Q&A with foreign policy expert and author Elmira Bayrasli


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‘Opportunity is not abundant around the world, but talent is something we all have,’ says Elmira Bayrasli, author of ‘From The Other Side of the World: Extraordinary Entrepreneurs.’

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Throughout her career, Elmira Bayrasli has encountered moments that required understanding a situation from another person’s perspective. 

After working with the Council on Foreign Relations, Bayrasli served for five years as the assistant to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as well as the principal aide in efforts to secure a negotiated settlement to the Cyprus dispute. She served as chief spokesperson in Sarajevo for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe OSCE in the early 2000s and then worked with Endeavor, an organization that supports global entrepreneurs. 

That work led Bayrasli to meet with entrepreneurs in Turkey, Nigeria, Pakistan, Mexico, India, Russia and China to highlight global innovations that are thriving in seemingly impossible conditions.

Bayrasli will speak about her book, “From The Other Side of the World: Extraordinary Entrepreneurs” on Sept. 19 at an event organized by the World Affairs Council of NH, held at UNH Manchester.

Q. How did you become interested in international relations?

A. Essentially, just being the daughter of immigrants — being aware there was a wider world than the one I lived in — and traveling to Turkey as a child made me aware of other places outside of Brooklyn and New York City. I became interested in international relations and studied political science and focused on working at the State Department.

Q. How was working for the State Department?

A. It was a really terrific experience. I learned a lot about foreign-policy making and what actually goes on, on the frontlines, and I think it’s different than what we see in the media. I think I saw a lot of what goes into diplomacy in foreign relations.

Q. How exactly does the agency operate?

A. A lot of the work at the State Department isn’t following events in one country but engaging with diplomats in other countries. I think we tend to see it as we’re dealing with Russia or dealing with China, but there are actual people who are actually working those relationships, and so it really does come down to one-on-one relationships.

I think the beauty in that is having tolerance and respect, getting to know people who may not share the same ethnic identity or religion or cultural experience and getting to understand what their point of view is.

Q. What sparked the idea to write about entrepreneurs around the world?

A. Whenever we think about entrepreneurship in the context of the U.S., we think about Silicon Valley and Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and Microsoft and Google – the big tech companies. But when we [talk about] it outside of the U.S., it takes on a different connotation, in the sense it’s women creating tchotchkes on the side of the road, not mobile payments or Wi-Fi routers that are really changing the nature of the economy of their communities and moving the needle forward.

Q. Could you tell me more about the entrepreneurs you profiled?

A. I profiled seven entrepreneurs from seven countries. They were either men or women that despite tremendous obstacles — things like poor infrastructure, bad governance, lack of an entrepreneurial culture — they still persisted to create their business, whether in Turkey, Pakistan or India.

What stood out to me was their firm belief in and their ability to see more than what we are able to see in the West. I think we dismiss things that happen around the world, and they recognize talent is not unique to a particular community or a particular country. Opportunity is not abundant around the world, but talent is something we all have.

Q. Were there any entrepreneurs who had returned to their homeland after working elsewhere?

A. The entrepreneur I focused on in Pakistan, he was working at Intel and left that job to create an alternative narrative not only for Pakistan globally but within the country. I think there is this sense with a lot of these entrepreneurs that those who did have great jobs in the West and return to their home countries that “I’ve made it and I want to give back and use my education, use my network and use these things I’ve built up and in a positive way I can create jobs and I can create opportunity.”

Q. How does being an entrepreneur in a developing country in the 21st century help further an idea? Does an ever-increasing globalized society help?

A. One of the things we certainly see is microfinance efforts to help entrepreneurs at a low level, but I think the entrepreneurs are succeeding because they have networks outside of their own country, so they’re not only bringing the investment, but the cultural know-how. I think a lot of companies talk about the brain drain, but they’re talking about the brain game.

Q. You currently are the co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted, which encourages female voices in written and electronic press. I was surprised by the statistics on your site, that generally show women appear in the journals or talk shows about 20 percent of the time.

A. This is something that’s persistent. It’s not just the underrepresentation of women in foreign policy — I think that’s true in every sector across the board, certainly in the tech space we’re hearing about the challenges women face in Silicon Valley, and there are a number of factors that go into that.

I think institutionally, a lot of the regulations, a lot of the structures and routines and habits were created by white men and continue to be dominated by white men. One of the challenges is how we get different voices to contribute in different sectors, not only for the men to create space so women can come to the table, but for every issue to be a part of the discussion. It’s like trying to build a house with a toolbox of only hammers. You need different tools to actually create that house and I think that goes the same for policy making, and it’s true when you’re creating a business and it’s certainly true across the board.

Q. How do women overcome that?

A. I think the most important thing is to recognize unconscious bias – and this is not necessarily a negative thing. We automatically look to men to comment on what’s going on globally or what is going on in our government and I think it’s recognizing this unconscious bias without feeling, ‘Who am I to raise my hand? What qualifications do I have?’ This is different from asking women to build their confidence.

Once you actually understand it’s not you, it’s actually this unspoken set of routines we have that are intimidating, frankly, and disadvantage women – that is something people need to recognize. And once you recognize it, you can take action to it. If women actually know that their intimidation is not coming from them, it’s coming from society, I think they tend to approach things much differently.

Q. Did you notice anything different about entrepreneurs overseas?

A. One thing that I noticed is entrepreneurs outside of the U.S. are much more aware of what’s going on in their countries. They’re aware politically, they know what relations their country is having around the world. I’m shocked when I talk to entrepreneurs [in the U.S.] and they don’t know what’s going on in Washington. Entrepreneurs outside of the U.S. are very aware of global issues and global challenges and one of the reasons is they have to be. If they have to put their products to market, they have to know what’s going on in these places. From a business point of view, it makes sense for them to be aware of these things.

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