Advertisement
  1. Business

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

Bill Jackson, a business professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, routinely wore flak jackets while traveling around Baghdad over the summer while teaching workshops on entrepreneurship to university instructors.
Published Oct. 26, 2012

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 trigaux@tampabay.com.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. A total of 131 employees are scheduled to be laid off in January as Locale Market and Farm Table Cucina close at the Sundial to make way for a new food hall created by the developers of the Heights Public Market at the Armature Works in Tampa. CHRIS URSO   |   TIMES
    In a notice to the state of Florida, Sundial owner Bill Edwards said the layoffs are expected to take place the first week of January.
  2. WeWork is opening Tampa offices at 501 E Kennedy Blvd. despite company struggles, including $1.25 billion in losses over 2019. SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times
    WeWork has 200 planned coworking space openings as leadership tries to manage $1.25 billion in losses.
  3. Florida's unemployment rate was unchanged in October at 3.2 percent, according to numbers released Friday. LYNNE SLADKY  |  AP
    The latest numbers were released Friday morning.
  4. Apollo Global Management has offered $130 per share for Tech Data's stock in an acquisition worth $5.4 billion. If regulators shareholders approve, the home-grown company will remain based in Pinellas County, where it employs 2,000 of its 14,000 workers. DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Private equity firms like Apollo create wealth for pension funds, financial institutions and individual investors by buying assets that typically are sold later at a profit.
  5. Some of Tampa Bay's largest companies are being sold or are up for sale. Times files and Bloomin' Brands
    Tech Data is just the latest in a growing list of public companies bought up by out-of-state firms.
  6. Hillsborough Community College solicited "non-binding letters of interest or intent” last month from developers interested in purchasing the Dr. Gwendolyn W. Stephenson District Administration Center on Davis Islands. OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times
    Developers have eyed the 3.7 acre waterfront parcel for years, but recent interest has prompted the college’s trustees to finally start the conversation.
  7. Tampa International Airport looking north. The Wall Street Journal ranked it the best midsize airport in America. [Times files]
    TPA took first place in the Wall Street Journal’s annual survey of U.S. airports.
  8. Tech Data's CEO Rich Hume (left) shares a moment with former CEO Bob Dutkowsky during a send off celebration for Dutkowsky earlier this year. JIM DAMASKE   |   Times
    A private equity firm has agreed to buy Tech Data.
  9. Joseph Erickson, 53, looks out the window at the gulf-[front condo he thought he won at a foreclosure auction last year.t JOHN PENDYGRAFT   |  Times
    "There have been serious allegations,'' Judge Keith Meyer said.
  10. Sam's Club fulfillment center manager Nick Barbieri explains to a shopper how the new Scan & Go shop works at 5135 S Dale Mabry Highway. SARA DINATALE  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Shoppers in Tampa Bay can now skip the line and cash out alcohol on their own phones.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement