A SHOPPING MALL IN EVERY POCKET
My eyes locked on the knife blade, now within inches of my throat. My attacker's three accomplices held my arms behind my back, exposing my chest. For a moment, e-commerce was the last thing on my mind. The more important question was, Am I going to die here, in broad daylight, in a Bogotá alleyway?
"Barrio!...barrio!...barrio!" Even with my Sesame Street Spanish, I recognized that word. Neighborhood. Clearly, I had entered the wrong one.
My first trip to South America was off to a bad start. I had arrived in Bogotá the night before to kick off a five-city speaking tour, during which I would share my experience of working at Alibaba and observing the e-commerce boom in China. I played it safe at first, crashing in my hotel room despite the tempting salsa music emanating from the bar across the street.
When daylight came, I ventured out along the avenue to the Plaza de Bolívar, a wide-open square lined by Spanish colonial buildings. The entire city seemed to be outside, with kids playing freely in the streets, which were closed to traffic. Maybe Colombia is much safer than what was depicted in all the drug movies I watched when I was growing up, I thought.
The only signs of Colombia's violent past were the police, dressed in military fatigues and toting rifles over their shoulders. Stationed at regular intervals along the avenue, they were clearly in place to keep the peace and allow pedestrians to enjoy their Sunday morning.
Emboldened by the added security, and eschewing old stereotypes, I ventured outside the city center to see if I could find a path to the top of a nearby mountain to get a view. I passed a yellow church and could hear people singing hymns. From behind the church I walked up a cobblestone path in the direction of the mountain. That's where I met my teenage attackers.
As their angry yells got louder, the ringleader fumbled to lock his folding knife in place, as if preparing to stab me. I began to panic. "Please! Please! No comprende. No comprende!" I pleaded. I pulled my wallet from my back pocket and dropped it on the ground in front of me. I reached into my front pocket and handed over my iPhone. Although they didn't seem to actually want my money, I was offering everything I had.
Finally, the attackers let go of my arms and took a step back. The leader scowled at me and motioned with his hand, shooing me away. The message in his eyes was clear—don't come back. I ran down the hill as fast as I could, cursing my naiveté.
"You must have crossed one of the barrio's invisible lines," a local told me later. "There is a lot of drug and gang activity up there, and people know where the boundaries are. People can be killed for just walking into the wrong neighborhood. You're lucky you didn't fight back."
I couldn't believe how naive I'd been. Personal safety was something I'd never had to worry about in China. This was a much needed reminder that in most developing countries, poverty comes with a fair degree of violence.
Once I shook off the nerves, I realized I might have a bigger problem. The Colombian government had sponsored my trip to spread the gospel of e-commerce and entrepreneurship by drawing upon what I had learned in China. In a country where safety and security were such a concern, could those lessons apply? Just a few years earlier, Colombia was considered a failed state. Narcotrafficking had done huge damage to the country, destroying the economy and trust in government institutions.
But at that moment I finally understood the true role of e-commerce in emerging markets: e-commerce had succeeded in China precisely because the economic and legal infrastructure of the country was weak when the Internet was introduced. China lacked the economic, political, and legal institutions necessary for commerce to thrive, and Internet companies and their online communities had stepped in to fill the void.
And why wouldn't that be true elsewhere? From Bogotá to Shanghai, from Mumbai to Lagos, the weaker the institutions, the greater the opportunity for e-commerce to take root. And just as e-commerce entrepreneurs in China had faced and solved logistical, payment, and trust issues, Colombian entrepreneurs could use the Internet to address local concerns, including safety and security. And as a business community addresses these issues, e-commerce blossoms, creating new opportunities for entrepreneurs, multinationals, and customers alike.