Last April, we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the MIT Enterprise Forum Arab Startup Competition, an initiative that I started after taking part in the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus, some 18 years ago. It was then that I decided to bring this competition to life in the Middle East, and I was lucky to find great support to make it happen. I am grateful to every entrepreneur, judge, mentor, and especially the team who contributed to this page of Arab entrepreneurship history- actually, it was a double page in Chris Schroeder’s bible on the topic, Startup Rising!
While proudly looking back at the achievements of the MENA region’s ecosystem as a whole over the past decade, I cannot help but think of our future with both apprehension and excitement. I say our future, despite the diversity and segregation we have as a region. How is Dubai like Ramallah? How is Riyadh comparable to Sfax? How is Beirut similar to Casablanca? There are, in the field of entrepreneurship, great disparities between Dubai on one side, entrepreneurship hubs such as Cairo, Beirut, Amman on another, and finally, what I would call the “underserved peripheral territories,” where the entrepreneurship ecosystem is absent- leaving the largest part of the Arab population behind and vulnerable.
No initiative highlights these discrepancies better than the MIT Enterprise Forum Arab Startup Competition. While 10 years ago the major hubs accounted for roughly 80% of the 1,800-applicant pool, they now account only for 20% of more than 8,000 applications that we receive today. This means that entrepreneurs in big city hubs are well-served by the ecosystem, while the fringes are able to take part in the ecosystem online through this annual event for entrepreneurs.
Let’s now park this idea here for a moment, and look at what is happening in the rest of the world. Technology is moving fast, and talent is scarce. Today, a developer is not a tech talent anymore, but merely the equivalent of a blue-collar worker of the modern times. The profiles of those with disruptive skills present more hardcore, mathformatted brains, allowing them to push the edge of artificial intelligence and machine learning, not to mention the rise of molecular programing and synthetic biology. They also come with a hacker’s mentality, obsessed with breaking into a system, and overthrowing the status quo. In parallel, business models have shifted from heavy capital-intensive models to asset-light disruptive models in every field. Soon enough, no factories will be required to build a Boeing 747, when it can simply be printed.
Technology has created abundance and democratized problemsolving to a point where disruption can start almost anywhere. Do we, as a region, want to be consumers of these disruptions, or a major player in it? I say, let’s be actors. Entrepreneurs solve problems. The problems Silicon Valley solves are different from the problems that we have here, and this is what unites us as a region: similarity in our pains. Our problems are often basic and vital infrastructural problems that become bottlenecks for our digital economies. They range from water scarcity, heat, and weak grids, to payment infrastructure and logistics. These problems have been sorted long ago in the West, and more recently in the East, where they are in optimization mode.
However, in the MENA region, they still represent huge market opportunities. Access to education is also a huge problem that is undeniably more acute in our part of the world. I would also add agriculture, access to healthcare, and so on. The list is long and quite specific to a vast market from Pakistan to West Africa, and from South Africa to Russia– however, this is our target market. Without any doubt, technology will transform this region, ideally with homegrown talent, more specifically, homegrown, hardcore math, computer, and biology talent. Young people, if undecided about your career path, please choose any of these specialties- your jobs are then guaranteed for the next 10 years. So, we need to up our game in terms of technology, sharpen our edge and skills to become the global hub for South-South innovation.
The key is education. Skills? We said math, computer science, and biology, but I did not say to drop the rest. I’m just saying that we need many more of those. Soft skills? Yes, such as hunger, curiosity, hard work, openness, a desperate taste for disruption, so that we shift the region from barely starting to cope with disruption, to one that nurtures it. Humility. Yes, humility to mindfully listen and trust the young. No preaching. No doubting– questioning is ok.
And then there is the most important thing. The thing. I was in a group meeting the other day at a company from the region. The conversation turned to what a company’s culture is, and I asked about values. It took about 30 minutes for the members of this group to understand what I meant by values. Then, another 30 minutes that led them to cite performance and recognition as values– they are not. When asked if honest people, transparent people, ethical people, productive people succeed in the firm (or in the government?) and are the ones holding top positions, I was met with silence.
So, what is the most important thing? Values and ethics. How is this related to innovation and technology? Ethics is the wind that blows into the big sail of innovation, leading to respect in every form, from intellectual property to the rights of the individual sitting at the periphery of the ecosystem’s prosperity that we mentioned above. Ethics lead to purpose and is the energy required to forge success in a digital economy that is people and commitment intensive.
For the next 10 years, I dream of a Middle East and Africa region where a profusion of mindful, highly-skilled entrepreneurial talent has collectively created enough wealth for most of us to access education, water, infrastructure and food, all this while enjoying the abundance of services and goods that technology has enabled to augment our abilities and learning. The MIT Enterprise Forum of the Pan-Arab Region will focus on nurturing a culture of tech-savvy, high-performing entrepreneurs, ambitious in their learnings, and who have the ability to produce high returns for their investors, ethically and mindfully.
This vision finds its relevance, because it is forged in a region where skyscrapers are built next to misery, world-class internationally- trained PhDs walk quietly by school dropouts, and where begging refugees and hardworking people have difficulties making ends meet while questionable practices go unpunished. My intention is not to instill guilt, but rather, to encourage action. The next 10 years for us will be a mission to serve South-South innovation and inclusive entrepreneurship. We will do our best to support and connect with any individual driven by this same mission and ambition.