Last month, Paul Riser represented TechTown in a Detroit Delegation for the Tunisia Investment and Entrepreneurship Conference in Tunis, Tunisia. As one might imagine, he’s been hearing a lot of the same questions since his return, so we thought we’d organize his thoughts into a overview of the trip coupled with a brief interlude on what connecting to North Africa means for Detroit.
What spurred the trip to Tunisia?
My trip to Tunisia was driven by an existing relationship and exchange project that involved TechTown Detroit, Wayne State University and the State Department, stemming back at least 3 or 4 years. At that time, students from Tunis, Tunisia, visited TechTown Detroit and stayed for a summer to experience and better understand the practices, strategies, processes and overall experience within Detroit’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Tunisia is in the middle of a lengthy and painful process of political and economic transformation. Not only are the people of the country engaged in the redesign of a more representative and inclusive political system but they are also involved in the process of reinventing an economic model that is to be just, legitimate and productive. Entrepreneurial ecosystem reform is key to the remodeling of the failed capitalist transformation that the country witnessed under dictatorship. Such reforms can come about through the simultaneous political and economic enfranchisement of nascent enterprises, hyper-local growth, capital holders and a diverse representation of entrepreneurs.
What did the conference cover?
Key themes highlighted at the conference included investment trends in the region and the partnership potential for investors to grow and expand into the regional markets, leveraging technology to support regional entrepreneurs and businesses, and educational exchange.
How did the conference prove fruitful for the Detroit Delegation?
For our delegation, the conference itself proved to be a powerful tool for fostering partnerships, raising policy issues with senior government officials and providing valuable networking opportunities with entrepreneurs and business leaders.
I learned quite a lot from a political, historical, social and economic perspective due to the trip. Importantly, eliminating trade barriers poses the opportunity to boost overseas trade by Detroit-based small and medium-size companies or create opportunities for trade that wasn’t possible before because our companies may lack the awareness and capability to deal with the complexities of trade.
To have been able to go to Tunisia and export / share some of our knowledge was a priceless experience that created a unique opportunity to build new bridges with leaders and entrepreneurs from across the world.
Personally, the trip was eye-opening, provocative, educational and truly life-changing. Witnessing the critical elements of a country that recently transcended from dictatorship to democracy by the will of its citizens gave immeasurable reason to truly appreciate their courage and fortitude… as well as the many advantages that American citizens are afforded, yet which are sometimes easily taken for granted – such as a reliable banking system, ubiquitous high-speed Internet services and vast economic opportunity.
What work has been done in this realm since your return home?
Since the trip to Tunisia, direct and meaningful conversations have been held with the Detroit-based US Commercial Service Export Assistance Center around ways to catalyze the business opportunities for Detroit entrepreneurs in Tunisia and North Africa. Upon our return, ideas immediately began being exchanged relative to future delegations to Tunisia and determining what resources will be needed to ensure Tunis students and entrepreneurs have another opportunity to spend time in Detroit.
What similarities do you draw between Tunisia and Detroit?
Detroit has such a rich diaspora of entrepreneurs that can play a major role in expanding and diversifying our economy… which could be great for the both the local economy, for the United States and for the North African region. There is a high density of bright, savvy and eager professionals in Tunisia and North Africa that are ready, willing and able to do business with Detroiters and we have to work together, across our various communities, to maximize international trade opportunity. The development of state initiated structures, international conferences and additional committed resources in Tunisia shows that entrepreneurship – as a means of fighting unemployment – is a serious option for the state for more than a decade. The network of incubators and business centers is expansive and has a presence in virtually all large Tunisian urban centers where potential entrepreneurs are likely to live.
What difficulties might be found in such an endeavor?
These support structures suffer from some considerable shortcomings that limit their impact in providing actual support for entrepreneurship in Tunisia. The most obvious cross-comparison between Detroit and Tunis (Tunisia) can be drawn from the fact that both are cities that are emerging from forms of turmoil, demise and struggle (albeit in varying forms, but yet still…definitely comparable) led by a community of citizens that remain resilient and optimistic about the future. Cities where their citizenry could easily be identified as their most valuable and unique asset – fueled by a deep passion for entrepreneurial success.