Travis Hellstrom traveled to Mongolia with the Peace Corps, only to meet Mende, a technological and entrepreneurial genius.
What would you do if you met Steve Jobs or Bill Gates when they were just starting out?
That question was the furthest things from my mind when I met Mende but that’s usually how it is, isn’t it? When people first ran into Steve and Bill they had no idea what they were getting themselves into. But life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans, right John Lennon?
Don’t get me wrong, I know Mende isn’t Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. They are titans, game changers, shining examples of technological possibility and unstoppable progress. I know that.
I just think Mende is like both of them–combined.
In many ways, Jobs and Gates represent two opposite ends of the spectrum in American entrepreneurial history. On one side you have the renegade visionary– a creative and ambitious technological artist who wanted to put a dent in the universe and called up the CEO of Google to talk about the shade of yellow being slightly off on an iPhone app. On the other you have a cunning businessman–an innovative and calculated negotiator turned philanthropist who might not rest until he’s saved the entire planet. The funny, scratch that, the incredible thing about Mende is that he is trying to combine the two personalities together. And he’s attempting it in Mongolia of all places.
I met Mende during my third year as a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader here in Mongolia. I was working part-time in the Peace Corps Mongolia headquarters while also volunteering with the World Health Organization. I had spent my first two years in Mongolia as a Health Volunteer in the wide-open eastern steppe, filled with rolling plains, amazing people and herds of animals that outnumber people 40 to 1. It’s definitely not a bad way to spend two years even with weather being below zero six months out of the year. But after that I found living in the capital city, or any big city, isn’t a piece of cake. After only a few months in my new life as a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader, the sprawling capital city of Ulaanbaatar was beginning to wear on me. It felt filled to the brim with people, passengers, and (unfortunately) pollution and the districts creeping up the sides of the mountains encircling the city made me feel less and less significant over time. I’ve always been a small town guy–I love to know the people around me, say hi to people in the street, and feel like I can make a difference in my community. In a city of a million people it was becoming difficult to walk down the street and smile anymore. But that’s when Mende walked in.
In 2010, at 25 years old, Mende created his tech startup from nothing and it’s already grown to over 50 employees ranging from digital artists (who draw with brushes on touch screens) to programmers, translators, and filmmakers. They design social media campaigns, create websites, program applications, organize national conferences and put together community service events that involve hundreds and thousands of people. In his first few months Mende even cold-called the Prime Minister for a meeting, was given 5 minutes to pitch his idea, and walked out of the meeting with an agreement to design the Prime Minister’s first website and social media presence. Not bad, especially considering that at the time only 10% of Mongolia was on the internet (up from 1% in 2000). And with Mongolia’s economy quickly becoming among the fastest growing on the planet, it’s pretty reasonable to bet that number will continue to skyrocket. Sound like a certain technological revolution that we might be familiar with?
When Mende contacted me, I didn’t know about any of this. His own company didn’t even have a website at the time. He had found me online through one of the Peace Corps projects I was working on and asked if we could meet up. We met up, he asked me everyone’s favorite question (I’ll explain that later) and the rest is history. We ended up created TEDxUlaanbaatar together, the first TEDx event in Mongolia history, which happened right at the end of my Peace Corps service and I’ve been holding on tight going along for the ride. If all goes as planned by the end of this year Mende’s company will be the first certified B Corporation in Mongolia and from there the sky’s the limit.
So that takes me back to my original question–what would you do if you met Steve Jobs or Bill Gates when they were just starting out? If you’re like me you’d say, “I would support them, of course.”
That’s exactly what I’m doing. And I look forward to letting you know how it goes.
This is the first in a series of monthly stories by Travis here at The Good Men Project focusing on business ethics, building a business for social good, and the changing business landscape in Mongolia and around the world. The next story is called Everyone’s Favorite Question.
photos: Jobs and Gates licensed through Wikimedia / Photo of Mende used with permission