Conversation with Jared Cohen, New York Times bestselling author, foreign policy expert and technologist, held on Tue June 30, 2020.
In Jared’s introductory talk, he fondly recalled when he first came to speak at the Platform in Nigeria about 8 years ago. He recalled how the audience received him with resounding cheers when he greeted them in Yoruba, Nigeria’s western language, ‘Ekaaro Lagos!’ He went on to commend the energy and innovative spirit of the Nigerian, which he said he hasn’t found anywhere in the world. In his exact words, “I have been to 110 countries and I have never encountered a population with a greater innovative spirit, greater energy, a greater commitment to problem-solving that I still think Nigeria is the best.”
According to him, COVID 19 has changed the nature of work, as remote work is fast becoming the new normal; and that is equally changing the nature of politics and creating both opportunities and pitfalls when it comes to technology.
Starting from a techno-geopolitical context, he said a couple of years Pre-COVID has witnessed the ubiquity of technology. He acknowledged what seemed like a cold war between the US and China, but he quickly debunked the myth, saying that both nations are highly integrated, economically and technologically. “We need to understand first the facts of where China is technologically and where the United States is, technologically”, Jared opined. He shared his thoughts about where each of the two nations stands and the healthy rivalry ongoing between them.
The second point he made about Pre-COVID 19 era, speaking from a political context now, is that we were already seeing a decline of democracy around the world. In his exact words, “we were seeing more polarization, we were seeing weaker leaders, and we were seeing a retreat from multilateralism.” He also spoke about the geopolitical problems around the world. He mentioned the North Korea and Iran nuclear proliferation threat, Venezuela, Syria and Iraq collapsing gates, Isis gaining strength, Israel and Palestinian conflict, among other geopolitical crises at different parts of the world.
Jared, in speaking about Pre-COVID era from the technological context, said: “because of technology, our very sense of identity was beginning to transform.” In other words, each of us is now an aggregate of multiple personalities created on the different social media profiles where we express different versions of ourselves. “Our whole sense of health and well-being was changing.” And our worries are not just about getting physically sick, but also getting digitally sick.
In rounding off his talk, he spoke about why he believed this COVID 19 era is Nigeria’s moment. Combining the resilience of its large population, innovation drive and the unique entrepreneurial spirit of its people, he believed Nigeria should be a leading technological player in sub-Saharan Africa.
On Entrepreneurs Building Great Companies
In answering his first question, Pastor Poju asked about the big problems entrepreneurs can build solutions around in this COVID 19 season, Jared responded that the biggest area where the world is yet to see a powerful solution is in the education space. He believed the education space is ripe for a major disruption. He also spoke about the possibilities of 5G and augmented devices for the future ecosystem.
As regards the question about entrepreneurs building global brands, Jared mentioned that there are huge opportunities in the health space, communication space, education, payments, infrastructure and a number of others. He advised that companies focus on one specific, narrow problem, collaborate with others and refuse to be discouraged because someone else is solving the problem they are trying to solve. “You can do it better, and competition is what fuels innovation”, he said.
To build a great company, Jared gave a few suggestions: have a healthy disregard for the impossible. Learn to take risks. Hire the right kind of people at the beginning and understand how to hire the right kind of people as the company grows. “It doesn’t matter how many people say no to you as long as you get the right person to say yes to you.” So as an entrepreneur, get comfortable with rejection.
Black Lives Matter
In answering the Black lives matter movement question, Jared opined that the issues of race is systemic in America and segregation in the system is highly pronounced. The problem of America is that the underlying cause of Slavery, segregation and discrimination has not been addressed and the history hasn’t been visited as it really should have. He expressed hope for the future considering the present trajectory of events.
On The New Normal and Life Post-COVID
On the new normal and life after COVID 19, he believed we will find a healthy hybrid of how things were before COVID 19 and how they are now amidst the pandemic. The best leaders, he believes, are those who can efficiently combine offline or remote working with online working.
Collaboration is going to get easier now that people now work more remotely. Identify a problem and build the best team with vast areas of needed skill.
Forecasting The COVID 19 Pandemic
All of the answers about what is currently ongoing are in history. The problem is that historians are generally not good with forecasts. We look to look backwards and forward at the same time, not either-or. And so an entrepreneur should be able to do both quite well.