Krists Avots and Andrejs Strods teaching at the University of Central Asia
Entrepreneurship in Ramadan, a Korean philosopher and mountain dogs
By Krists Avots
When our beloved pro-rector Diana Pauna announced her new challenge – to open and run a new university in Central Asia I was determined to visit her one day; that day came sooner than later. In Fall 2017, Andrejs (A. Strods) and I piloted a new type of course – Introduction to Entrepreneurship in a form of a 2.5 day bootcamp, with maximum intensity and not too much time to sleep.
Not too long after Diana got in touch to invite us to run a bootcamp-like course for her incoming 1st class of the University of Central Asia. Without too much of overthinking and knowledge on Central Asian culture, we signed up, reviewed the curricula (via some sluggish skype calls connecting Florida, Copenhagen and Naryn) and packed our bags.
Naryn is the third biggest town in Kirgizstan, a mountainous country of 5 mil inhabitants, many of whom still live as wandering nomads. So think of it as the fourth biggest in Latvia, i.e. quite small and remote with a mix of some soviet buildings and clay-clad family homes. The campus is located ca 3km from the Naryn town which itself is about 5km in length and a couple of streets wide. Aside from adjusting my expectations on what the third biggest meant I noticed that the surroundings where breathtaking. Think about a mini Grand Canyon on the one side of the building and breathtaking Caucasian mountains on the other side. The campus itself is built as a self-sustainable building, meant to shelter the community in harsh winters without the need of leaving the premises.
First, we had a chance to meet Diana’s academic team – all of them quite young folks who has relocated from the States and Canada, sharp thinking, quick to respond executive types with truly welcoming hearts and minds; a wonderful team to work with.
Then came the day 1; which taught us a lot. We understood that we are in the midst of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which aside from many other things, implied that around half of the students were waking up at 2:30 AM and were fasting until 9 PM in the evening. So think of being in the midst of a super tough week at SSE Riga and add 2.5 h of sleep and 18 hours of starvation. In addition, the central Asian education system is set for 11-grade high school so the student body was about a year younger. We quickly had to make up a new plan to reschedule the course to fit the demands of students’ biological schedules and rethink ourselves how to teach the content in a way that our audience understands it. NB: Do you remember the key takeaway from IOE: research your customer needs before selling to them? I admit to fail on this one here.
Over the 5 days all of us together we had our ups and downs, working on business ideas to tackle local economic development challenges, interviewing people in the narrow streets of Naryn (except for the central Lenin street which runs through the city as a wide river). On the way learning tons about the local economy, problems that locals face, the cultures of central Asian countries. In the evenings having longer walks with Diana exploring the wilderness just below or window tiles.
All of which reminded me of the spirit of the origins of SSE Riga – to contribute to economic and democratic development of the emerging economies. In some way, though being far away from Riga the UCA, the knowledge- and experience-hungry student body and the passionate staff very much embodies the original values and vision of SSE in Riga. With these insights, I could better understand what brought Diana to this place with an even more challenging environment to make this vision come true. All of this made myself thinking of how I could contribute more to this.
The mountain dogs
One afternoon Andrejs and I decided to hop on the campus bicycles and take a ride higher up the mountains through a serpentine road. Just before the flat road started to elevate three mountain dogs came out of the bushes and took interest into us; we pedaled past them in an uptempo while they were still figuring out what to do with us. The catch was that we had to go back the same way. We knew the dogs would be there, so did they. Whilst we went down the hill as fast as we could, the dogs had made up their minds to try to take a bite out of us. One of the most thrilling (and fastest) rides of my life! A rusty Zhiguli car popped out on the road and beeped the dogs away to save us.
The Korean philosopher
One of the “Dragons” of the final pitch jury was a local entrepreneurship star – a Korean artist Chihoon; we shared a ride and stories on the way back to Bishkek. Chihoon did his masters in Boston and enrolled into PhD in Philosophy studies in Cambridge. In the summer prior to taking on his PhD degree, he visited Kirgizstan, fell in love with the country and decided to open the best Korean chicken restaurant chain out of there. Having spent a year prototyping recipes to replicate Korean food using Kyrgyz ingredients and learning to brew artisan coffee from a Japanese master-brewer (worth another blog) he opened Chicken Star – the best Korean chicken place outside of Korea and a sort of a youth art-cafe in Bishkek. The walls of the restaurant are lined with Chihoon’s paintings and a crowd of varying ages packs the place from Monday tango nights (classes taught by Chihoon, who learned it in Argentina along with authentic Argentinian Spanish) through Open Mike evenings on Saturdays when local youth queues up to sing and play their covers of international hits many of them at the level that leaves any Voice contest at rest. Chihoon embedded us with the artisan and expat community in Bishkek, introduced the craft artisan coffee and we had many vivid discussions all in less than 24 hours. He was one of the most interesting personalities I have met in years, in an unexpected place. If you want to get a taste of what lifestyle entrepreneurship can be like go to Bishkek and look up Chihoon at his Chicken Star. Or better still – why don’t we invite him to visit SSE: amazing stories and a fun tango class guaranteed.
Till next time in Kirgizstan!