Interview: Elmira Bayrasli of Endeavor on supporting entrepreneurs in emerging markets
Elmira Bayrasli and her colleagues are always on the lookout for the up-and-coming Bill Gateses and Steve Jobses of developing countries. She handles policy and outreach for Endeavor, a New York-based organization that supports high-impact for-profit entrepreneurs in emerging markets—the enterprising men and women with the potential to create jobs and grow markets in their countries. Endeavor’s model assumes that what these nations lack is not entrepreneurial talent, but an entrepreneurial culture—a supportive ecosystem of institutions, networks, and norms to help start-ups achieve their full potential. By nurturing these supports, Endeavor hopes to spur economic growth for the benefit of these societies as a whole.
Bayrasli talked with us recently about the Endeavor approach and how she came to see entrepreneurship as a key to social change.
Dowser: When did you first make the connection between economic growth and social transformation?
Bayrasli: I did an internship with the U.S. Embassy in Ankara. They sent me to rural villages to explore the economic and political conditions of Turkey. At the time there was lots of talk about ‘Islamification’—‘Is Turkey turning into another Iran?’ Working with villagers, I realized that the Turkish people were all about economics, and they supported the Islamic Welfare Party because it addressed their economic and social needs.
You later worked in Bosnia. What did you take away from that experience?
I went to Sarajevo to work for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose mission was to administer elections and promote human rights and democracy. I loved Bosnia, but I later realized that I had gone in there with a very naïve attitude. When I was in the field talking to ordinary Bosnians, they kept saying, ‘Democracy and human rights are very convenient for you, but here we don’t have anything. What we need are jobs. If you really want to help, build our economy.’
How did you arrive at Endeavor?
After three years in Bosnia, I came to New York unemployed, and took a literature class at NYU. A woman there who worked at Endeavor told me about what she did, and I decided to apply for a job.
What is Endeavor’s mission?
We want to help create middle classes in countries that currently lack them. Stable jobs are not common in developing countries. Endeavor wants to change that by supporting high-impact entrepreneurs; the very few individuals who we believe can create sustainable, large enterprises that provide employees with skills training, benefits and financial stability.
How do you find these high-impact entrepreneurs?
First, we go to a country and build a board of directors of top business and social leaders. Then, Endeavor recruits a diverse group of 70 to 100 business leaders who assist our entrepreneurs. Finally, we assemble a team of local staffers who understand the dynamics of how entrepreneurship in their country works.
How is Endeavor different from Ashoka, which also provides funding and support to entrepreneurs in developing communities?
Linda Rottenberg, the CEO and co-founder of Endeavor, was actually working for Ashoka in Latin America when she came up with the idea for Endeavor. Ashoka is focused on civil society development and addressing social needs, whereas Endeavor is focused on private sector development. We’re trying to transform the markets by catapulting for-profit entrepreneurs to success, and increasing investor confidence in emerging markets.
Can you share a story about an entrepreneur who has found success through Endeavor?
We have an entrepreneur in Brazil named Leila Velez, who runs a beauty salon called Beleza Natural. Beleza Natural makes a hair care product that straightens Afro-Brazilian hair. I asked her why she and her sister-in-law Zica decided to introduce this through a beauty salon. Why wouldn’t they mass-market it and put it on the shelves at the Brazilian version of Walmart?
Why wouldn’t they?
Well, Leila started Beleza Natural in a shopping area in a poor part of Rio de Janeiro. People said to her and Zica, ‘This is not going to work. How many hair salons do we need? We’re poor.’ But they said, ‘We’re poor, but we also want to look beautiful.’
This was their innovation, and it worked. Now, they have several salons and a manufacturing facility. They employ over a thousand people, and generate about $30 million in revenue a year.
Leila grew up in a favela [a Brazilian slum] and there were no role models for what she wanted to do. Now she has become a role model, and says that being able to give that inspiration to other young women is actually more important to her then running Beleza Natural.
What’s your greatest hope?
That we can get people in emerging markets to believe that they can lead large enterprises and generate breakthroughs. Entrepreneurs exist in every corner of the world; it’s all a matter of tapping into the local talent and supporting these entrepreneurs so they succeed.
This interview was edited and condensed.
Photo: Julie Furbush for Dowser