In 2005, armed with two years of college Arabic and a vague employment contract, I tumbled out of a taxi and onto the main street of Ramallah, Palestine. The region was anything but stable. Six months after my arrival, Hamas won its first elections and came to rule the West Bank; roughly 18 months after that, the party was ousted in a series of bloody clashes and retreated to Gaza. Meanwhile, the Israeli military occupation of both areas continued unchecked, as it had for close to 40 years.
Against this backdrop, my employer, a U.S.-based aid agency, was focused on a unique set of priorities: holding focus groups with young Palestinians to hear their views on youth economic opportunity and entrepreneurship, and to ask what we (as international interlopers) could do to help boost economic growth in the country. While we moved from town to town, chatting with group after group of earnest youth, two things happened. First, I got bored by the two-hour meetings. Second, I noticed that everyone everywhere had a cell phone and that they were using them constantly to send text messages to each other—hardly an earth-shattering observation in 2013. However, close to 10 years ago, only half the population in my own home country, Canada, owned a cell phone, and at the time most people didn't see it as a vital device.
As the weeks passed, my frustration with the tried-and-true focus group approach mounted. At first I was too timid to speak out (this was, more or less, the first real job I'd ever held and I considered myself lucky to have it). Ultimately, though, I ended up spending any spare moment I could sketching out text-message sequences with some friends. As we started to build a team and a concept, we mustered up the courage to leave our day jobs and focus on the idea full time. And while some criticized us for "having it too easy" or "having all the luck in the world" by being able to work on our own clock without a boss or a 9-to-5 schedule, we were simply thankful to have a window of uninterrupted time to try out something new. Unbeknownst to us, we were about to come up with a mobile solution [End Page 41] that would help thousands of people find work more easily: linking job seekers with local employers via text message.
Fast-forward seven years, and Souktel—as our mobile job service came to be known—has been fortunate to help youth in 21 countries, to be profiled in the Wall Street Journal, and to raise venture funding from a group of investors that includes household names like Google and Cisco. Through a process that's low-cost and easy to understand, the service has allowed thousands of job-seekers with basic cell phones to create text-, audio-, or web-based "mini-CVs"—with information about their skills and work experience. These profiles are then auto-matched with jobs that are listed by employers through a similar process, and both sets of users get SMS alerts with the other's contact details. Now that we've reached scale, we frequently are asked the same question by aspiring startups and high-level decisionmakers: What's the secret to building a successful youth enterprise?
Naturally there's no simple answer, but I usually respond the same way each time I'm asked: from our experience, as a group of Palestinians, Canadians, and Americans, we've achieved success by taking the very concepts that often are used to define youth negatively—especially in the Arab world—and inverting them to achieve positive aims. To be specific, we believe that the path to successful youth entrepreneurship is defined by three key factors: frustration, fearlessness, and fortune—and by "fortune," I mean luck; the money, if it comes, is seldom in the picture at the beginning.
Young entrepreneurs are frustrated. We're never content with the status quo and are always seeking to combat what we see as inefficiencies in the...