Meet Silicon Valley's Unofficial Emissary to the Rest of the World
It seems like everyone in the tech world wants a piece of Silicon Valley. There's something magical about this geographical area in California that spews forth innovation, collaboration and, of course, profit. But for some countries aiming to get into the world-tech scene, it's not easy to bring their geeks to the Valley, so Paul Bragiel has taken it upon himself to be Silicon Valley's ambassador to the world.
During the past year, the early-stage investor has met with government officials from the Philippines, Brazil, Singapore, Poland, Kenya and Russia, sharing his knowledge of trends, starting up and raising venture capital. In Tanzania, he met with the president himself.
"Here I am sitting talking to the president of a country and I think to myself, 'How did I get here?'" said Mr. Bragiel, who has an evident enthusiasm for business and connecting people.
Mr. Bragiel may not have major startup success to his name, but he's got enough experience and tech-famous friends to export Silicon Valley's ambassadorial message -- and its money -- to hungry global entrepreneurs. Some of the people who have joined him on his trips include Aswhin Navin, co-founder of BitTorrent, YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim, Yelp co-founder Russ Simmons and MySpace co-founder Aber Whitcomb.
"The attitude between entrepreneurs in some countries is closed and secretive," said Mr. Bragiel, who along with his brother Dan is co-founder of I/O Ventures. "It can be counter-intuitive to help the people you are competing against. But in Silicon Valley, we believe that if you help someone else, then something good will come back to you and that's part of the vision and message I spread."
The friends he's made over the years agree. "I think the work Paul does around the world and his extrovert personality make him a very peculiar type of entrepreneur of Silicon Valley," said Reinaldo Normand, a Brazilian startup entrepreneur who helped organize and went on several of Mr. Bragiel's trips. "He opens the doors to the rest of the world to learn, share and interact with the best minds here."
Mr. Bragiel's connections to Silicon Valley go back to his college days at the University of Illinois, where his classmates included founders of some of the most important companies online. Through his startup Meetro, Mr. Bragiel met many venture capitalists and angel investors in the Valley. "I went to see the Benchmarks, the Sequoias, the Ray Conways, the Reid Hoffmans all up and down the Valley -- and I was told 'no' by most of them," Mr. Bragiel name-dropped. He said he brings all these connections with him on his trips to share with the men and women who are eager to try their hand at the startup life.
The trips evolved organically. One day last year, Mr. Bragiel was having a few beers with his friend Mbwana Alliy, co-founder of Tanzanian and East Africa travel site YellowMasai. They were talking about doing a project in Tanzania. A month later, Mr. Alliy called and said that Jakaya Kikwete, the Tanzanian president, wanted to meet and discuss helping with the technology scene in the country.
The Tanzanian government paid for the August trip, during which Mr. Bragiel and Mr. Alliy made arrangements to set up a startup incubator in Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital of Tanzania. The incubator will host 47 companies over the next three years. Mr. Bragiel also arranged mentor trips to the country, getting together groups of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who are willing to share their expertise. One of the mentor trips took place in December, when Mr. Simmons -- early lead engineer at PayPal and co-founder of Yelp -- traveled to meet with students at the University of Dar es Salaam and other locations.
Tanzania is just starting out, but other countries that already have a relatively strong internet presence still want some help from Silicon Valley to get them over the hump of starting a thriving startup and tech community.
To get to Brazil, Mr. Bragiel contacted Mr. Normand on LinkedIn. After some planning, Mr. Bragiel and his founder friends in November traveled to Rio de Janeiro to meet with the mayor, Eduardo Paes.
"Paul was the guy to make this happen," said Mr. Normand. "Without him, we would still be very far from Silicon Valley and its ecosystem."
The mayor of Brazil is tech-savvy and has a goal in mind for his city -- he wants to be technologically ready for the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016, both of which will take place in Rio de Janeiro.
On his trip to Brazil, Mr. Bragiel was accompanied by Messrs. Navin, Karim and Whitcomb (BitTorrent, YouTube, MySpace). "People were very happy to meet the Silicon Valley folks," Mr. Normand said of the trip. "They were willing to learn why Silicon Valley is so powerful today, what is the secret sauce, [what are] the formulas, and where its mojo comes from. There is a kind of deference to Silicon Valley in Brazil and people from there are very respected."
Mr. Normand works for StartUp Chile, a Chilean government initiative to bring venture money into the country. A mentor trip to Chile is in the works.
Mr. Bragiel said sometimes the entrepreneurs in the countries he visits just want someone to talk to, someone to listen to them. "A big difference is meeting someone face-to-face. You meet someone who built a $100 million company, and when you look at the guy, he's wearing jeans and a T-shirt. You see he's not much different from you except he's 10 years older. A lot of times, they don't need much more than inspiration. I'm happy to bring it to them."