Brandon Boynton, an applied computer science major and serial entrepreneur, visited Mongolia in late October through the U.S. State Department’s U.S. Speaker program. While in Mongolia, the IUPUI Honors College student led a workshop to teach young Mongolian entrepreneurs about launching companies. Brandon himself has launched two high-tech companies, including Vemity, a business-to-business company that was acquired in January.
Question: What was the goal of the trip from the U.S. State Department’s perspective?
Brandon Boynton: U.S. embassies around the world participate in many humanitarian and development projects. The program I was involved in was a development project. Our embassy awarded a grant to the Zorig Foundation — a local Mongolian nongovernmental organization, or NGO — to offer an entrepreneurship program to 20 Mongolians.
I spent a week with these Mongolian entrepreneurs and taught them fundamental startup concepts like scalability, how to build a business model, marketing and PR, branding, and more. We received excellent feedback from the participants, with very encouraging statements about how the program will affect their future careers and aspirations.
Throughout the week, I was interviewed by digital and print media and the Mongolian National Broadcaster. This was an opportunity to share American ideals such as free-market capitalism as well as concepts like social entrepreneurship. Sharing these ideals and more is a large part of what the embassy does.
Q: How did you get to Mongolia? What was the travel like?
BB: Traveling to Mongolia was uniquely exciting! Unlike most trans-Pacific flights, I departed from Minneapolis to Seoul, South Korea. The shortest route to Seoul is actually over the North Pole.
I requested a window seat and fortunately was able to see some incredibly beautiful glaciers from 32,000 feet. It was magnificent to see an endless expanse of snow and ice that has likely never been visited by man. The glaciers were astonishingly beautiful, and the pictures I got of them don’t even remotely compare to what I saw with my eyes. It was truly awe-inspiring.
On the less-magnificent side, the entire trip took 26 hours of flight time and layovers. The time difference was 12 hours, so my body’s rhythm of day and night was flipped. My first day there was one of my two free days for the whole trip, and I ended up sleeping the entire day.
Q: What happened during the weeklong Tech Entrepreneurship Program?
BB: The program taught Mongolian entrepreneurs the skills they need to build a startup. We spent every day from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. going over two or three core business concepts. I had prepared lessons for each concept, including activities in which they could implement the concept with their own business ideas.
Throughout the program, participants were invited to various networking events. One was at the residence of the embassy’s deputy chief of mission.
On the last day, Brandon Andrews, a serial entrepreneur and casting director for ABC’s “Shark Tank,” worked with participants to create a business pitch. The entire program culminated that night with a pitch competition between all of the participants’ startups. Brandon and two local Mongolian entrepreneurs served as judges.
Q: What was a day in the life like?
BB: The first five days of the trip, I was in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. I would wake up at 7 a.m., eat breakfast at the hotel, and then walk to the American Corner at 9 a.m. The American Corner is a wing of the city’s public library that the embassy manages and where it hosts American events and speakers. I found out that American Corners are common in countries all across the world, serving as a tool for the Department of State’s foreign service.
At the American Corner, I lectured and worked with the participants on their business ideas. The lecturing was done through a Mongolian interpreter who spoke phenomenal English with a perfect American accent. He had learned from TV alone and had never visited the U.S. Most of the participants spoke very impressive English anyway, but a few spoke none at all, so his services were much appreciated.
The interpreter also traveled with me and assisted me at all of the afternoon events. I was extremely lucky because he and I had many similar interests and quickly became friends, making it easy to spend the entire week side-by-side.
After the accelerator each day, I attended a handful of networking events or speaking engagements. I spoke at high schools and universities in Ulaanbaatar, on a panel with successful Mongolian startup founders, and at public events, and I was interviewed by different media organizations.
I was a resource to the community, provided by the U.S. embassy, so I also volunteered to speak at other NGO projects that were similar to what we were doing. Each day was packed full of events, but every event was just as exciting as the last. Each day was at least 12 hours of high-energy public speaking, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
For the last three days of the trip, we left Ulaanbaatar and drove through the Gobi desert to a small city called Sainshand. There, I met with the governor of the province and members of the local government, and I spoke at the high school and at Sainshand’s American Corner.
Q: How are Mongolian and American cultures similar? How are they different?
BB: Mongolia has been very westernized. Ulaanbaatar has a population of 1.5 million — which is about 50 percent of the country’s population — and is very similar to many American cities. People go to bars, see movies, shop in malls and have many of the same hobbies as Americans. I was incredibly impressed by the number of new skyscrapers being built and the rapid growth the city is still seeing.
It was very interesting to talk to people and realize that they laugh at all the same memes that I do, play all the same games and watch all the same shows. I never truly thought about the fact that someone literally on the other side of the world is likely watching the same YouTube video that I am, learning from very similar experiences. Through the internet, I believe, many nations’ cultures have begun to shift into a more uniform world culture.
That said, there are still parts of Mongolian culture that are vastly different from America. Firstly, I learned quickly that Mongolians hate feet — so much so that if you accidentally bump someone’s foot, it’s considered to be much like an act of war. Touching even your closest friend’s foot generates a rift between the two people. The only way this rift can be closed is to shake hands. It is very common to see total strangers shaking hands while walking down the street because they accidentally bumped feet.
As a foreigner, it caught me off guard the first few times, but I was careful to respect the culture and participate, and I think a lot of Mongolians found it to be especially polite coming from an American. I did make the mistake of putting my foot on a chair once, and I was very quickly told not to do that!
More significant differences in the cultures become evident the farther you travel outside of the city. As I said, downtown is very modern and westernized. Then the outer layers of the city, or the ger districts, are composed of hundreds of thousands of traditional Mongolian homes called gers. These are circular tents that are disconnected from utilities and rely on coal furnaces for heat. Beyond the ger districts, the city fades away into the desert. This is where you sporadically see herders and nomads living in gers dozens of miles from the nearest ger of another family and hundreds of miles from the nearest city.
Growing up in the U.S., I wasn’t really exposed to Buddhism and didn’t know much about it. But Buddhism is the most prevalent religion in Mongolia, so I took the opportunity to visit a few monasteries and see two famous Buddhist landmarks.
The most important thing that I learned about cultural tourism like this is to not act like a tourist. When you are the only foreigner visiting an important religious site, people respect that you are there to learn about their beliefs, as long as you respect them and don’t take pictures or gawk at the rituals. I did some research before blindly walking into a monastery and made sure I wouldn’t accidentally do anything offensive. In the end, even though I did not participate in any of the rituals or mantras, I feel that I learned a lot and grew from the experience.
Another thing I learned is that Mongolian food is particularly delicious! I am not an adventurous eater, so I was nervous that I would have to eat some weird stuff or be rude by refusing food. It turns out that khuushuur, one of the four signature Mongolian dishes, is now one of my favorite foods. The Mongolians also distill excellent vodka.
Q: What was your biggest challenge?
BB: The greatest challenge was maintaining the same high level of energy and enthusiasm after a week of 12-hour-plus days. Even when I had no energy, when I would step in front of an audience to speak, I would be greeted by an enthusiastic audience excited to learn from an American startup entrepreneur. This was the most refreshing and encouraging part of the trip, and it got me through the incredibly long days of endless speaking. Every speaking engagement was just as encouraging and enjoyable as the last.
Q: What kinds of transportation did you use in Mongolia?
BB: The scariest part about Mongolia was the driving. Traffic laws exist, but they are almost entirely not enforced. Driving is slower than walking when downtown during most parts of the day, anyway, so I walked almost everywhere while in the city. When we did drive, the embassy and the NGO both hired local drivers because only someone who learned to drive in Ulaanbaatar traffic could ever hope to make it through safely.
In fact, I was in a bar on Halloween night, and a famous Mongolian comedian was making jokes about the traffic. He told the audience, “Mongolia is the only country where you can drive the wrong way on a one-way and still get rear ended.” I laughed — but sure enough, the next day I was riding with a driver, and he turned down a one-way going the wrong direction like it was no big deal. I double-checked that there were in fact one-way signs, and when I turned around, I saw that someone else was behind us doing the same thing!
Q: How do urban and rural Mongolian areas differ?
BB: I spent seven days in Ulaanbaatar, the capital. It’s a very urban city about twice the size of Indianapolis. It has a very interesting feel because about half of the buildings are Soviet-era concrete structures that certainly show their age. The other half of the buildings are brand-new structures of glass and steel, giving the city a unique look. There are certainly aspects of the city that I found to be much nicer than Indianapolis. But the aging Soviet infrastructure and some of the collapsing Soviet buildings are definitely drawbacks to the city.
The greatest drawback, however, is the pollution. Ulaanbaatar has a unique pollution problem because of the ger districts that flank the city. All of the gers use coal for heat, which releases soot into the air. With the endless number of gers surrounding the city, which sits in a valley, all of this soot settles in the city, causing some of the worst pollution in the world at night. Regardless, the city still has a unique magic to it. It has many museums that celebrate the country’s very rich history, which I made sure to visit on my free day.
As I mentioned, for the last three days of the trip, we traveled about 250 miles through the Gobi desert to Sainshand. It’s a much more rural city that offers insight into how the other half of the country lives. There are new developments in Sainshand, including a recently built hotel and some new apartment buildings, but most of the city is either Soviet-built or consists of gers. Traveling to Sainshand was a very cool experience overall because the vast majority of visitors to Mongolia never leave Ulaanbaatar. I’m glad I was able to experience the rural version of the country while I was there.
Q: What is your favorite memory of the trip?
BB: I don’t know if I have one single memory that stands above the rest. All of my favorite moments, however, share a common trait: The people I met in Mongolia are incredible. They were fun to work with, fun to hang out with and incredible to get to know. Including the embassy diplomat I was working with and the Australian volunteer from the NGO, I was with great company from day one.
Throughout my time there, I met and worked with amazing people from the Peace Corps, volunteer services, Fulbright teachers and, of course, the local Mongolians. I am so amazed by these people and the sacrifices they are making to support and help develop a country that non-Mongolians had no previous ties to. They are very down-to-earth people whom I had a blast hanging out with and learning from throughout the week.
Q: You went to Mongolia as a teacher and an expert. What did you learn during your stay?
BB: I certainly grew and matured as a person because of this trip. I have never traveled so far and seen cultures so different from my own.
Interestingly, though, I expected a much bigger culture shock than I actually experienced. It sounds painfully obvious, but the greatest lesson I learned in Mongolia is that people are people. Around 7,000 miles from where I was born and raised, the people of Mongolia speak a radically different language and have a different predominant religion, but each person I interacted with was not very much unlike me. Despite our differences, the people I talked with have similar world views, do the same things for fun and are astonishingly similar to my American friends. Mongolians do tend to be superstitious and have a number of customary practices I found to be strange, but that is not unlike many Americans.
This realization is something I really knew all along, but it’s one thing to know it and another to experience it. It’s heartwarming to know that even with all of the differences between the people of the world, there is always common ground. People are people, and we have an ability to connect like never before.
Q: What else would you like to share about the trip?
BB: If there is one takeaway that came from this trip, it is that I want to travel more. I want to see more of the world and learn from more cultures. I used to imagine my future travel plans as trips to the Bahamas for purely vacation reasons, but I’ve truly been touched by the people I met on this trip. While I’m not selfless enough to offer years of my life to developing nations like the incredible people I met, I certainly would like to participate in humanitarian missions across the world and help where and when I can.