Building A Legacy: Tala Al Ansari, Director, Scale2Dubai, District 2020
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Dubai has a habit of thinking what’s next, and its Expo 2020 Dubai, the first World Expo to be held in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia region, as well as the first to be hosted by an Arab nation, is no exception. Some months ago, one would have thought that the teams behind this event already had too much on their plates- they were, after all, preparing Dubai for the 173 busy days when the Emirate would become a global stage for business and also welcome tens of millions of visitors. Then, the coronavirus pandemic happened, and news soon broke that the event had been postponed to happen between October 1, 2021 to March 31, 2022. This was a new reality where fast adjustments were essential, and the Expo 2020 Dubai team soon proved they are that up to the task as well.
But despite all of what has happened, one thing about Expo 2020 Dubai hasn’t changed- and that is the event’s focus on enabling entrepreneurs and startups from around the world to realize their dreams in Dubai. And that is evident with Expo 2020 Dubai’s plans for what it will transform into after the event closes, which is District 2020, an integrated community that will continue to support the acceleration of Dubai’s development as an ecosystem for innovators, families, artists, and pioneers. “Once doors close on the Expo in March 2022, the site will transition into District 2020 and evolve into a mixed-use community and innovation ecosystem that will contribute to the growth of Dubai’s innovation economy,” says Tala Al Ansari, Director, Scale2Dubai, District 2020. “While our timelines may have shifted as a result of the pandemic, our commitment to enabling startups and global innovators to scale their businesses in Dubai within District 2020 has only strengthened.”
According to Al Ansari, Dubai is already a global hub for startups and entrepreneurs, and the Expo is aiming to support Dubai and the UAE’s proactive approach to helping small and medium enterprises and the important role they play in the country’s resilient, innovation-driven economy. This is where District 2020’s Scale2Dubai comes into the picture. It is a global entrepreneur program that offers startups and small businesses with a proven track record in their countries an opportunity to scale up in Dubai, starting with a soft landing in the Emirate and easy set-up within District 2020’s ecosystem. The program also enables local startups and small businesses to prosper as part of an ecosystem that focuses on specific industries important to the UAE economy, and through collaboration with global organizations.
District 2020 co-working space
It is expected that Scale2Dubai will quickly become an innovation ecosystem that will enable collaboration between startups, SMEs, Fortune 500 companies, R&D centers, educational institutions, and accelerators. “For example, if you are a startup or small business in logistics technology, there is a chance you could be placed in close proximity to Siemens Logistics Headquarters at District 2020. We would facilitate your connections, and rewarding collaboration is likely to follow,” Al Ansari says. “If you are a startup or small business in artificial intelligence (AI) or internet of things (IoT), what better place to be than close to Terminus Technologies’ Artificial Intelligence and Internet of Things research and development centre at District 2020? An accelerator will also be established within the centre, providing IoT and AI startups with programs to help nurture their growth.”
The idea of an entrepreneur program was initiated by the Expo 2020 leadership and executed by the District 2020 team, with Al Ansari saying that her team spent a considerable amount of time conducting benchmark studies and understanding the needs of entrepreneurs locally, regionally, and globally. From a personal perspective, Al Ansari says her role was to use these findings to design and launch the program at the end of 2019; however, due to the impact of COVID-19 on their timelines, her team will now be commencing the full application process for Scale2Dubai in the third quarter of 2021. “This gives us more time to tailor the program, and create more opportunities for startups in sectors that have become even more relevant and pivotal during the past few months,” Al Ansari says. “It has also given us the opportunity to partner with global, regional and local organizations that are best placed to promote our program among their networks in their respective countries.”
The revised timelines have also given interested startups and small businesses more time to prepare for registering on the District 2020 website once applications open. “As a strong believer in design thinking, I’m making sure we speak to entrepreneurs and stakeholders to understand the challenges they now face, and how their needs have changed,” she adds. “We developed the Scale2Dubai program from informed conversations and will continue to use these discussions to make sure we’re shaping a program that will be as relevant and beneficial as possible.”
At the moment, high on Al Ansari’s agenda is attracting the best businesses to Dubai. “Our world is very interconnected, and so we all compete in one big marketplace,” she says. “This adds to the challenge and complexity of attracting the best entrepreneurs and innovators out there. It is for this reason that we place great emphasis on ensuring District 2020’s innovation ecosystem is inclusive, while also curating the right types of businesses that meet our criteria and will add value to each other and to our ecosystem. Our world is also incredibly dynamic. This has taught me how to be comfortable with change, and how to continuously adapt.”
District 2020 Office
Scale2Dubai is an equity-free program in which successful applicants will benefit from two years of free working space, two-year visas, an accommodating business set-up, subsidized urban living, access to special rates for service providers, and more. “We are confident that after two years, Scale2Dubai entrepreneurs will choose to remain part of District 2020 as permanent tenants,” Al Ansari says. “They’ll be able to continue enjoying the advantages of being based in Dubai, the benefits of their surrounding innovation ecosystem, and being part of a community. Our ultimate goal is to give businesses a platform from which they can successfully scale, and the confidence to go on to bigger things.” All interested applicants are requested to register to a dedicated website (more details can be found on https://www.district2020.ae/scale2dubai), after which all entries will undergo a screening process where priority will be given to applicants that align to District 2020’s key industries and technologies, as well as to businesses that are in the scale-up stage, preferably those in Series A funding rounds.
“At the next step, the technical aspects of applications will be assessed by a panel of judges,” Al Ansari says. “This panel will be made up of verified experts in each of the industries and technologies. The judging panel will use multiple criteria to score the startups and small businesses, before finally choosing the applicants to join the program. We are an ambitious and inclusive program that will accept hundreds of global and diverse applicants in each annual cohort. So, I highly encourage entrepreneurs to take advantage of this opportunity.”
Al Ansari explains that, since building awareness is key to the success of any new program, her team has been ensuring that entrepreneurs from all over the world hear about Scale2Dubai through multiple channels. “We have been building strategic partnerships both locally and internationally with organizations that understand our vision and mandate. We are working closely with multiple partners, chambers, and accelerators to help us scout the most promising entrepreneurs that would benefit from both the Scale2Dubai program and being based at District 2020. They are collaborating with us to channel these startups towards the program, while identifying the specific support they are looking for.”
In order to strengthen their offering, the Scale2Dubai has already partnered with Dubai SME and the Mohammed Bin Rashid Innovation Fund (MBRIF) to supply District 2020 with a pipeline of high-potential startups and small businesses, helping eligible companies join Scale2Dubai. “Specifically, Dubai SME will work on identifying innovative national projects from the members of its Hamdan Innovation Incubator, as well as from the different countries participating in its Innovation Attraction Program, to strengthen District 2020 as a platform for startups to grow regionally and access international markets,” Al Ansari explains. “MBRIF, as an accelerator initiative launched by the UAE Ministry of Finance, will also provide financial support to help local and international startups and small businesses looking to grow.”
Source: District 2020
Prior to working with Expo 2020 Dubai, Al Ansari’s career was focused on guiding the process of transformation and innovation in various national corporate settings. “Innovation is my passion, and so I see myself continuing to enhance the culture of innovation in the UAE,” she says. “I started by developing an innovation and transformation program in the oil and gas industry, and became a certified lateral thinking trainer to build innovation capabilities.” When Al Ansari joined the Expo 2020 team in the International Participants Department, she began working on an international scale, and was responsible for signing up both countries and international organizations to take part in the expo. “I now curate an innovation ecosystem for Dubai and empower global entrepreneurs as a part of District 2020, which is Expo 2020’s future and legacy,” she adds.
“I’m really enjoying the diverse route my role is carving out for me, which also involves building partnerships and engaging with stakeholders across government, academia, accelerators, incubators, and service providers.” An additional incentive for Al Ansari is the fact that her work is aimed at generating positive change for Dubai through the curation, execution, and strategic development of District 2020’s innovation ecosystem. “Supporting my nation in hosting the world and developing an innovation ecosystem is what makes Expo 2020 such a privilege,” she says. “Alongside all this, I want to help make an impact globally by supporting the growth of worldwide entrepreneurs through Scale2Dubai.”
According to Al Ansari, Dubai has already been leading the way when it comes to giving startups and small businesses a platform to grow, in addition to also being a leader in most of District 2020’s focus sectors and technologies. However, the city’s resilience during the past few months has shown how important -if not indispensable- innovation is to contending with and overcoming the challenges posed by crises, such as pandemics, she notes. In her own work, she applies the skills of agility, program management, and stakeholder management on daily basis. “However, what is more important than skill is passion,” Al Ansari says. “I believe that my passion for innovation and my constant quest to learn is what will really ensure I succeed. It’s about adjusting, experimenting, learning, and never settling.”
But when it comes to achieving success in entrepreneurship, there is no straightforward formula, she says. “Globally, we have not reached a consensus on what ‘success’ means for those two areas,” Al Ansari explains. “However, I embrace this challenge in my career as it gives me room to get creative and to contribute to knowledge creation. Also, our world is very interconnected, and so we all compete in one big marketplace. This adds to the challenge and complexity of attracting the best entrepreneurs and innovators out there. It is for this reason that we place great emphasis on ensuring District 2020’s innovation ecosystem is inclusive, while also curating the right types of businesses that meet our criteria, and will add value to each other and to our ecosystem.”