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Building a better Bhutan – Land of Happiness to Silicon Shangri-La

Bhutan is internationally known as the Land of Happiness, but based on our conversations with the country’s top students and entrepreneurs, it may soon have a new title: Silicon Shangri-La.

Last week, we visited Bhutan as part of a delegation of 29 Harvard graduate students studying business, law, public health, and public policy, led by Kinga Tshering, a Harvard Kennedy School alumnus and a former Member of Parliament in Bhutan. We traveled to Thimphu, Punakha, and Paro on our week-long spring break to learn about Bhutanese culture, people, and the Gross National Happiness Index. While we were expecting a week of visits to sedate governmental offices, tours of historic Buddhist monasteries, and hikes to picturesque mountain vistas, what we discovered in Bhutan was even more thrilling: a hotbed of ideas and innovation.

Thimphu Mayor Kinlay Dorjee told us that while traveling to other countries, he spends much of his time in search of cutting edge ideas to bring back to the capital city. He has brought myriad city services online—from construction permitting to school applications—which has not only made life easier for residents, but helped reduce corruption. The national government has also laid the foundation for a startup ecosystem to thrive by building a national fiber optic network—an accomplishment we found remarkable given that the United States does not have this level of broadband equity. The greatest obstacle facing the country is the dearth of citizens with coding skills, but Kinga believes that the government can help overcome this by setting ambitious, yet attainable goals, such as producing 100 software developers in the next year.

From the Secretary of the Gross National Happiness Commission Secretariat, Thinlay Namgyel, we learned that the technology sector is particularly important to Bhutan’s future given the government’s commitment to environmental protection and sustainability. While Bhutan’s neighbors have robust manufacturing economies and extract natural resources from the ground, Bhutan is looking to tap into the creativity and ingenuity of its citizens. Technology is essential in the fight against youth unemployment and addiction as the creation of meaningful, exciting jobs not only provides a way to earn a living but also to build a better Bhutan. Furthermore, Kinga told us that innovation in Bhutan is spiritually motivated. As he put it, “Buddhist values inherently teach us that we are here to serve others and GNH has shown us the path of sustainable living. Therefore, innovation in Bhutan is guided by these principles rather than developing bright shiny objects.”

We next met with students from the Royal University of Bhutan’s College of Business and with a panel of entrepreneurs at Thimphu Tech Park. Both were clamoring to share their startup ideas, ranging from an ecommerce platform to sell Bhutanese textiles and handicrafts to an online marketplace for apartment and home listings.

While Bhutan’s small size makes it difficult to attract foreign companies, it is fertile ground for homegrown innovation. For example, we were excited to learn about DrukRide, Bhutan’s answer to Uber. The company has even pioneered new features, such as booking tickets for local buses. As we toured the Tech Park facilities, we even saw the entrepreneurial spirit” in action: in a crowded conference room, the DrukRide team was onboarding local taxi drivers and answering their questions about the service.

Perhaps the most affecting story shared with us came from Samir Pradhan, a mid-career Bhutanese entrepreneur who is currently sourcing IT talent for his consumer goods start-up. Samir had left Bhutan to study in India and spent years working in a technical role at IBM. He could have stayed abroad and had a full, fruitful career at the multinational company. Instead, he decided that it was time to bring his technical knowledge, business experience, and entrepreneurial passion home. In Thimphu, when the entrepreneur noted frequent long queues outside the Bhutanese Post office and realized that more and more people were ordering goods online in Bhutan, he saw an opportunity.

The ex-IBMer was clear-eyed about the challenges he will face setting up an international business based in a small, mountainous Himalayan country, but noted that IT, tech, and knowledge-based businesses will pave the path to prosperity without sacrificing natural resources. When asked about the logistical difficulties of shipping consumer goods out of Bhutan, he thought for a moment and gave the most entrepreneurial answer imaginable: “Yes, shipping from here is difficult. I guess I’ll have to start a logistics business too.”

As we leave Bhutan to return to Harvard, we will take with us many lessons from our experiences here: the importance of serving the communities that raised us; the combination of optimism and grit that drive innovation; and, most importantly, the meaning, the fulfillment—and indeed, the happiness—to be found in hard work.

Contributed Brian M. Levin and Kiernan P. Schmitt

Brian Levin

Brian Levin is a second-year MBA student at Harvard Business School. Before school, he worked at The Huffington Post as Senior Editor to Editor-in-Chief Arianna Huffington.

 Kiernan Schmitt

Kiernan Schmitt is a second-year graduate student at Harvard Business School. Prior to HBS, Kiernan was a creative director at Blue State Digital, a political consultancy born out of the Obama presidential campaigns.

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