Sunday, August 19, 2018
Business

A USFSP professor is challenged in war-weary Iraq to inspire an entrepreneurial culture

Business professor Bill Jackson may have rough days when he wishes he could wear a flak jacket.

But this past summer, it became mandatory.

Jackson, who teaches at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, spent 45 days in Iraq sharing his insights with university teachers about how to encourage business startups and entrepreneurial activity. While in Baghdad, Jackson lived at one fortified compound and taught at another. His commute of less than 10 miles took 90 minutes, thanks to frequent stops at Baghdad checkpoints. Jackson routinely traveled in a three-vehicle convoy of armed security guards while wearing a flak jacket.

It wasn't for show. Two hours before he arrived for a workshop at Baghdad University, an Iraq general was assassinated at the front gate. Other violence occurred nearby while he was in the city.

"I was naive about the Middle East," Jackson conceded in a recent discussion about his Iraq experience.

Iraq is not poor. The country is rich with oil, holding the world's third largest reserves.

But Iraq must overcome a serious obstacle.

"Pessimism," Jackson says. People do not believe their lives will improve. He says he also encountered resentment about the U.S. occupation.

The business professor's tour of duty was part of a U.S. Agency for International Development project to help promote basic business skills in Iraq's still-struggling economy. Iraqis who work with USAID keep that fact secret and do not even answer their cellphones in public on the off chance the caller speaks English and might be overheard by others.

Listening to Jackson's remarks, I wavered between admiring his willingness to go help a struggling country firsthand and questioning his sanity. Is a country often limited to four hours of electricity per day really a good place for a class on how to start businesses?

"There is no direct translation of the word 'entrepreneurship' in Arabic," Jackson says.

On the other hand, what else is more likely to raise the economic bar in Iraq but individuals and families starting their own enterprises?

Iraq is clearly no mission accomplished. Many young people, Jackson says, look for opportunities to leave the country. Hundreds of the country's best academics have been assassinated for their more secular educations. Thousands more have fled the country, aggravating an Iraqi brain drain.

Iraq's economic traditions also make Western-style business more daunting. In banking, there are no checks or credit cards. To transfer a larger sum of money from one institution to another usually requires someone delivering a suitcase full of cash.

Jackson, 59, says the language barrier was just one of many challenges he encountered. Less than 5 percent of the university faculty he worked with spoke English, and the need for translators slowed the communications tempo. Getting documents translated took two to three weeks.

"Subsistence" entrepreneurship — working to survive — was common. True entrepreneurship was rare.

Besides his stay in Baghdad, Jackson also traveled to Erbil in northern Iraq's Kurdistan region, where he was able to explore the city without a security team.

At USF St. Pete, Jackson wears several hats. He's a professor of entrepreneurship and innovation but also serves as director of the "Sustainable Entrepreneurship & Innovation Alliance" and was part of the team at last year's Gazelle Lab business incubator.

For all its woes, Iraq still holds potential, Jackson says. The economy needs to diversify beyond oil. Encouraging startups and entrepreneurship is part of that process. To that end, Jackson has arranged for some Baghdad faculty to visit USF St. Petersburg in January for professional development.

Jackson says there's enough money in Iraq to build it back up again — if that wealth is not lost to corruption. "Entrepreneurship is gaining a little momentum and it may be more progressive outside higher education than inside for the next year," he says.

After hearing about Jackson's visit, the challenge of starting a business here — no flak jacket required — feels less daunting.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]

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