There wasn’t much exceptional about my recent lunch out with a couple dozen young, aspiring entrepreneurs. It was a typical, crowded, buzzing, Nandos-like joint—good food cheap, easy to pull tables together so we could talk. These were men and women debating the latest technologies, describing their recent ideas, regularly interchanging their physical engagement with checking their SnapChat, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook apps.
The sold-out gathering had the earmarks of a typical Silicon Valley event: more than 2,400 hungry entrepreneurs and investors, most young adults, tethered to their mobile devices - sharing, debating and connecting. There was the requisite hip music. Speakers who had "been there" were mixing with kids new to the game, dashing out ideas on white boards and rallying each other to new ventures.
Amid all the recent news from the Middle East, here's some you might have missed: Jordan last month amended its already restrictive press-and-publications law to include Internet firms and organizations. The move risks chilling business development in what had been a promising site of economic progress in a changing region.
Vaclav Havel once made an important distinction between optimism and hope. "Hope," he noted, "is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out." His is a voice of encouragement for would-be founders and investors to consider long-term forces at play anywhere they face uncertainty. And his is a message that seems important to consider in light of the attacks on US the embassies in Cairo and Benghazi on Tuesday.
FORTUNE -- Those who believe linear careers are linearly predictable might think Arif Naqvi has had consistently bad timing. The Karachi-born investor studied Soviet Economic Systems and National Planning at the London School of Economics a few years before the Soviet Union collapsed. He moved from London to Saudi Arabia three days after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. He led and funded the Celebration of Entrepreneurship, then the largest gathering of start-up entrepreneurs in the Middle East, two months before the Arab uprisings consumed the region.
Having spent much of last spring touring the remarkable and little-reported-on tech startup communities in the Middle East – from Cairo to Amman to Beirut to Dubai – I was excited to see that no one is rocking this scene more than the women entrepreneurs.
It was nearly a year and a half ago that we wrote in AllThingsD about the remarkable and inspiring narrative we called “Egypt 2.0.” As judges for the State Department’s Global Entrepreneurship Program, we met hundreds of Egyptian tech start-up entrepreneurs creating and building innovative businesses. The quality and globally competitive potential of these builders impressed us. And with their drive and ambition, it was no surprise that every young man and woman we subsequently befriended were on the streets of Alexandria and Cairo creating a revolution unimaginable even a few weeks before.
We were in Cairo the week before Tunisia fell, meeting with dozens of Egyptian technology start-ups on behalf of the US State Dept’s Global Entrepreneurship Program. The quality of their ideas thrilled us, as did their skill sets, vision and quiet resolve. It did not surprise us to hear that many of those we met shut their laptops in recent weeks to march through the streets throughout Egypt. Through email, cell, texts and social networks, we have remained close with them throughout this remarkable upheaval.
The West sees only a region ravaged by strife but it is fast being reshaped by a young digital generation racing to better their lives.
Had they been watching the BBC or CNN in recent months, even the most inspired optimist would find it difficult to be encouraged by the Middle East. Barrel bombs in Syria, crackdowns in Egypt and the seemingly insoluble Israeli-Palestinian conflict have all but unravelled the hopes of many for the Arab uprisings three years ago.
We in the U.S. love to think of "The Next Big Thing" as a great trend or shiny new object or platform. It is a wonderful thing about our culture, in fact, that we remain so hopeful and excited by the innovation we unleash.
For me, however, the next big thing is less about the gadget or capability, but what they are unleashing in human behavior here at home and, now and forever, around the globe. And that such innovation can and will in the future will be created anywhere and everywhere. The Next Big Thing thus will be a mass and global wave of tech-enabled entrepreneurship.
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