Menu for 2019: From venture capital to adventure (& back)

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: January 31, 2019 20:51:31 | Updated: February 03, 2019 21:27:06

As one of the leading countries (nay, laboratories) of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), in fact, boasting the world's largest in the BRAC outfit, it is only appropriate for Bangladesh to ask a number of increasingly pertinent questions: What might become the next NGO frontier to probe and cross? Does the NGO entity need to be reformulated for a rapidly changing world? Can the existing support-base be retained, or must new subscribers be scoped out? Indeed, what lessons may be learned from fading NGO missions?

These are the types of questions asked by venture capitalists, as distinguished from idea-driven start-ups that characterise typical entrepreneurial capitalism. Utilising Terry Winograd's, Jocelyn Goldfin's, and Robert Bank's interesting guidelines, consisting of four principles, along with a discussion of their possible future and success, what can we say about their Bangladeshi challenge (The four principles of venture funding, Stamford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2019)?

First off, those four principles (the authors have tried and tested these in both the tech world and social philanthropy) bet on outstanding people; take calculated risks by knowing the investment landscape; amplify impact and sustainability by creating networks; and look for opportunities on the leading edge of problem-solving.

There is no substitute for the human being. On the supply side, humans are the ultimate source of skills, their own and technological; and on the demand side, they remain the springboard of the kind of expanded consumption corporations and banks thrive upon. To bring out the best among them, therefore making the most efficient effort to prosper, competition becomes fundamental: it opens up the field for innovation, gives "corruption as a means to upward mobility" a run for popularity, and instills more rule-respecting behaviour just to function.

A fortune awaits the new Bangladesh government if this resource is more fully tapped. Education is the obvious start, bringing in neglected groups, particularly women, and beefing up research grants through expanded fellowships and scholarships. Enterprises are another, both public and private, with the former restricted to essential sectors, like water-supply, electricity, and transportation, particularly metropolitan, among others, and the latter with open-ended outlets, both domestically and globally. The latter global context requires whittling down barriers, in both trade and investment: as one of the most protectionist countries in this neo-liberal age, with still a high double-digit average tariff-rate, our entrepreneurial gains from tariff-reduction in employment, production, income, and thereby both the investment and innovation opportunities, would befit an upwardly-mobile middle-income country.

Most of all, introducing something new means not only more policies, but also seizing the opportunity to introduce new rules, for example, taxes on new products and new income, limits to sector-specific investment and out-migration, and accountability in every possible and related arenas, such as environmental control, pollution emitted, working age-limits, wages, and so forth. On the one hand, these would help slow-moving social strictures to adjust to 21st century demands and contexts, while, on the other, such spread-effects as infrastructure-building, would bring a larger population in to the modernising segments to feel the country's growth.

Taking calculated risks to disseminate vital information of the investment landscape would bring in its own rewards, in particular, complementing the resource-opening principle just elaborated. With a country all too giddy from RMG-sector income for all too long, checking out other investment arenas not only promotes industry diversification, but also utilises the infrastructures being built. For example, feasibility studies require effective researching and articulation, therefore inviting think-tanks, while enhancing literacy, for prospective entrepreneurs to succeed. Most of all, transparency and opportunities can help dilute the resort to scrupulous methods and arcane customs/practices/legislations.

Mobilising investors can never be the only game in town. Alongside, workers need to be recruited through proper training, marketing windows can be opened to help understand and elicit consumers, income-tax collection can be tailored for job-specific purposes, and so forth. Any investment outburst with these other activity streams also mobilised generates networks that must be nurtured to avoid any market (or political) failures, for instance, from false or insufficient information, demand size, and supply opportunities; and most of all, keeping track of ongoing research and emergent technologies to not be overtaken in the competition.

Networks carry the added advantage of keeping society on the edge, inside the loop, and with a general supportive tendency towards other groups in any given network. How they inform citizens also promotes civic duties, and any growth of civic public behaviour and attitudes becomes an enormous boost for democracy (not to mention the political party behind these open policies).

All of these can then be trained upon grappling with inherent or emergent problems: explore new pathways and open fresh possibilities. Bangladesh's expanding masses represent a materialistically hungry group, and matching their growing demands requires innovative methods and strategies. These flourish if the right training is there, the capacity to look outside the box is utilised, indeed, a trait to be instilled as early in schools, colleges, and universities as possible. In turn, both public and private enterprises must step in with incentives, since ultimately they are the long-term winners with every potential innovative employee recruited.

When all is said and done, education matters, if not for the knowledge imparted, but for the applications it spawns and the fertility it instills. Venture funding is so called because of the intellectually-driven adventure it elicits and encourages; and at no time are circumstances more ripe for such an outcome than when a new government/corporate leader steps in. That this moment also finds Bangladesh on the cusp of so many upwardly-mobile opportunities should not be lost or squandered: people have always been the most valuable assets; and with the large numbers we have in the country, we should be infused with multiple start-ups and get-theres.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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