Alumni Share: Travel the Gateway to Innovation

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Podcast Transcript


Shabnam:   Welcome to the Boren Around the World podcast, a podcast by the National Security Education Program for Boren awardees, language lovers and public service enthusiasts. In today's episode will be speaking with Paul Domjan, a 1999 Boren scholar to Hungry. Paul is an independent strategy and growth consultant and research analyst. He had previously served as a special adviser to the UK Parliament and as an energy security officers of the US Department of Defense. He recently wrote a book: Chain Reaction-How Blockchain Will Transform the Developing World, which we published later in the fall. Thank you so much for joining us today Paul!

Paul:           It’s my pleasure! Thank you very much for having me.

Shabnam:   Of course! Just to start us off, could you give us some background on the current work that you're doing?

Paul:           Sure! I today spent most of my time doing two things, one is advising interesting entrepreneurial companies, whether that’s startups or established businesses that are trying to change about how to become more digital, about how to work in emerging markets, about how to move to offering subscriptions as opposed to selling individual things and individual services, and generally have pivoted into the new world on the one hand. On the other hand, I have a long background in research and analysis and I'm very pleased to be able to continue to do that on an independent basis, whether that's through strategy consulting and scenario binding or whether it's through the research that I write with Tellimer, a firm that where I used to be head of research and a strategy officer.

Shabnam:   I know you recently just got back from traveling all across Africa with your family, and that’s amazing, how have you - could you talk a little bit more about that and how you brought that into your work?

Paul:           Sure! I had an unexpected opportunity to leave my executive chief strategy officer grinding lifestyle, take the kids out of school and go travelling. My wife and I booked our tickets to Cape Town with my wife wanted to go to Africa so we at least had a starting base that we can plan from with less than two weeks’ notice. We got on a plane, flew to Cape Town, and thought that we would have this amazing three-month kind of vacation, and what started out as a three-month vacation turned into six and a half months of backpacking over land with the kids carrying their own backpacks from Cape Town to Kigali going through 11 countries. It was an incredible experience because I've spent my whole life working with emerging markets, in my last role at Tellimer I had offices in Legos and Nairobi with teams there, research partners across Africa and across - actually across the whole world, but it’s very different being a part of everyday life from the ground up than it is flying into Capital City, having a dozen meetings, driving around in a in a taxi or car and then flying home. It was tremendous for all of us to really see Africa from a different perspective. A lot of the stories of the problems I encountered there came into the book that I'm working on which we can definitely talk about, and also came into some of the recent research that I've been writing that you actually can read on my LinkedIn if you're interested.

Shabnam:   Most people think that your backpacking days are over in your 20’s, what would you say to somebody who has a family who wants to do a similar adventure?

Paul:           You should definitely do it, definitely go for it. Backpacking doesn't have to end in your 20’s. I actually think, and I've been talking about this a bit in my own research, that Corona virus has been tremendously difficult obviously - it's tremendously difficult for emerging markets, but I think a lot of emerging markets are better equipped to cope than people realize for lots of reasons we can get into. There will be a return of travel, maybe a little bit more deliberate. Schools, and actually in my in my spare time from my sins, I’m the chair of a primary school here in London where I live, the equivalent of a charter school in the in the U.S. so I’ve really seen firsthand there how schools are having to prepare themselves for distance learning and online learning in the longer term, which I think will actually make it much easier for you as a family to take your kids out of school but leave them connected with school. We had to kind of come up with a homeschooling program for our kids from the ground up, but I think it'll be much easier in the future.

The key or backpacking successfully with your family is going places where people are really pleased to have you, because it is a bit more challenging, hotels and lodges need to be tolerant of the kids, give them space, the kids themselves, you know often take a little bit longer than adults would sometimes to cope with different situations, and in this Corona virus world, I think when people get on the road again and begin traveling, you know, the people that are hosting them will be really pleased to have them and will have that additional tolerance even more than before, so that really makes backpacking as a family a real success. It was an incredible experience for us, and I've been in touch with lots of the people we stayed with, the lodge owners we got to know and whatnot since then. It was incredible experience for us, particularly as we were backpacking across Malawi to meet people going the other direction who would say “oh you’re the family” everybody knew about us because we were the only people doing it. Everyone on that kind of - Cape Town to Nairobi backpacking circuit, well not everyone, lots of people on that Cape Town to Nairobi backpacking circuit had heard about this crazy family of four and actually our kids found that they had all these interesting people who were adults, they had to learn how to talk to adults, but were younger adults than their parents who they could talk to you and were interested in hearing about their experiences.

Shabnam:   It's really interesting how your adventures abroad and your travels kind of mesh together with your work in emerging markets and is that kind of what inspired you? What inspired you to write a book, and could you talk a little bit more about is contents?

Paul:           Sure, the book is called Chain Reaction, and it’s about why the future of block chain, I think, is brightest in emerging markets. This goes all the way back to Clayton Christensen and the Innovator's Dilemma in the sense that new innovations get adopted first where they’re good enough to solve the current problems. Many of the problems that blockchain based systems can solve are much greater in emerging markets because the alternative institutions, the alternative solutions, that we might have in developed markets aren't there. So, here in the UK or certainly in the US you know, you would never think about registering the ownership of your house on a blockchain based system, because there's an established system of property registration and how to figure out who owns what. In emerging markets, that’s often not the case. I was in Uganda hiking in the middle of the forest, and there's this huge sign nailed into a tree saying “this piece of land is not for sale” because a very common scam in Africa is that you find an attractive piece of land, in this case in a beautiful place potentially to build a lodge next to the waterfall at Sipi Falls in eastern Uganda, so you as a scammer find a beautiful place, either a building or a piece of land, and then you sell it even though you don't own it, and because there's no property registration system, the person who buys it doesn't realize that you didn't own it to begin with, so all across Africa, you see these kind of signs. In an African context, actually a blockchain based system that let you document your ownership of a piece of property in a way that someone else could check would be tremendously valuable, so that barrier to being good enough is much lower than it would be in developed countries.

It’s actually an interesting story how this started. So, I became head of research at a really interesting emerging-market brokerage, Exotics Capital that then became Tellimer the Emerging Market investment banking network, and then Bargain Market Research Network. I joined there in 2017, and was sitting with one of our younger analyst and he said it's really exciting to have you because you have this background in technology that that none of us have, but I don't think about technology as something that's happening in most emerging markets, are our focus was really with Africa, South Asia, the frontier economy and I said “Well I'm sure that's not the case let's look for some examples.” I wrote a short piece of research about blockchain in emerging markets making this argument, and how Greg McMillan saw that and picked it up and said, “That would be a great book, can you write a book about it?” and it took 3 years and a trip across Africa to finish it, but it now comes out in October. I think it's been really fun looking from the ground up at, you know, what’s the reality of taking a bus in Zambia and actually how would you digitize that process to make things work better and lots of good stories like that. and then meeting entrepreneurs on the ground who are trying to solve those problems.

Shabnam:   That’s really interesting. I remember in a previous conversation once, you mentioned that this experience, you know, the Boren or studying abroad teaches you how to do this line of work better than a business degree would.

Paul:           I mean, I don’t necessarily want to put down business degrees, if you want to go to business school, by all means, it’s a great experience. That being said, I do think it gives you a really unique experience and why is that? It’s because being successful in business is mostly about being able to communicate with people and understand their needs. There's a saying that good companies focus on their competition, but great company's focus on their customers, and really understanding their customers. A lot of the work I do today involves going in and meeting an entrepreneur or an existing business that’s trying to build something new and helping them change their focus from the product they want to build to the customers they need to serve, and what that customers’ needs are, and really understanding their problems. I think if you can solve someone's problems, the rest of the business flows very easily from that. Many business people, and it's really interesting, most senior business people have spent most of their lives inside their organization so actually they don't have that much day-to-day interaction with the problems their customers or their stakeholders are experiencing, but great CEOs have a tremendous disproportionate likelihood of having started their career at the edge of their organization in sales or regional office or something like that, where they actually do spend a lot of time understanding what customers problems are. If that's the core skill, the question is how do you develop it? Certainly, my experience of the of the Boren is that it teaches you an enormous amount about how to really understand other people. You’re thrown into a different country, often with a language you know very little of, or any at all, you’re given this real encouragement to not just have a vacation in a foreign land, but really understand it. You’re thinking about the fact that, I don’t know if they do this now, but back in my day you did a language test when you got back, you’re thinking about the fact that you really have to understand this culture, and I think it gives you a tremendously valuable set of skills to help you understand and effectively communicate with other people. And see things from their perspective. So, I did my Boren in Hungary, and as you mentioned I was a 1999 Boren, and the experience I had of really trying to understand and connect with that culture and that was in some ways a culture that was closer to me, because my father was a Hungarian refugee in 1956 during the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Even where the culture was a bit closer, the experience I had trying to connect with that culture. Then I brought to my work in the oil and gas industry for the government, trying to really understand the needs of states and companies in Central Asia, and then more recently to my work in Africa where I'm really trying to understand, you know, what are the real problems you experience as an entrepreneur in Nairobi as opposed to, you know, what can I tell you as a Westerner about what you should “do” as an entrepreneur in Nairobi.

Shabnam:   So how have you gone about identifying and solving these problems? You talk -you mentioned like it's really important to understand people, and understand where they're coming from, but is there another process that you kind of go about in order to identify certain problems?

Paul:           I mean, 90% of building a good business is understanding problems. I think it's what - if there's a single mistake that I see business leaders make, and this is why I really would encourage people who come from an international studies background, whether they're Boren studies or if they're interested in languages, where they've had that experience in the state department or elsewhere in government service to think about a career in business maybe even a second career in business. The biggest mistake I see business leaders make is focusing on why they think people should buy their solution, instead of focusing on the problems they're solving for other people. If you really sit down, and really listened to your stakeholders, really listened to your potential customers, really understand what causes them pain or where they're being held back in what they're trying to achieve, actually solving the problem is much easier, the really difficult part is understanding it. You know, once you identify that - I'll give you a really simple example. You know I've spent a lot of the last 10 years working on building information businesses and research business serving investors, and it seems obvious, but you know most of the businesses, even today, send people emails with PDFs, but if you talk to real life investors, especially in emerging markets, they're constantly traveling, they're constantly going to meet people, they don't have the luxury of sitting in an office and printing out your reports and reading them, what they really need is quick insights on the go. If you really take the time to understand the problem, solving it is easy. We have great internet tools that can provide really compelling mobile experiences, you know we have great technology built out of companies like Google and Elastic and what not, to build a really compelling search. It's not difficult to  implement the solution, it's really difficult to take the time to understand actually what is your life like if you're an emerging-market private equity investor and spending three weeks a month on a plane looking at opportunities all over the world, and what are the problems you have that research could solve for you, and where are you, what are you doing when you need to solve them. Solving them is easy once you understand the problem.

Shabnam:   You kind of already alluded to this a bit earlier, but would you have any last-minute thoughts or bits of advice for somebody who might be interested in creating their own path, whether through business, technology or entrepreneurship?

Paul:           Yeah absolutely. I’d say a couple of things. The first is, and I do think unfortunately Corona virus will make this more difficult. You as an international studies student have a slightly different background coming into this, so you need to get the exposure up front to the right person to explain to them why it's okay not to have gone to business school. You know I had a bit of a wobble with this about almost 10 years ago, and I decided really I should go get an MBA, so I applied for the Executive MBA program at London Business School and at this point I'd run my own consulting business with some partners, we were in the process of selling that business, we were starting to send out some data technology we built to assess vulnerability in emerging markets, and we're trying to turn that into a company. But I really thought, you know, I've never gone to business school, I should really learn how to do this properly. So I applied for the executive MBA at London Business School, which was right down the road from where ai lived, and I went for the interview, which was with an alumnus, went to the interview, and he said “look, we got half an hour, so I'll tell you right now your application very strong, we're happy to have you, that means I now have 29 minutes to convince you not to come, because actually the practical experience you've had of building your own business, of working in these all these different places, of serving all these different interesting clients means you don't need to come to business school, go out and have your career, and come back at the next stage, and we'll will take you through some executive education to maybe consolidate what you've learned.” I eventually did an amazing program at LBS called the senior executive program, “but don't come and do an MBA because you learned it all in real life by starting your own business and making it work” I'm really grateful to him for that advice because it was exactly what I did, and it was completely right. I think it's often the case that people who don't come from a non-traditional kind of path don't appreciate how much they've learned in practice.

So, I guess what I would say is, first of all, there are lots of roots into the business world and into technology world that value international studies. You know my first proper job was working in this scenario and strategy team at Shell doing long-term planning for the Shell business and helping facilitate business leaders on the ground who have more traditional backgrounds, whether they had MBAs were they were geologist or whatever, helping facilitate business leaders on the ground to really understand the context they were operating in, it's a perfect place to start, and there aren't that many roles like that, but there are some. That just let me have this exposure all across the business, so I think working in a small business is a great place to start because it means that you can see from - how do you sell and market all the way through to how do you deliver. There are lots of opportunities whether it’s in strategy or consulting or business development where your skills as an international studies student are actually more valuable because you understand the audience you're talking to, and that's the hard part, and then once you have that kind of first step, it goes in lots of different directions. You know if I had told my 20-year-old self I would be doing what I'm doing now, I would have been in absolute shock, because it's certainly not what I expected to be, but you know part of what's really exciting about a career in business is the way in which its non-linear. The experience I had, certainly as you mentioned, as an energy security adviser to the NATO Commander the Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the Commander U.S EUCOM I did from Shell, I was working at Shell and thinking what am I going to do next with my career, and then got a call because of my Boren saying “we need these energy skills inside the defense department, would you like to come here?” and I had an amazing experience. What I saw was people having really fascinating careers that went step to step, and what I think is it’s so exciting in the world of entrepreneurship is you can turn in so many different directions you know going in and out of government service, going in and out of different kinds of companies, and bring that ability to understand a region and understand how to understand a region to bear in lots of different contexts.

Shabnam:   How do you think these things will change like business or travel after Corona virus

Paul:           Great question. I was actually earlier today being interviewed by the jet-set which is a US Travel industry TV program about this question. After my Africa trip I've been writing some research with Tellimer about the exposure that emerging markets do and don't have to Corona virus and one of the issues I've looked at is their reliance or lack of reliance on travel. I think there are a couple of interesting things, the first thing is, and I'm going to talk particularly about traveling to emerging markets. I think a lot of people worry that no one will ever go to an emerging market again, and I really don't think that's the case. I think a lot of emerging markets are better equipped to deal with this than people appreciate. You know, yes, they're poorer, yes lots of them have slums and lots of density, but lots of them don’t. If you travel over land across the former Soviet Union, across Africa, across Latin America, you see that actually one of the real advantage that these countries have is that they experience very little travel, so once you have an outbreak of Corona virus, that might move much more slowly than it would in the U.S or Europe, it's much easier to not necessarily lockdown cities but isolate travel within cities. Lots of emerging markets, whether it's in Southeast Asia having dealt with SARS, or in the Middle East having delt with MERS or Central Africa having dealt with Ebola, actually have more practical experience of dealing with these kinds of problems than Western countries did when this started. I flew back on February 10th from Cape Town to London by Kigali, and we landed in Kigali, they channeled everyone off the plane through very specific routing, we were interviewed by public health officials from the from the Rwandan government wearing full PPE with a kind of interview protocol to identify people who might be at risk, who were then taken aside and screened, and it was Tremendous. The reason Rwanda was able to do that so effectively, so quickly is that they've been dealing with Ebola for so many years and keeping Ebola out of Rwanda. I then landed in back in London, and obviously there was nothing, because the British government, and I'm not criticizing at all, but for the British government this was a new problem in a way it wasn't for the Rwandan government. I do think that emerging markets do have some advantages when dealing with this, certainly some of the emerging markets do, if you look at my LinkedIn, Paul Domjan on LinkedIn, you can see some of the maps that describe that research. I think because of those emerging markets will come back sooner than then people expect. It will probably be more deliberate in the sense that it would be more expensive, because they'll be fewer people flying, it may require more advanced planning in terms of getting the necessary documentation around, for example around documenting your route, but I think it definitely will come back slowly, and I actually think the fact that it's coming back slowly and the fact that it requires the advanced planning to connect to our earlier conversation that you need any way to travel as a family to some extent. I mean, we didn't have much advanced planning, but most people did plan things two or three days in advance. It actually means that it's going to be a great time for people who are maybe in there as I am in there, in a little bit further in their lives and building families to get on the road again and reconnect with the travel that we might have done as Boren’s that we would have done in our teens and twenties and do the same thing again in the post Corona virus world.

Shabnam:   Thank you again for joining us, Paul.

Paul:            It’s a real pleasure, thank you so much for having me.

Shabnam:   Of course! We hope that your insight and experiences will inspire others who are interested in pursuing a similar path.

Paul:           What I would say, certainly to the younger Boren’s listening, if you’re interested in taking this kind of route, connect with me, I’m on Twitter, I’m on LinkedIn, I’m on Instagram, I'd love to talk to you about, you know, what I've learned and how I ended up doing some of what I've done and whether those are lessons that you might have for your own career.

Shabnam:   Thank you so much for Paul

Paul:           Thank you, it’s been a real pleasure.

Shabnam:   You’ve been listening to the Boren around the world podcast. If you haven't yet, go to Spotify to subscribe, rate, and view this podcast. If you're interested in participating in the podcast, email with “Boren Podcast” in your subject line. Join me soon for another episode. Thank you for listening!

In this episode, our host, Program Officer Shabnam Ahmed, will discuss the intersections of Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Travel with Mr. Paul Domjan, a former Boren Scholar to Hungary. Paul is an independent strategy and growth consultant and he recently published a book: Chain Reaction-How Blockchain Will Transform the Developing World. Paul discusses his experience backpacking through Africa with his family, his journey to the field of business and entrepreneurship and how the power of travel can facilitate powerful insights for career growth.