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What if Zuckerberg came from Sandton?


Styli Charalambous is the CEO and co-founder of Daily Maverick, having joined the effort a few months before launch in 2009. Over the years, he has studied media models and news innovation efforts. He has also helped launch various projects and products within the Daily Maverick orbit.

It’s a question that has raged through the ages. Would genius succeed even if the circumstances and environment in which they prospered were altered? I wonder if Facebook’s creator would still be the youngest billionaire on the planet if he were South African.

Born in the village of Dobbs Ferry, New York, to Jewish-American parents, Mark Zuckerberg has earned his place among those once-in-a-generation minds that go on to change the world and how we interact with each other. The founder (unless you ask the Winkelvoss twins) is the mastermind behind how the planet is now willingly offering up personal information and photos to connect with each other in what has become the largest interconnected database of the human race. A not-so-trivial measure of Zuckerberg’s brilliance came in 2008, when Forbes magazine proclaimed the 24 year old the world’s youngest billionaire, an astonishingly four short years after the launch of Facebook.

Zuckerberg honed his early hacking skills while still a student of Ardsley High School and later at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, just 80km from the world famous Ivy League think-tanks of Massachusetts. Identified early on by both Microsoft and AOL, Zuckerberg rejected the recruitment advances of two of America’s finest corporate animals to rather pursue a sojourn in Harvard University’s 17th century hallowed halls where real world social experiences would later translate into digital light-bulb moments for the computer science student.

Ironically launched one day after Valentine’s Day in 2004, Facebook rapidly consumed the imagination of the smartest minds of the world’s most respected university. More than two-thirds of the student faculty had created profiles on the networking site within two weeks of the “official” launch, a newsgroup posting by Zuckerberg.

The rest, as they say, is Web 2.0 history, with Facebook now headed for the biggest IPO in American history, becoming the stuff legends, books and Hollywood film scripts.  But where would Mark Zuckerberg be if the boy genius had been raised in the affluent suburbs of say, Sandton or Cape Town, instead of the Dobbs Ferry village of Westchester County, New York, population 11,221?

Malcolm Gladwell, in his best-selling book The Outliers examining the factors contributing to success, introduces a few central themes that run through many extraordinary tales of triumph. The first of which is a minimum of 10,000 hours of learning to any chosen field. From The Beatles to Bill Gates, superhuman success could only be achieved by becoming a Jedi master of your chosen field, which could only be attained after 10,000 hours of practice. 

Now assuming little Mark Zuckerberg had experienced a similarly affluent life in South Africa, as he did in the US, would he have turned out any differently than his current self and more importantly would Facebook be around today, connecting friends and fiends all over the world?

In the South African version of the Facebook story, certain junctures would certainly deviate from the now-famous one.  Access to 10,000 hours, personal computers and a quality education would not have been amiss from the boerewors-eating adaptation, but other differences would emerge even in the early stages of high school where innovative programmes by AOL and Microsoft identified the star potential of the tech prodigy.

In South Africa, we’ve seen initiatives and conferences emerge recently, each doing its bit to promote information technology and networking opportunities for the relatively small community of tech wannabes. But these pale in comparison to the innovation programmes (and budgets) that major American companies employ to identify talent. It seems odd that while the best of our schoolboy rugby players are handpicked by major union talent scouts at tournaments and festivals, our technology entrepreneurs are left to fight their own battles through the economic jungle that terrorises African start-ups.

While the Microsoft and AOL programmes may not have ultimately spawned Facebook, had Zuckerberg accepted their advances, it certainly gave the teenager the confidence to pursue a path in technology, knowing the best in the world were chasing him while he battled raging hormones and acne. Imagine the kind of definitive ego boost that could give a kid whose eyes were blurred with the enthusiasm of changing the world?

Technology is a young person’s game, moving at breakneck speeds as best practice evolves before the ink has even dried on a revised edition of a first-year programming text book. We cannot solely rely on the tertiary education system to provide the techpreneurs of the future. We need wide-eyed kids in the teens or early twenties, free from the shackles of mortgage payments and school fees to take those all-or-nothing risks of greatness to innovate into the unknown. By the time a potential Zuckerberg has finished a five-year post-graduate degree, burdened with hundreds of thousands of rands in student debt, employment offers from banking institutions, where creativity often goes to die, are unfortunately the only resolve for our could-be heroes.

Not to say that universities don’t play their part in inspiring new techpreneurs. Take Harvard, for example, a collection of the finest young minds in the world, with each student a potential supernova of talent about to unleash their dreams on the planet. Zuckerberg often recounts how the pressure of no longer being the smartest kid in school, drove the freshman to push his talents and aspirations to greater heights. Do our institutions breed the kind of excellence that drives students to imagine, and eventually achieve, the kind of eminence so regularly achieved in America or Europe?

A quick look down the 2011 rankings of the best universities around the world, shows Harvard toppling to second place for the first time in six years.  South Africa’s finest, the University of Cape Town clocked in at 156th place. Unsurprisingly, UCT was the tertiary institution of South Africa’s most acclaimed tech entrepreneur, Mark Shuttleworth, who like Zuckerberg, never completed his studies as their ventures sprouted into behemoths in the real world. Visionaries don’t always need a formal degree to affirm their talent, but they do need inspiration and the opportunity for ideas and concepts to run wild in a fertile environment. Something which I fear our universities aren’t very good at, despite the rare success of a Shuttleworth.

But let’s imagine, for a moment, that sitting in a dormitory in the shadow of Table Mountain, our South African protagonist, Van der Zuckerberg, gave birth to the very same Facebook idea that spread through the Rondebosch campus like wildfire. Which then proceeded to dazzle every university campus around the country until 70% plus of the nation’s tertiary scholar population were wasting study hours uploading embarrassing pictures from last night’s party or hounding single girls with friend requests. Would Facebook still have become the social networking giant it is today, population 700 million?

Even if his formative South African years had somehow managed to lead Van der Zuckerberg to the point where he could incorporate Facebook as a business, the dual spectres of infrastructure and finance, would surely have held it back – if not outright doomed the initiative to the scrap heap of could-have-beens.

As Facebook enjoyed a stellar growth of new subscribers, Zuckerberg’s major headache was acquiring new servers fast enough to handle the inordinate amount of traffic being generated by millions of captivated users. And the financing thereof.

Fortunate to be born in a country where server space was abundant and relatively affordable, Zuckerberg could beg and borrow his way until Facebook was large enough to seek out venture capital funding. The proper kind, mind you. Not the kind barely seen in South Africa, where VC’s seem to expect you to be profitable before venturing some capital to your business that has gazillions of users, with no defined revenue model. That is assuming, you were lucky enough to be afforded an audience with the vultures in the first place.

South Africa’s Internet and finance landscape are probably the two biggest obstacles standing between us and our very own Zuckerberg.  Imagine trying to serve those gigabytes and gigabytes of data from a server farm in Midrand, using turn-of-the-century hardware. Even if the capacity allowed for it, Van der Zuckerberg would have racked up a bill equivalent to the GDP of Swaziland.

In all likelihood, Van der Zuckerberg would probably not even have progressed that far. For a country that is blessed with bright minds that aren’t afraid to dream big, we sure don’t make it easy to for them to succeed. Government wouldn’t know a business incentive or incubation programme if it bit its tender behind, and big business is more concerned with protecting whatever oligopoly it operates in, rather than creating an environment conducive for innovation and growth. (Okay, I am being a little harsh on big business that do have primary duty to shareholders, and ultimately pick up the slack on charitable programmes in South Africa.)

Ultimately, the landscape is left to techpreneurs to battle it out alone, or with the resources of “angel networks”, luckily enough to have made their millions in spite of the local environment. 

Ironically, it’s these kinds of incubation and funding programmes that will see the country and continent prosper as the final global economic frontier, creating long-lasting and society improving employment. Something we will never achieve by paying pointsmen to do the work of technology, for example. DM

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