Harnessing the power of social media to affect change is a story as old as the Internet. But to harness social media that lies beyond the Internet is what American entrepreneur Eileen Guo wants to do through her startup Impassion Media. Impassion, a digital media firm, focuses on using technology for peace building and democratisation in conflict zones. The first such zone she has ventured into is Afghanistan, where 85 per cent of the 30 million strong population wield mobile phones.
Impassion Afghanistan is the country’s first digital agency. Under its umbrella, she and her team created Afghanistan’s first citizen journalism website Paiwandgah and several other pioneering political projects. While her work has enriched Afghanistan’s ecosystem immeasurably, she too has found a home in the unlikeliest of places. Eileen says, “Afghanistan is the home of my professional coming of age.”
For her groundbreaking work, Eileen has been selected to serve on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on social media. She uses her experience of unleashing the power of the Internet on frontier markets for a better understanding of these places and gets to rub shoulders with other internet pioneers from around the world.
She speaks to YourStory about how a chance trip to Afghanistan gave her a purpose for life, why expecting her startup to fail is the secret behind its success, how her Indian employees get VIP treatment in Afghanistan because of Bollywood and the three questions that are a guiding light for all entrepreneurs.
What was your childhood like?
I was born in China and moved to the US when I was four years old. My parents are entrepreneurs who dedicated every spare minute they had to their business. It was like another sibling that got more attention than me. So I grew up actively not wanting to be one. I was interested in the non-profit sector.
So when did you decide to embrace entrepreneurship?
I was really interested in working in conflict zones, but wasn’t sure how. In 2009, when I was in my second year of college, I got an incredible opportunity to go to Afghanistan as a research assistant. Once there, I was embedded with the US military and got to travel all over the country. I had a huge culture shock. But the shock was not to Afghanistan but to the US military and working in a combat zone. I came out of that experience disillusioned about how we, as Americans, were doing foreign policy. I thought there has to be a better way of doing this, a better way of making a difference.
Before you launched Impassion Afghanistan, what role did digital technology play in Afghanistan’s media scene?
Back in 2009 when Ashraf Ghani ran for president, he made a big splash because he hired a Westerner to consult on the social media strategy for his campaign. That was an anomaly. It got some press. Not as much as it should have because it was a big deal and kind of odd. I say that because prior to this social media in Afghanistan was, in bits and pieces, starting to influence how Afghans would interact both with the outside world and within Afghanistan.
A lot of Afghans, especially young Afghans, are on Facebook. Starting from 2007 or 2008, there have been some really interesting tech projects underway in the country. What we were seeing wasn’t that big of a focus on digital in Afghanistan. There were tonnes of strategic communications agencies that did billboards, leaflets, service announcements, and even TV programs. But no one was focussing on digital. I did a lot of research and made a gamble that we had reached a point where social media was going to take on increased importance in Afghanistan.
The second time that I went to Afghanistan was to help plan the first ever that TedX Kabul. I was doing communications and digital strategy for them. I was supposed to be in the country for two months, working on that, and also filming a documentary on startups. My producer fell out. I was travelling all over the country talking to entrepreneurs. I realised that I loved talking to entrepreneurs but I hated filmmaking. I never wanted to bring out the camera because I felt like it interrupted the conversation. So at the end of those two months I began to rethink my life. I can either make a documentary about entrepreneurs and struggle through my dislike of filmmaking or, if I really believed in the power of entrepreneurship to make a difference socio-economically, I can become an entrepreneur here in this country and become a part of that ecosystem of change. That’s what I ended up doing.
How did you fund Impassion and its subsequent offshoots – Paiwandgah, SadRoz, the first Afghan social media summit?
The most important thing to our success has been before I started Impassion Afghanistan I kind of expected it to fail. I think that’s important as we were able to take a lot of risks, especially financial risks because I had the attitude that if we lost money it’s not a big deal. At the end of the day, we are trying to do something cool. If we fail, we’ll have gotten some great experiences out of this venture and hopefully do something good for this country.
That attitude has driven a lot of our internal thinking and approach to how we do everything. So we ended up applying for funding from the US State Department to put on the first social media summit. We’ve been really lucky to be able to get grant funding for those activities specifically and then, as the market started growing, getting funding both in grants as well as contracts for other projects.
Once it took off, what kind of commercial projects has Impassion Afghanistan undertaken?
We’ve done a fair share of standard digital agency work. We designed a poll for Al Jazeera, gathering responses from 32 out of 34 provinces. That was a really cool project because it kind of proved to us how powerful social media actually is in Afghanistan. We’ve done advertising for the European Union on Facebook. We’ve done sponsorship packages for a number of private sector clients. That’s the kind of model we want to continue growing forward.
Since 2012 to now how profitable has Impassion been? Has the model proven to be sustainable?
We have always had a positive cash flow. We have never gone into debt for significant amounts of time. It’s a hard question to answer for a place like Afghanistan, because whether or not the model proves sustainable depends equally on factors we can and cannot control.
There aren’t many companies that can work in low technology settings, like Afghanistan, as well as in conflict zones. That part of the model is sustainable.
Whether or not we are sustainable in Afghanistan in the long term is dependent on the security situation and the economic situation of the country.
What projects are you looking to explore in Afghanistan under Impassion’s umbrella?
We have Paiwandgah, which is the country’s first and largest citizen journalism platform. Presently, our big focus is on growing it. Actually, it was just a few months ago that we had our first milestone of having citizen journalists in all 34 provinces.
The bigger picture of what we’re trying to do is build an ecosystem of Internet users in Afghanistan. At present, the number of people who are getting on the Internet is increasing and that’s really exciting. But what we are trying to do is push it a step forward. Thus, it’s not just about that you’re on Facebook and you have your group of friends, that’s great, but it’s about how do you get Afghans to think about how they can contribute to the country’s progress positively. It’s not just about consuming media. It’s about producing media.
How do we get people to realise that their voice is valuable and make that voice heard. Obviously, we want all Afghans to be on Paiwandgah for our own reasons. But ultimately, it’s about getting all Afghans on the Internet and producing content. Thus, we are working on a number of different projects that continue that.
How difficult is it running an Internet startup when the Internet infrastructure of the country is so shaky?
We have invested a lot of money into having a stable Internet connection and backup systems. Also, when we talk about social media in Afghanistan we are talking about more than just the Internet.
Mobile phones are a really big part of social media. There’s a lot of media and technology that gets shared by Bluetooth connections. There are booths on either side of the road where you can download ringtones and messages and all of these other things for a little bit of money. So the social media in the country encompasses all these other things that preclude the Internet. Most people when they think of social media think of Facebook and Twitter and all these other sites. But while that’s a part of social media there is so much more that doesn’t hinge on Internet.
You are a woman boss leading a largely female team in a country notorious for its treatment of women. What has that experience been like?
Afghan women are often, but not always, treated like second-class citizens. But I am foremost an American and then a woman. Here that means I get the best of both worlds. I get invited to dinners with women politicians where men are not invited. Conversely, I also get to attend high flying events were women are not allowed.
In the office, there have been some people who have had issues with my authority and other female managers. Usually they don’t last long at the company.
With Indian employees, and other Indians in Afghanistan, they find that there is really good cultural bond because Afghans love Bollywood. People automatically start singing Bollywood lyrics when they encounter Indians here and that paves the way for a strong relationship of mutual respect.
What is your impression of the Internet savvy young generation of Afghans?
Afghanistan is generally viewed through the lens of political instability and conflict. But the young Afghans have a lot of hope. There is a small, but growing, community of tech entrepreneurs in the country. They are incredibly optimistic. Of course it’s not all roses and rainbows. There is a lot of challenges and difficulties that they face. But what they’ve been able to accomplish is really inspiring.
Given that it might not be the easiest thing to lure the best talents to war torn conflict zones, what is your recruitment strategy?
When we first started, I was adamant about hiring Afghans for everything. Then I found that a lot of the skills I was looking for weren’t available in the country. Because we were a small and underfunded startup, we couldn’t dedicate a lot of time to training a local staff. We’re starting to do that now.
So we had to largely recruit from outside the country. The security issue makes it hard to find good people. On the other hand that helps self-select. We are looking for go getters and people who are not easily daunted.
What other countries are you eyeing for expanding Impassion’s base?
I am eyeing Iran right now. As an American I can’t work there. But I am following closely what’s happening.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs looking to create an impact through their work?
To young startup founders, I would like to say that there is a kind of glorification of the startup culture where everybody is best friends. That’s great and all. But if you want to be successful you really need to pay attention to developing yourself as a leader. That requires making hard choices. In the beginning I thought I didn’t care about leadership development. When you’re an entrepreneur, you’re a leader by default. If you’re not actively developing yourself as a leader and making yourself better, you’re doing your team a disservice.
Also, I urge all entrepreneurs to think about their priorities. What are the things that I am best at? What are the things I most like to do? What are the things that, as a founder and leader, only I can do? A lot of time those three things don’t align. You have to figure out how you focus your time. I found these three questions to be a guiding light for me.