Interview with Benjamin Sywulka
posted on Monday, May 11, 2009 05:26 PM
i-genius took some time out with Benjamin Sywulka to ask him about Guatemala and his future plans.
i-genius: What have you done that has made you most proud?
Benjamin: I would probably point to two technology-business incubation projects I implemented in rural Guatemala. Both had limited funding, and both involved converting people with very limited computer experience into technology entrepreneurs. These businesses are still running to this dayĂ˘â‚¬â€˘we have a Wifi Internet distribution business with a couple of dozen clients, a Wimax Internet distribution business with 150 clients, a web design company making websites for rural hotels and tourism-related businesses, and a video production company that makes its money recording events like weddings, but also produces content for a local cable channel. These businesses are small, but they have enabled rural entrepreneurs to build a life within their communities without having to migrate. They have ushered hundreds of families, small businesses and organizations into the Internet era, and most importantly, they have embedded into the subconscious of people living in these communities, that they can become technology producersĂ˘â‚¬â€˘not just technology consumers. These people were already watching cable TV and playing computer games, but when they see themselves on TV and see their own business on the Internet, they get the sense of being able to participate in the global economy, not just being on the consuming end of it. That self-esteem that converts a formerly isolated person into an active member of the global community, without having to abandon his or her traditions, language and hometown, is something that I strive to create, and I'm proud that I've been able to play a role in this process for some people in rural Guatemala.
i-genius: What three things do you most like about Guatemala?
Benjamin: Guatemala is beautiful. It has an incredible landscapeĂ˘â‚¬â€˘it's full of lakes, volcanos, deserts, tropical forests, beachesĂ˘â‚¬â€˘it's got white-sand beaches on the Atlantic and black-sand beaches on the PacificĂ˘â‚¬â€˘and unlike many countries the water is warm. I love the fact that in such a small country there is so much variety, it really makes it an interesting place to liveĂ˘â‚¬â€˘within a few hours of driving you can pretty much be in any type of climate you want, except snow. The other thing I really love about Guatemala is its wonderful cultural heritageĂ˘â‚¬â€˘we have some amazing constructions built by the Mayas thousands of years ago, and to this day, we have dozens of indigenous tribes, over twenty indigenous languages, all of these contributing to a very rich cultural variety, in addition to the geographical variety. The third thing I'd say is the innovative spirit fo the Guatemalan people. Most people probably don't realize it, but little things like instant coffeeĂ˘â‚¬â€˘ were invented by Guatemalans. And even CaptchaĂ˘â‚¬â€˘that system that websites use to determine that you are a human being or not (where you have to type in difficult-to-read letters)Ă˘â‚¬â€˘that was also invented by a Guatemalan. I'm really proud of that, and I love being in a country with so much talent and potential.
i-genius: What three things do you most dislike about Guatemala?
Benjamin: I would have to say the thing that saddens me most is the violence perpetrated by organized crime. It's a complex problem with culprits in practically every social class, political organism and region of the country. For a while, as long as you stayed out of people's business, you were relatively safe. But today, entire communities are subject to extortionsĂ˘â‚¬â€˘it is not uncommon for a small shop that barely sells $100/week to have to pay out $25/week to extortionists. And if you close the business, they kill one of your children, forcing you to reopen and keep paying. I am convinced that there is no single more detrimental factor keeping Guatemala from prospering than this organized-crime-generated violence. The second thing I'd mention is the discriminationĂ˘â‚¬â€˘power has tended to be concentrated in certain races, which has lead to a subconscious subvaluing of our indigenous people. I don't think Guatemalans fully appreciate the profound richness of their own heritageĂ˘â‚¬â€˘even indigenous people themselves work hard to homogenize with the western culture, a requirement to be taken seriously by other races. This saddens me, because building a successful and prosperous country depends on us being smart enough to admire and appreciate people who are different than us. Finally, I'd have to say I'm not very fond of the ineffectiveness of the Guatemalan Government. I'm not pointing the finger at any person or administration in particular, it's just that in general, it is a difficult environment in which to be effective. While I haven't been able to fully understand they complexities of it, I think a lot of it has to do with how our leaders are elected. As a voter you have no way of rewarding or punishing one particular congressmanĂ˘â‚¬â€˘you can only vote for a party, not for an individual. This makes it too easy for people unfit for public service to buy a seat in congressĂ˘â‚¬â€˘they simply pay a leading political party enough money to buy a seat at the top of the list. That's just one example, but there are many such structural deficiencies that prevent good leaders from rising to power, and keep corrupt, or at best ineffective public servants in key decision-making positions. This has taken the dignity out of political leadership, and the general sense we grow up with in Guatemala is that good people shouldn't get involved in politics. This in turn leads to a country with a very successful private sector, but a very broken and corrupt public sector. As long as that is the case, the ordinary citizen will never be safe from organized crime, never have a safety net when disaster strikes, and worse, will never dream of a better countryĂ˘â‚¬â€˘only of a better life for his or herselfĂ˘â‚¬â€˘even if that means migrating somewhere else.
i-genius: If you were an investor, would you put your money in Guatemala, and if so, in what areas?
Benjamin: Absolutely. In technology and agroforestry. It is becoming increasingly difficult for people in rural Guatemala to make a decent living within their communitiesĂ˘â‚¬â€˘so many of them opt for moving to the city or migrating to other countries. I believe technology can play an important role in generating a better quality of life for rural citizensĂ˘â‚¬â€˘but it requires going beyond providing technology for consumption and empowering people in rural areas to produce technology. I would invest in building technology supply chains for rural areasĂ˘â‚¬â€˘the more possibilities someone has to acquire technology services from a local entrepreneur, the more impact technology will have on the community. Ideally, in any given rural community, I would be able to buy Internet access, get a website built, buy computer equipment, get it repaired by certified technicians, purchase business management software and have it customized and adapted to my business, all without leaving my communityĂ˘â‚¬â€˘purchasing these products and services from local entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs would not only make a living themselves, but become catalysts for others to make a livingĂ˘â‚¬â€˘helping hotels and restaurants attract more business, helping people who produce things sell their wares to broader markets. I would invest in these technology entrepreneursĂ˘â‚¬â€˘helping them build up their businesses and establishing industry associations so that similar businesses in different geographical areas can share best practices and get better wholesale pricing. The second area I would invest in is agroforestry. Plants, trees, and everything natural grows so fast in Guatemala, but rural farmers have limited themselves to a corn-based economy, cutting down forests for firewood and to free up land for their subsistence corn farming. This is both detrimental to the environment and to the long-term production of their land. Ideally, I would try to build up a supply chain and market demand for cash-crops that allow for multi-tier production, so that rural farmers with small plots of land would find it more profitable to plant combinations of large trees, smaller trees, and produce than resorting to traditional corn farming. With proper market access and production mentoring, I think this cultural shift from slash-and-burn corn production to multi-tiered agricultural production could contribute significantly to reforestation, erosion prevention on the Guatemalan hillsides, and healthy land management. The trick would be to establish a business model that provides farmers with profits in the short-term, so that they can be patient enough to wait for the trees to grow (literally), after which time their long-term production cycles can start generating higher profits.
i-genius: You are planning to go to Dubai to do a MBA? Are MBAs still a credible/useful thing to do or are they past their sell-by-date?
Benjamin: That's a good question. Some people recommend getting an MBA to enhance your social network, and some people recommend getting it so that you have a degree that will make you more hirable. I guess in my case I feel like I need to learn more management skills if I want to make my long-term dreams come true. If I want to build up technology entrepreneurs in the developing world, then I need to know how successful businesses are run, how franchises work, how supply chains can be managed effectively, and how markets can be developed. While I have some self-taught management experience, I really don't have the access to best-practice information in the areas I mentioned, and I feel like an MBA can give me the framework I need to continually be in touch with world-wide best-practices. I think the myth surrounding MBAs that needs to be revised is that if you get one, you will suddenly be in high demand. I know a lot of people who have gotten MBAs from very prestigious institutions who have a had a hard time finding a job. In fact, when I was working at Google a long time ago there was almost an anti-MBA cultureĂ˘â‚¬â€˘"you're going to learn a lot more about management by working here than you will in an MBA program"Ă˘â‚¬â€˘something I'd have to say I agree with, given that many of their most effective and innovative product managers all have a technical background and have little-to-no previous management training. I guess I'd say that if you like what you are doing and you are good at it, and you think an MBA can help you do it better, it's a good idea to do it. But if you don't like what you are doing and you think an MBA will be a get-out-of-jail-free card for your present inconformity, you may find yourself being disappointed. An MBA is a tool that can help you be more effective, not a lottery ticket that will solve all your problems.
i-genius: What will Benjamin be doing in three years time?
Benjamin: Hopefully I will be working on building up technology businesses in the developing world. I am not entirely sure yet what the best mechanism would be, but having worked in this area from the non-profit and international donor perspective, I would venture to say that I'll probably approach it from the private sector. I have come to realize that if I am going to make an incubated business successful, I need to provide a permanent support structure for it, and the only way I can do that is by being a permanent stockholder. Philanthropy tends to be project-based and capital-expenditure based, but in my experience what makes things tick in the real world is adequate and appropriate operating expenses, so I intend to tackle the technology-for-development challenge from a "if you make money, I make money" perspective, which I think will enable me to support projects permanently, instead of merely initially. My guess is that three years from now, I will be working for a private-sector company, helping them create business strategies for expanding technology services to rural markets using local entrepreneurs.
i-genius: Thank you and good luck!
Benjamin: Thank You, and keep up the good work!