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Find Frontiers

We often think of frontiers as wild places at the edge of the known world, full of risk and danger, and so while they might make a great movie setting, we tend to avoid frontiers in our own lives. We forget that they are also the places where we learn, discover, and grow—and we find them everywhere, not just in faraway lands. A frontier is really any boundary between where we feel comfortable and where we don’t. And there are an infinite number of frontiers available to each of us, because every aspect of our lives includes a comfort zone that we have taken as a given and that constricts the possibilities available to us.

Born into humble origins, Denis O’Brien had already achieved a great deal by his family’s standards when he was hired by the local bank after attending university. Always restless, however, O’Brien cold-called Tony Ryan, founder of Guinness Peat Aviation and Ryanair, landing a job as his personal assistant. Later, as mobile phones started to mature, he left Ryan to create his own mobile company, ESat Telecom, which he later sold to British Telecom. Still looking for the next frontier, O’Brien founded Digicel to lead the development of mobile networks in over thirty Caribbean and Pacific islands.

When we asked O’Brien about navigating the uncertainty of so many frontiers, he answered by recounting his experience creating a mobile network in Haiti, one of the poorest nations in the world, crippled by underinvestment and corruption. “No one wanted to invest, absolutely nobody,” O’Brien told us. But he flew to Haiti anyway. “It took me two hours driving around Port-au-Prince to see that we could do it. Everywhere, people were transacting—selling food, car parts, and other stuff. I could see people had a few dollars to invest in something that could transform their lives.”

Despite his optimism, O’Brien could only convince one other investor, who in the end dropped out, leaving Digicel to fund the full $160 million up-front costs to establish the network. Digicel Haiti has since weathered earthquakes, fuel riots, hyperinflation, and other uncertainties to become the first mobile operator in a place where everyone thought it was impossible. “So in answer to your question,” O’Brien told us, leaning in close with a smile and a wink, “all anyone could see were the risks, but I saw possibility.” Pushing into the frontier has made O’Brien one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in the world, allowing him to build over two hundred schools in Haiti and to rebuild its famous Iron Market after it was flattened by the 2010 earthquake.

This tidbit is from the book The Upside of Uncertainty by Nathan Furr and Susannah Harmon Furrn

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