A few months ago, I received a direct message on Twitter from Tristram Perry, a Public Diplomacy officer at the U.S. Consulate in Almaty, saying, “How would you like to come to Almaty and be a trainer for a Tech Forum?”
Two thoughts ran through my head: 1. I can turn on a computer. Can I train people in that? 2. Kazakhstan. What.
A few seconds later, I wrote back, “Sure! Sign me up!”
The Tech Forum Central Asia (TFCA) occurred between June 14-16 and was a mix of the Civil Alliance Kazakhstan’s SocialCamp and TechCamp – a project initiated by the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to increase the digital literacy of civil society organizations around the world. TechCamps have so far happened all over the world, with this past forum in Almaty being the 11th of this kind. TFCA brought together participants from across Central Asia, Afghanistan & Pakistan for training sessions in topics ranging from low-tech solutions (i.e. mobile technology) to blogging for social good to digital storytelling.
I led a number of training & facilitated sessions – one on crowdfunding social ventures to a more general discussion on entrepreneurship, in which participants shared their ventures, presented a challenge, and the group collectively brainstormed and provided solutions. Over the course of two days, participants in my particular group honed in on the issue of trust & transparency as a major obstacle to raising funds for their organizations or ventures, leading us to brainstorm a potential crowdfunding platform that could help address such a pertinent issue. Given that online payment systems like PayPal don’t work in Central Asia (or Pakistan for that matter), a solution that could work for entrepreneurs or activists in the region is key.
Here are some general observations after my inspiring albeit brief time in Almaty last week:
- The participants & volunteers were some of the most inspiring youth I have met. I went into TFCA knowing very little about the dynamics about Central Asia aside from general current affairs. It was really interesting to note the nuanced differences among the delegations – for example, the participants from Turkmenistan apparently came to Almaty despite receiving government pressure not to attend the conference, making them all the more serious, focused, and committed. Despite these differences, the participants really came together over the course of two days, and I was wowed by the maturity and caliber of the ideas and discourse.
- The art to working with a translator = speak slowly. I speak apologetically fast, so I had to adjust quickly to make the life of my awesome Russian translator, Ainora, a little easier. Many of the participants felt more comfortable speaking in Russian than in English, and although the stops and starts (speaking, allowing for translation, continue speaking) was a little jarring in the beginning, it did allow for some interesting observations on language barriers, and how pausing can allow us to all listen a little better.
- Technology is not the end, it’s the means to an end. Granted, this was not an observation I made after TFCA, but it was solidified during my time in Almaty. I often hear about the “sexiness” of tech – how social media, mobile technology, and the internet as a whole can solve the world’s problems. That is only partly true. Tech solutions – both high and low-tech – are important because they can provide access, allowing people to create or leverage existing platforms to achieve a certain aim. But access is only the entry point to the problem, it is not the end. Until we realize that, we can’t actually begin affecting social change in a nuanced way.
- Collaboration rocks. The other TFCA trainers were amazing, from Samantha Barry of BBC World Vision & BBC World News, to PEPL’s Jim Williams and Facebook’s Elizabeth Linder, to Chris Albon of Frontline SMS. (You can see the full list of trainers here.) The atmosphere at TFCA was dynamic and decidedly “un”-conference-y, providing lots of room for collaboration among the various trainers. I ended up teaming up with Hanny Kasumawati and later Sean Knox for our sessions on crowdfunding (yay, team crowdfunding!), which allowed for a broader and more multifaceted perspective on the topic, and hopefully a better experience for the participants.
- Just roll with it. As someone who travels a frightening amount (#talesofastartup), I’ve learned that I have the best time when I just relax and roll with the punches. That means not losing my cool over lost luggage (thankfully not on this trip) or a lost voice (unfortunately that did happen on this trip), powering through long hours with little sleep, or even not completely freaking out over accidentally eating horse meat (true story).
TFCA 2012 was amazing, made even more incredible by the participants, my fellow trainers, the organizers, and all the volunteers. Special thanks goes to Angela Baker, Tristram Perry, Noel Dickover, Joe Witters, and everyone at the Civil Alliance Kazakhstan and the State Department/U.S. Mission to Kazakhstan for inviting me, making sure we all got there in one piece, and for making our time in Almaty so incredible and inspiring!
Below are videos of my TED-style talk at TFCA & a wrap-up of day 1 of the conference:
Kalsoom Lakhani is the Founder/CEO of Invest2Innovate, based in Washington, D.C. She loves traveling, pretending to be a foodie, Jeopardy, and inane discussions about morality in mainstream television shows. If you watch mainstream television shows, you know this amounts to very little discussion.