:12] Isabelle Roughol: [00:21:12] Yeah, that's a funny anecdote because like I was living in, in Cambodia.. Is it 12 years ago? 12, 13 years ago. And even then it was mostly motorcycles rather than, than bicycles. And if I went back to Phnom Penh today, I would get lost. Because from the few photos I've seen, the building I used to live in has disappeared. There's skyscrapers, there's cars, way more cars than there used to be. so, so yeah, you, and it's been like a decade, so yeah, you just, you just really need to update your, your, your, the pictures in your mind.

[00:21:47] well, yeah. To your sorry.

[00:21:50] Chris Schroeder: [00:21:50] Is America back in Europe? What does it mean to you?

[00:21:53] Isabelle Roughol: [00:21:53] Well, to it's, ... In a way, yes. I think there's been, lately there's been just glowing coverage of the Biden administration. I think because people were so angry and disappointed, looking at the Trump administration. And now, some of the policies of the Biden administration are almost European. the child benefits free preschool, free community college... the things he's talking about, people are like, wow, like they're bringing, kind of managed, socialized capitalism. it's not quite Sweden, but it feels very different. So people are loving that.

[00:22:36] That said, I think there's something that's been fundamentally broken. and that's, that's the trust and, and the belief that, kind of whoever is in power, the word of America is the word of America. And, and all the things, the treaties that have been broken, if you look at the Iran deal and things like that it's just hard to necessarily take America at its word. And, and what happens in another four years or another eight years. and so it's, in a way... I mean, you hear a lot of Europeans, especially, pro EU integration people in a way be kind of glad of it because it has pushed some of the countries that were more, US-focused like Eastern Europe that were very counting on NATO and things like that, to actually, look at the EU again, as, maybe we should just count on ourselves and not count on America. So in a way it's kind of like, when a bird mom kind of pushes you out of the nest and forces you to fly. it's been painful, but, but in the end it's probably been, been helpful.

[00:23:47] That said, it's, it's just so hard to see the future, we're, we're just kind of coming to grips with what Brexit is going to mean. And yeah, it's, it's, it's really hard, but I, but you could definitely see that at least among our governments, people aren't so keen to, to take sides between the U S and China, for instance.

[00:24:06] Chris Schroeder: [00:24:06] And what does that, how does that play out over time? I mean, are there, it's hard, I mean, you can't generalize the continent, but, but to the degree that you can generalize the continent, do you think that people are agnostic when they think about doing business with China and doing business with Americans?

[00:24:20] Like, look, the markets are the markets. We want great economics. Obviously we want the rule of law to be right. And when people respect these things, we don't care. We're do they care? All things being equal, do they have a sense or they're just like, we just want to be wherever we can be to help create jobs and have a great economy.

[00:24:37] Isabelle Roughol: [00:24:37] It's hard to they're definitely less, they're, they're more agnostic than in the US. I wouldn't say that it's kind of, it's 50, 50, I think. there's probably still an Atlantist bend to things and a pro democracy. I mean, at least, I'm, I'm only going to speak here for, I live in the UK. I'm from France so Western Europe. I think there's some regimes in Eastern Europe that have different perspectives. but I think, well, in technology particularly, it's interesting because Europe, as has been very adamant about, about regulation of US monopolies. and so on that front, I think there's definitely more teeth.

[00:25:26] Chris Schroeder: [00:25:26] If a company in Europe had a choice between AWS, Amazon Web Services for their cloud, obviously only putting in the cloud where they want to put in the cloud, or AliCloud and AliCloud was at a steep discount to AWS, what would they do?

[00:25:43] Isabelle Roughol: [00:25:43] I can't answer that. I don't know.

[00:25:45] Chris Schroeder: [00:25:45] I don't either. I

[00:25:46] Isabelle Roughol: [00:25:46] You'll have to, you'll have to ask. so some, some tech deciders.

[00:25:51] Chris Schroeder: [00:25:51] It's funny. I had this conversation actually with some entrepreneurs from Latin America a year ago, vis-a-vis China. because I actually was in China and they were there and meeting with each other and it was kind of a version of what I described earlier. They, the Chinese counterparts and tech businesses, spoke their language, understood the challenges of building a FinTech in emerging market, all that was interesting. But I asked them that question. To a person they're like, "you don't even have to give me a discount on it, I'll just take the best service. And if it works, it works." And I really pulled on the string and it held pretty tightly.

[00:26:21] I mean, I think there were a few people, particularly from Latin America who afterwards said kinda what you did, which is look, America's our neighbors. It's right close by. A lot of us went to American schools. all things being equal, we probably still want it that way." But it was not a black and white and it wasn't like people said no way. And it wasn't like people had real pause. They were intrigued by that. Again, I think under this thesis, as anecdotal as that story is that the world has choice and by God it will assess up its choice and make its choice.

[00:26:48] A return to sovereign industries, or the balkanization of the economy?

[00:26:48] Isabelle Roughol: [00:26:48] Hmm. I think, thinking about it actually, I think people would be unhappy with both choices. a big conversation that's been happening, within the EU, specifically in France a lot has been around the way that we have let a number of decisive strategic industries be, kind of owned by the US or China, and that we don't have sovereign EU-based giants, whether that's, in things like the processors and the semiconductors that there's a major shortage of right now. Things like, PPE and things like that. And, and pharma, I mean, it's in France has been it's, it's really being experienced as kind of a national humiliation that we couldn't develop a vaccine, a French vaccine. And so there's just been a lot of conversations around, especially in these countries that are used to somewhat state-directed capitalism, not to the level of China, right; but we used to kind of have the State back a lot of these things and, and that hasn't been true. And partly, partly because of the EU, I think, which has been very adamant about free trade and, and competition, and hasn't let European companies merge in the name of competition. but therefore they haven't been able to reach the scale that their competitors in China, in the US have. so that's a very kind of high-level view because I'm not a specialist. But I think that conversation is very prominent here.

[00:28:29] Chris Schroeder: [00:28:29] I think it's a global conversation and in a way COVID accelerated it. Particularly, I mean, supply chain was the thing that really opened up a lot of people's eyes about how they were reliant on it. And I'm, I'm sort of, of mixed minds. One of it is it's just the reality. So again, to our narrative bias, we have to understand that reality. But I can tell you, in talking to people in India and elsewhere, they don't want simply some American FinTech company to come in and effectively own the new future of banking. Like there is a lot of adamant, strategic reasons why and political reasons why everything you said about Europe, I think is part of the discussion everywhere.

[00:29:02] There's this little piece of me and maybe it is my narrative bias or my history of it, which is saddened by it because I have found that global innovation and people experimenting in different markets, learning in different ways, sharing different kinds of learnings in different ways can be a very powerful thing.

[00:29:18] And obviously for decades, that meant in the end that the Intel of the world was Intel. And so how much shared learning was really happening is a reasonably debatable point. but at the same time, I worry about a balkanization. I worry about balkanization in many respects, certainly here politically, but globally, there's a China internet, an American internet, an India internet and a Europe internet. I'm not sure I have it yet in my mind where the negatives outweigh the positives of that from a pure innovation and kind of lift-global-boats perspective. And I'm not sure we're gonna have a quick answer to it either.

[00:29:54] I mean, I think the other, China announced their first digital coin, their digital RMB. India will certainly do it. I'm sure Europe will do it. America is thinking about doing it. What that will mean, if that will mean something that actually opens trade and the innovation that I hope or whether or not that compounds balkanization, is a similar question that I don't have a great answer to.

[00:30:13] Isabelle Roughol: [00:30:13] Yeah. I mean, one way to look at it is, is balkanization. The other, is that, as you say, how much exchange was there, if everything was a, was a US monopoly. And so the, the question is, are those US companies just going to be okay, we've got the U S market and we're good there. And European companies get European markets or vice versa, or are they going to be still trying to go outside of there?

[00:30:41] Chris Schroeder: [00:30:41] there's sort of a theoretical observation, then there's the practicality of it. And they, they don't always marry overall. I mean, in some respects, this idea of balkanization is... the last administration was sort of like America, America First. And it's, let China build their own internet, we don't care and all.

[00:30:58] But the reality, I'm making these numbers up, but I'm directionally, correct I think half of Audi and half of Volkswagen sales are in China, like you can't, we can't totally unpack this thing. Like there's just way too much. Our agriculture industry suffered greatly in tariffs and that doesn't mean that we shouldn't have this conversation and there shouldn't be some debate about it, but I guess there's just a part of me that's still a free marketer enough that says that net net, the amount of growth that is created, and the amount of benefit that's created for the greatest number of the markets happens when there's a great free flow of trade and a great free flow of innovation so people can learn and replicate.

[00:31:38] Because again, these companies that were once called copycats overseas are no longer copycat. I'm not sure they ever were, but they're not just copying American models. They've learned from American models and they've made them different on the terms of their backyard. And that happens when people are connected. That happens when Uber shows up in Southeast Asia and a bunch of Southeast Asian entrepreneurs in, Singapore and Indonesia and whatever said we can do better. I see it. I understand the model, but now we're going to make it the Southeast Asia model. That to me is actually, that's exciting.

[00:32:09] Capitalism, democracy and the mind models we can't let go of

[00:32:09] Isabelle Roughol: [00:32:09] Hmm. Yeah. I think that copycat idea, it's crazy that you still hear it cause it seems so outdated. I mean, I was in China in 2015 on a study trip, back when I was working with LinkedIn and I remember meeting some of those entrepreneurs and just being absolutely amazed by the energy and the ideas and the intelligence and met some of the Didi guys at the time. And it was just like, that's, that's not, that's a lot more than copying there, even if that's, where they started, but maybe that's where they started 15 years ago. Not now.

[00:32:42] Chris Schroeder: [00:32:42] I hear this all the time today, right now, from friends of mine who are very global and really so much smarter than I am. They have a thesis, which is that there is no real innovation coming out of China, that it's fundamentally just executing better on things which have been created and maybe things in the margin, but there's no way on earth there's going to be an earth-shattering, genomic, or some kind of global thing and that central planned economies don't allow for the innovation that is required. And my answer to them is, "come on my next trip" because maybe we can get into a pissing match about what innovation means. But there's absolutely no ...

[00:33:17] I mean, Kai Fu Lee said this to me once, he's absolutely right: if there is no trade dynamics and Facebook showed up in China today, it would not win like it would have maybe 20 years ago because the choices are better. They're more interesting and they're more attuned to their customers, is that innovation? I think it absolutely is innovation.

[00:33:35] And, from that, there will be some breakthroughs in science and technology. To ignore that, in a world of billions of people where there are unbelievable scientists and unbelievable perspectives doesn't seem right to me. And yet it's back to the earlier part of our conversation, I still hear it quite regularly.

[00:33:50] Isabelle Roughol: [00:33:50] It's hubris and it's set mindsets. And it's interesting, it sounds like it's also kind of an ideological attachment to, what capitalism means. It's those, those mind models that are just really hard to challenge if you're, especially if you've built your own success on American capitalism, to think that a very, very different kind of structure can also work.

[00:34:20] Chris Schroeder: [00:34:20] I remember years ago in business school, I took a class on kind of the geo-economic issues in a very different time. And the general narrative of the class was kind of the Western model and the, global success that happened since post-war and all, and of course, many of it was undebatable and very true. Some of it was very debatable. But the teacher kept throwing up models, which at the end, we all kind of dismissed as little exceptions. So, why does Singapore work? Like, doesn't Singapore work? Are there things about Singapore that we want to admire at that time? why is Hong Kong working? I mean, are there things there that we have to admire? It's not the same model in Asia that it is there, but it's certainly capitalistic and certainly unleashing really interesting talent. And you could tell at the time that everyone was like, yeah, it's interesting. And we do wanna understand. It's an interesting model, but at the end of the day, these are tiny places and tiny cities, and there are so many differences. In fact, they're the exceptions that prove the rule.

[00:35:13] Well, we're in an era right now where the exceptions are challenging the rule. And they're at scale and interesting enough and embraced enough that we have to take them seriously. We can debate them. We can disagree with them. We can criticize elements of rule of law or human rights or all those kinds of things. That's all a part of the dialogue, in a great marketplace of ideas, it all is free to debate. But to ignore it or dismiss it seems to me completely unattuned with what's actually happening in the world. It's counter to the data and it's counter to any experience like you had even a few years ago when visiting a place like China.

[00:35:44] And I'm seeing it now in Jakarta, and I'm seeing it in, the Gulf certainly, in the UAE and Saudi and other places. Brazil is astounding right now. It's unleashing and all in the midst of many problems, all in the midst of many political challenges, and yet it's there and we have to be able to say, okay, it's there. What does it mean? How shall we think differently about it? How should we act differently about it?

[00:36:07] Isabelle Roughol: [00:36:07] Hmm, one of those models that you just reminded me of that certainly was the dominant conversation when, when I was in university and it wasn't that long ago and has been proven completely wrong, is this idea, open up the economy first and then human rights and democracy will follow. This idea that kind of every country was on the same linear path than European or US democracies had been, and that wealth brought a desire for more freedom. and maybe the desire is there, but the practicality isn't. So I think that's, that's one of those models that definitely humbled us

[00:36:48] Chris Schroeder: [00:36:48] I can't, I can't piece it together yet, honestly, Isabelle, and I think about it all the time and I talk about it all the time and I don't have conclusions. I mean, the one thing that I'll say, because of my experience a little bit in the Middle East, I was familiar with kind of an old authoritarian model. And the old authoritarian model was, effectively people would come to power, often militarily, they would allow maybe 10% of the elite to get very wealthy and to be able to get whatever benefits they can, and pretty much everyone else was told, if you step one inch out of line, literally you'll disappear. I mean, you'll not only go to jail, but in many respects, worse, no one will even know what happened to you. And you just, you just got to step in line and what the regime says you do, you embrace it and you'll have a good enough life and that's it.

[00:37:25] And that obviously it was a tried and true for centuries, kind of a model. We're living in this era now where, where all of a sudden, different models are effectively saying, look, man, a lot of you can get well, in fact, most of you can get wealthy, certainly wealthier than your parents could ever dream. Your cities are going to be beautiful and functioning and working. Your airports and trains are going to be beautiful functioning and working. Your healthcare will be better than your parents could ever have possibly dreamed overall. You're gonna have better benefit to be able to drive. You can drink what you want. You can have a great time and everything else, but do not step one inch out of line in your political expression.

[00:38:00] And as an American, I find that trade off abhorrent, right? I mean, I believe very firmly and continue to believe very firmly that freedom of speech is essential and that, everything is great in an authoritarian circumstance when things are going well. But when things are going badly, that's when you want freedom of speech, that's when you want the ability to debate and have a marketplace of ideas.

[00:38:21] Well, we're living an existence right now where that model is, certainly being debated around the world in a very serious way, where the ramifications on some people's lives are not to be debated. They're not, I mean, not to be thrown out. You have to look at them for what they are and say, there are many, many people... I mean, when 800 million people are out of poverty in a generation in China, you have to ask the question. You don't have to conclude everything. You don't have to love them or hate them, but you have to have the conversation and saying, that just happened. We can't argue it. It did. And we have to look at our own house and look at the own balkanization we're having here when we're tripping all over each other and criticizing each other, and our free speech is actually putting us into social media bubbles where we only hear people who agree with us, and we have to all ask questions.

[00:39:08] I still lean very formally that the general principles of democracy are just foundational. The free markets are foundational. But that doesn't mean it's a free lunch, because if you don't take them seriously, if you don't look into them, if you don't question them, you will literally just kind of wander into circumstances that I would not have envisioned 10 years ago. And there's some element of that going on here as well.

[00:39:32] The skills required to succeed in this world

[00:39:32] Isabelle Roughol: [00:39:32] I want to bring it back to conclude, bring it back to the level of the individual, because I know you talk to so many entrepreneurs and you see who's successful and you mentor many of them. In this world that we've described as very distributed, bottoms up, what skills, what traits should people develop and work on to thrive in that world? And what, what kind of leadership is required? What should we be teaching our kids or encouraging our kids to develop for this world?

[00:40:07] Chris Schroeder: [00:40:07] Everywhere in the world that I go, everything that I hope for, for everywhere in the world where I go, batting average is mixed and I will argue is actually falling back here in America, is critical thinking. The ability that anything you say can be wrong, but you can debate it out and come to a conclusion without shutting down that conversation, politically structurally offensively and whatever. The ability to realize that no one has all the answers. Certainly me, I don't have all the answers. And I've gotta be open to other people's ideas and have that free market of discussion. And I need to be able to look at a problem, whether it's a mathematical or scientific problem or problem in the marketplace, or the way that I think about government and say, I am thinking about it critically, not dogmatically, not in narrative bias.

[00:40:53] And one of the challenges I've seen globally is that often most education is very rote learning. It's like you gotta to memorize stuff, teach to the test. And that's not, I think the nature of the way we need to be in the 21st century. And I think, secondly, which is a corollary to that, which has been, I think, a subtext to our entire conversation, is the ability to be uncertain and to be comfortable with that uncertainty and to embrace it and not gravitate merely to the ideas that confirm us and to the people that confirm us, but to have a willingness to really go out and listen.

[00:41:27] I mean, I must tell you, I can almost tell within 20 minutes of when I talk to an entrepreneur, where she is on that spectrum. Because I want that woman to walk through walls. I want her to be undaunted. I want her to be able to, whatever you throw at her, you can slow her down, but you're not going to be able to stop her. At the same level, I'm looking for that curiosity, that idea that, yeah, maybe I'm wrong on something and I need to think about it and I've gotta be open to the data and I have to be open to what my customers say. And, and I've got that kind of flexibility because sometimes I'm going to have to pivot. Sometimes the pivot's on the margin. Sometimes the pivot is completely a rethink of the business. And that's a very hard duality, to one level, say like, I want to move, and I want to have tenacity and I want to work harder than anybody else. At the same time to be open to that. It doesn't come easily, but I think every one of us can cultivate it.

[00:42:12] And so you'll notice that I haven't talked about technical skills or anything like that. And I think mathematics is important, if not more important than ever. And I do think technology understanding is, is happening in an autodidact way everywhere in the world in any event. But I think so much of it has to do with mindset, experiential acceptance, who we surround ourselves with, the comfort level we have in being uncomfortable, that makes a difference between, it could be a very good person participating in community and the person who really changes, makes the change that they hope to make.

[00:42:46] Isabelle Roughol: [00:42:46] Those are very good. I'll add them to my mental checklist.

[00:42:50] Chris Schroeder: [00:42:50] Well, you give me, you give me one before you go.

[00:42:53] Isabelle Roughol: [00:42:53] I think... So we've talked about it before, but humility is a big one. But I think it's kind of what you mentioned, which is that ability to be uncertain. I think for me agility and specifically cultural agility. and, and so, that's, that's a lot of people I talked to on this podcast. People who've lived in different countries, experienced different cultures, and that's not necessarily open to, an opportunity that's open to everyone. It should be. But, but that can be developed in, in many different ways. but people who are able to get outside their comfort zone, speak to people from different backgrounds and, and understand the world from, from their try to.

[00:43:43] Chris Schroeder: [00:43:43] It's so powerful. You know what? I'll tell you something, Isabelle, before we go. it just means I'm going crazy being home all the time on Zoom. I've been rewatching Anthony Bourdain episodes, which as he was a fascinating chef who became a world traveler, did travel television first for the Travel Channel and CNN. And he literally would go country by country and his show was a news show as much as it was a food show. He would do food and culture, but he would ask people questions about their life, society, history and everything else. And it reminded me of two things this conversation's been about. One thing it reminded is exactly what you just said, that you have to have this global curiosity and the best way to do it is actually be on the ground, watch, see embrace and have humility to be wrong in it. But the second thing it brought home was these episodes now are five or 10 years old or more. And they were just what you described earlier, because I watched these in places which I'm now familiar with and they're totally different than what he showed. Totally different. I mean, not totally different. I mean, a lot of the culture dynamics are similar, but where he would drive down roads and show different things and everything else, the change is so rapid.

[00:44:44] So if you don't embrace that globalism that you've just described with that global engagement you described, it'll move out ahead of you very, very quickly. So I'm with you.

[00:44:54] Isabelle Roughol: [00:44:54] Well, that's, that's a good a good lesson to end on. Thank you so much, Chris. This was a privilege and a pleasure.

[00:45:00] Chris Schroeder: [00:45:00] Oh, for me. It was great to be with you. Thank you.

[00:45:03] Isabelle Roughol: [00:45:05] Thank you so much again, to Chris Schroeder for his insights and his generosity. You got to follow him on LinkedIn subscribed to his newsletter. He really opens up the world of tech and entrepreneurship to his readers. All the links will be in the show notes.

[00:45:20] This is normally the bit where I tell you to become a member and support the work that I do here at Borderline. And yes, you can. It's all at Borderlinepod.com. But you know what? No rush, because next week, membership will look very different on a brand new site with new offerings, a new logo, and I cannot wait to show it to you. And then, then definitely become a member. Welcome this week, nonetheless, to Susan.

[00:45:43] I'm your host, Isabelle Roughol. Music is by Ofshane. Borderline is a One Lane Bridge production. Definitely, definitely talk to you next week.

BusinessPodcast

Isabelle Roughol

Journalist. Founder & host of Borderline. Former international editor of LinkedIn, foreign editor at Le Figaro, reporter at The Cambodia Daily. Global soul, messy accent.


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