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Tech Industry

Students learn the language of start-ups

Collegians visiting Silicon Valley from Middle East, North Africa hear what it takes to turn ideas into profitable realities. Photos: International language of start-ups

Good ideas translate into any language. In Silicon Valley, most people lose money before they make it, but as almost two dozen Middle Eastern and North African university students learned Friday, that's just fine.

The group of students is visiting as part of a U.S. State Department program called Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) of the U.S. Institute for Undergraduate Student Leaders. The institute aims to teach foreign students about American culture, politics and history.

On Friday, the gaggle of Moroccans, Palestinians, Syrians, Egyptians, Tunisians, Saudis, Algerians, Lebanese and more stopped in at Santa Clara, Calif.-based Atheros Communications, a maker of chips for wireless communications systems. Prior to arriving in the heart of the tech world, the bubbly and inquisitive group swung through New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, but came to Silicon Valley for a good old-fashion dose of American capitalism.


Rich Redelfs, former CEO of Atheros and current general partner of Foundation Capital, briefed the group on a slew of start-up tech companies, both the successes and the "expensive educations," otherwise known as failures.

"American culture as a whole--there's always been an entrepreneurial spirit," Redelfs told his international audience gathered in a sunny, glassed-in conference room.

Throwing out names like Michael Dell, Bill Gates and Cyrus Field (19th century inventor of first trans-Atlantic telegraph company), he stressed the importance of taking a risk, bouncing back from failure and capitalizing on a brilliant business idea.

Though strangers to the U.S., some were already familiar with the concept of failure.

A young woman named Sabrine, who like all the students didn't give her last name for security purposes, started a free e-mail hosting service back home in Egypt, which didn't pan out. The online ads for e-businesses she had solicited, as she soon learned, were ineffective among her friends and fellow citizens.

"One of the things that's neat about the Silicon Valley is people help each other out even when there's nothing in it for them. It's just the way the Valley works. We all realized we needed help when we started out."
--Rich Redelfs, Foundation Capital general partner

But Sabrine, a business and information systems major, already has a few more ideas brewing: an Arabic translation service, a tourism guide for her home city of Alexandria, and a magazine for young people.

If the decision to trek thousands of miles from the familiar doesn't say it, these kids are smart, motivated and bursting with the kind of ideas Redelfs likes to spend money on.

"Hopefully they start companies and we'll all do business together," he said afterward.

Young men and women representing a dozen countries, three religions and a multitude of Arabic dialects found common ground being thrown together as college students in America for four weeks. They sported Nikes, jeans, dangly earrings, striped polos and Calvin Klein T-shirts. Some young women were swathed in headscarves, and a few young men had baseball caps perched atop their heads.

Like in any college classroom, they shifted their seats, occasionally took notes, some struggled to stay awake, but most asked earnest questions. How do you deal with competition? What are the rights of American inventors? How do you create a market for your product or service? And the kicker: How do you attract financing for your brilliant idea?

The budding businesspeople seemed intrigued by the constant flow of new ideas and boatloads of money being thrown around.

If you lose millions of investors' dollars, how do you raise money again, asked Shady, a business administration student from Lebanon.

Silicon Valley, Redelfs explained, is "a risk-taking culture. Success is not guaranteed, but that's OK." He used his own company, Foundation Capital, as an example, since it loses money on eight out of the 10 start-ups it pours money into. "But," he said, smiling, "you make it up on the two that do make money."

Shady says he has a business plan for an online advertising-based gaming service already in place, and wants to put it in motion when he returns home next week. When asked why he wants to start a business so soon, he shrugged, "It's in the blood! My family has been in business since 1853."

Oday, who studies computer science and marketing at school in Palestine, said he might consider hunting for an engineering job in Silicon Valley after he graduates.

"The work is better here, but I would return home after getting some experience."

Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., has acted as host and tour guide for the students on their American tour. Harold Pohlman, their academic adviser, said the idea of the program is "to bring together young adults with high potential with the goal to become familiar in a hands-on way with American ideals, democracy, rule of law, equal opportunities and what they mean in practice."

The current state of affairs in the Middle East has provided rich fodder for debates in a class that includes students from Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Yemen, Israel and Iraq, Pohlman said. When they arrive in Washington, D.C., for the concluding week of their American adventure, three days will be chiefly devoted to discussing terrorism. "We don't hide anything under the table here," Pohlman said with a chuckle.

As for his participation in educating the students in the ways of entrepreneurship and risk-taking, Redelfs sees it as his way of giving back to a world that's been kind to him. "One of the things that's neat about the Silicon Valley is people help each other out even when there's nothing in it for them," he said. "It's just the way the Valley works. We all realized we needed help when we started out."

The excitement and potential surrounding the promise of technology is understood internationally, and he says helping future business leaders is an act that can serve an even wider purpose.

"I don't want to sound too political, but dropping bombs on each other isn't a way to change a culture. But we can if we spend time with each other," he said.