How To Turn A “Lost Generation” Of Engineers In Iran Into An Innovation Asset
During the trip to Iran, one thing we noticed is the great number of engineers and scientists in the country. This can be explained by a few reasons. First, Persia has historically been a center for science and made important contributions to our current understanding of nature, medicine and mathematics. Second, the educational system in Iran favours those who choose to pursue scientific studies: mathematics or scientific/engineering studies are seen as most prestigious and able to open the most doors.
Every year, 5,000 engineers graduate from university, out of which 1000-1500 are of world-class standards. In 2006, out of 22 PhD in Electrical Engineering, Stanford University picked 17 applicants from Iran. And yet, because of the economic situation and the international sanctions on Iran, the job market is unable to absorb those brilliant minds. We were told that there are currently 400,000 unemployed engineers in Iran and underemployment is a rampant problem. Ironically, those who are able to leave the country do very well abroad: between 1997 and 2007, more than 4000 patents were issued to Iranian Americans.
Using this “lost generation” of engineers could be a great way for the country to innovate. The rate of entrepreneurship is low in Iran, but a few things can be done in order to solve this problem.
First, the attitude towards risk needs to change. “Venture Capitalism” is translated into Persian as “investment of high danger” which shows the risk-averse mentality in the country. In Iran, if you fail, you must have done something bad in your previous life to deserve this. Failure is seen as a curse and this is definitely a barrier to entrepreneurship as failure is an inevitable part of thinking big and creating a company. Risk-taking should therefore be introduced as a value through culture modification and cultural innovations.
Second, the new generation of entrepreneurs would benefit from some business training. Because there is no liberal arts education in Iran, the system doesn’t produce well-rounded graduates and by the time they graduate, students lack real-world experience and have a very limited business background. Allowing graduates to choose electives from other departments could be a good solution to this.
Finally, giving young entrepreneurs access to mentors will be key to their success. The lack of mentors was mentioned to us on multiple occasions. One organization that is trying to solve this problem is the Iran Entrepreneurship Association, which aims to identify and eliminate the barriers of entrepreneurship in Iran by providing assistance to entrepreneurs using different initiatives. This is a great non-profit organization started by Mohsen Malayeri and an article about his views on the ecosystem can be found here.
To conclude, entrepreneurship in Iran has a very exciting future and young people are bright and passionate, as we saw in Startup Weekend Shiraz. By giving them access to business training, mentors and funding, the mindset towards risk and failure can change and Iran can turn this “lost generation” of engineers into an innovation asset.