International business dealings

Trying to understand the subtleties of politics in countries around the world is tricky. My philosophy in all business transactions has been to engage honestly and sincerely and to let the product and business deal demonstrate the value.

International business dealings by Nancy Knowlton

Three years ago I was up early on a Friday morning preparing for an international trip. I was traveling to Cairo to meet with Mrs. Mubarek, First Lady of Egypt, on Monday morning. Around 4:00 a.m. I received an e-mail from our country distributor. Mrs. Mubarek’s office had contacted his office indicating that she would not be able to keep our Monday appointment given that she had to travel unexpectedly. We were disappointed as the meeting had taken some time to arrange, but we adjusted and committed that we would stay in touch and arrange the meeting as soon as possible.

Upheaval in Egypt

Over the weekend the world changed. The Mubarek government fell, and chaos reigned for some time in Cairo as a new order was being tentatively established. I was thankful that Mrs. Mubarek was gracious enough to think of me and prevent me from traveling into the trouble, as I would have landed in the heart of it in Heliopolis. I most likely would have been able to get there but unlikely to have been able to leave as planned.

Implementing SMART products

This was to be the second meeting with Mrs. Mubarek regarding the implementation of SMART Technologies’ products within Egyptian schools. My first meeting had been very engaging and had had a very positive outcome. Mrs. Mubarek came to the meeting well prepared, as did I. I knew that she had a keen interest in education and held the view that it was the key to the country’s future and prosperity. My briefing materials indicated that she was a voracious reader and very well educated on matters that interested her, so I had brought her a wealth of material to answer her questions about the efficacy of the products and the products themselves. We ended our initial meeting with a promise from her that the next time we met she would have devoured all of the material and would be able to have a spirited discussion with me. That meeting never occurred for all of the reasons that are now well documented.

Political matters

I must say that it is always a challenge to understand the politics in all the situations into which I have been thrust globally. It is impossible to fully appreciate the multiple perspectives on a country’s leader and his actions. Having been in Egypt at the palace to meet with the First Lady put me in no better position to more deeply differentiate fact from fiction on political matters. I, however, had no doubt about her interest in education.

Business engagement

My approach has always been to engage honestly and directly with all prospects and customers and let our products and the business deal be the guideposts. This doesn’t mean that I am unaware of or unconcerned about matters of national and international interest, but they cannot drive engagement (or not) in countries that have legally recognized governments. Our view of the Mubarek government may be different in hindsight than it was at the time. In 2011 it was the only government of Egypt with which to deal. Business deals are made on their merits, and business must be won honestly and ethically.

The bottom line with Mrs. Mubarek is the fall of the Mubarek government was inopportune for us. I was looking forward to further discussion and engagement with her personally. Our distributor and we at SMART had worked hard on a proof of concept that we thought could deliver real value to Egyptian education. The project had turned out well, and we had a line of sight to a larger-scale project. Perhaps another time with another regime.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.