How Big Is Your Wasta? The Currency Of Entrepreneurship

This is a guest post by writer and entrepreneur Robyn Scott, born in England and raised in New Zealand and Botswana, founder of OneLeap and Mothers for All, with an MPhil in Bioscience Enterprise at the University of Cambridge.

“To quote George W Bush, “The French don’t even have a word for ‘entrepreneur.’”

robynscottSo tweeted an American friend, replying to my 4 am Twitter grumble about the exodus of taxis from Paris, which had stranded hundreds of revelers at Le Web, Europe’s largest internet conference. She wasn’t the first that evening to reprise this delightful remark. But a few days later – this time inadvertently – the same friend offered an illuminating perspective on a problem, not of the French, but of the 2,500 strong conference and the tech world more broadly.

An Arab American, she was describing a business deal in the Middle East and mentioned the need to find someone with enough “wasta” to pull it off. “Wasta is hard to translate” she explained. "Kind of a mixture of influence, clout, social status and networks. But it’s different. You accumulate and spend it. Like a currency. It’s also inherently a bit corrupt and nepotistic. Who-you-know rather than merit. You generally use wasta at someone else’s expense.”
 The tech world doesn’t even have a word for wasta.

It should: the Arabic word pithily describes the lubricant of the cool web milieu – that night for a few hours rendered valueless by the confluence of ice and French taxi drivers’ absolute resistance to market forces. In the two hours it took me and a friend to trudge back home through the snow, we saw not a single free taxi. All had their lights off, heading home to avoid the (not very) slippery roads. The drivers were as unpersuaded to stop by two damsels in distress as they were by venture capitalists waving fistfuls of cash: willing to blow their annual seed fund (or to introduce you to any of my contacts) just to get back to the Huitième and avoid ruining their calf skin shoes. (This is not just a stereotype: I have it on good authority from a respected technology correspondent that you can always distinguish entrepreneurs from VCs by the latter’s expensive shoes.) That night, had one been able to hire a car, forget pitching for investment, it could have been raised in ransom style fares.

The next morning there was much grumbling about market failures – no doubt loudest amongst the cliques that, thanks to wasta, manifest the more interesting, and arguably innate, market failure at conferences like Le Web.

This is the failure of connections. At the utopian version of Le Web and its ilk once you’ve paid your thousands of euros – or begged, borrowed or bribed your way in – you can get access to fantastic people.

The reality is more complicated. Certainly almost all the valuable meetings I had were prearranged – many at dinners or gatherings that spring up around the conference, whose main utility becomes a loose geographic convener. A straw poll suggested this experience is the norm. If you’re really persistent and patient you can, of course, collar speakers. But the tactics involved are not conducive to a nice chat. Getting a word with Shai Agassi was like diving into a rugby scrum – of other fans, minders and press people, wielding large dangerous camera lenses.

To the credit of Le Web’s organisers, a tool called Presdo Match was introduced to help solve the problem. You could “like” participants and send them a message to pre-arrange a meeting. But it was opt-in. And many of the most interesting people did not – correctly guessing that there’d be lots of entrepreneurs indiscriminately firing off generic messages (it cost nothing but time, so why not?) inviting you to “meet up for 15 minutes so I can tell you more about my startup”.

The problem was neatly summarised by one of the speakers. “The only place anything of interest happens at Le Web,” he told me, “is in the speakers’ room. That’s why I come.” Ergo, for the conference to be of value you have to be one of the speakers. Or know one or more of the speakers. And preferably you need them to owe you a favour or two.

You need to have wasta. Or – one and the same – know someone with wasta.
Which pretty much sums the ostensibly meritocratic tech world. Wasta is ubiquitous: helping to get advice, investment, partnership deals, speaking gigs, even media coverage. Conferences merely bring the dynamic into stark relief. To an extent, it is necessary, unavoidable and nothing new. You refer people you trust and like. And often these are the right people. It stands to reason, however, that its importance should not exceed a threshold. And perhaps precisely because the technology world’s creed is one of merit, few have thought to look out for wasta’s insidious rise.

The dynamism and sheer scale of Le Web saved it. But the consequences of wasta were more apparent the following week in London at the high end technology conference, Noah, whose homogeneity would have made Noah himself blush.

There were – notwithstanding the dark-suited conformity and the abundance of old boys’ backslapping and its Twitter equivalent – many fabulous speakers and participants. But this alone wasn’t enough. Not simply thanks to the humdrum programme, the day and conversations felt dull, often echoing one another.

One got the feeling that they had surrounded themselves with themselves a bit too much. And that they might, consequently, be missing out on the real action, happening somewhere they’d forgotten to look, at the hands of people who weren’t like them. The other sex, for a start. (A woman did not make a single appearance on stage and women were so few and far between you generally encountered one only in the ladies loos. Enough to make one long for a bit of old-fashioned tokenism.)

For all the diversity Noah, the conference, exhibited, Noah, the man, might have loaded on board the ark a couple of hundred pairs of male peacocks – without the redeeming colour. Which, segueing irresistibly into an evolutionary metaphor, doesn’t bode well for the priceless vigour and innovation brought by outsiders – and talked about endlessly and excitedly by the kings of wasta – to each other.

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