Lessons for Pittsburgh from Dhaka Bangladesh

Everything moves faster in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

If you stand still to take it all in, you’ll likely be run over by person, rickshaw, or luxury automobile. That energy goes beyond the daily bustle of one of the world’s most densely populated cities.

It permeates the people and the culture. It’s ingrained in their business relationships and captured in the tone of their negotiations. It’s in the eyes of the street beggars. It’s in the cantor of the street vendor who is navigating six lanes of traffic to sell his wares. And, as I sat with the executives of one of the country’s largest conglomerates, one that has its hands in everything from textiles to telecom, there were surprising pangs of envy. Because in all the glorious chaos of competing ideas and people, there are lessons to be learned about ambition, resilience, and the self-imposed limits of our reach as Pittsburgh entrepreneurs.

In Dhaka, the entrepreneurial slog is different. Here in Pittsburgh, we are often limited by scale or locked in a perpetual waiting game for “our turn.”

In Dhaka, both opportunity and hardship happen in an instant. The origin of this is directly related to population density and Bangladesh’s economic growth (6% versus 2.1% domestically third quarter for the US). It is also encouraged by limits in infrastructure, regulation, bureaucracy, litigiousness, and standard practice.

All things, that when lacking, have sharp and distinct downsides. But dammit, it was refreshing to see people optimistically doing business – not worrying about the limitations, the repercussions, the perception, the politics, or the zoning. In a way, Dhaka is a libertarian paradise, where business is only limited by the cash you have in hand. That, as you can imagine, is not always a good thing, but it creates perceived and actual opportunity that heightens ambition.

Bangladesh is ranked the second most optimistic country about economic prosperity in 2016 and it shows in their tolerance for risk and adventure. During my stay, I met dozens of Bengali entrepreneurs, all trying to do business in multiple international markets. I don’t often see Pittsburgh entrepreneurs looking abroad for markets or deals. Perhaps the conservative nature of our funders has taught us to execute small, or maybe we just don’t have anyone to model, but to me that seems like missed opportunity.

Frankly, what discourages us as entrepreneurs is laughable when compared to obstacles our eastern peers face. Each year Bengali’s navigate annual monsoons that flood streets for days and weeks, turning two hour commutes into day long adventures. Download speeds in Bangladesh still average less than 1 MB/sec. Compounding that challenge, each day there are rolling blackouts in the capital city. Tap water is not chlorinated so it is undrinkable, and sanitation infrastructure can’t keep up with the constant influx of new residents. Challenges are not just limited to infrastructure. Bengalis battle not just flu season, but dengue fever, typhoid, and malaria. Generally speaking, it’s a tough place to live, and tough places to live create focused and resourceful people.

It’s worth noting that in 1971 modern Bangladesh emerged from a horrific war for independence from Pakistan. In just one generation, after the massacre of the country’s intellectuals and leaders, its economy is poised for explosive growth.

That’s not luck, that’s humans choosing to overcome. Because resilience is a choice and a skill. It’s something you earn only through struggle with actual challenges. I worry that here at home we’ve allowed superficial nonsense to become the source of our struggle. If that’s true, we’ll never truly be resilient or tough.

So I’ll wrap up with a question not just to Pittsburgh entrepreneurs, but also to the people who fund them.

What are you afraid of? When you look around the globe at other markets, how are you not inspired to do more? The consequence of failure here in Pittsburgh is not that severe, and your international competition has nothing to lose.

On a personal note, I’ve come back with a renewed mandate to do more with less. To push the limits of what Work Hard Pittsburgh and Academy Pittsburgh can reasonably achieve with limited resources. To not only dream big, but to provide above and beyond support to others in markets trying to swing for the fences.

We are committing to more positivity, less complaining, and to gleefully mocking the bumps in the road.

Lessons for Pittsburgh from Dhaka Bangladsh