Changemakers: Roberto Croci And His Microsoft for Startups MEA Team Are Gearing Up To Make A Serious Dent In The Entrepreneurial Ecosystem
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If I remember correctly, the first time I met with Roberto Croci was after he had just been appointed as the Managing Director of Microsoft for Startups for the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region in 2019. He had not even officially started work in his new role then, but he nonetheless reached out to me and my team over LinkedIn to meet up for a conversation around the entrepreneurial ecosystem of the region.
I’ll admit now that, at the time, I didn’t quite know what to make of the zeal with which Croci was approaching this new chapter in his career trajectory. I mean, he was literally the first person on the ground for Microsoft for Startups MEA- yes, the initiative had indeed been running in other parts of the world, but it was an entirely new undertaking for the multinational company’s operations in this region. But Croci didn’t seem to care about being the only one who was a part of this entity then- he seemed more eager to dive deep into the work he had been appointed to do, and that was why, in a bid to gain a better understanding of the region’s startup space, he was seeking out people who were actually a part of this ecosystem.
The two of us remained in touch after that first meeting, and I watched from the sidelines as Croci continued to doggedly go about engaging with different stakeholders in the MEA business arena. Even the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 didn’t stop him- Croci had told me in our first meeting that he was on a mission to find ways in which he and Microsoft for Startups MEA could deliver real value for startups and entrepreneurs in the region, and that remained the premise with which he both led and contributed to discussions and collaborations through the course of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
Roberto Croci, Managing Director, Microsoft for Startups (MEA). Source: Microsoft for Startups (MEA).
Today, as the region starts to make a gradual recovery from the repercussions of this global calamity, Croci is moving ahead with an ambitious agenda that he and his team have built for Microsoft for Startups MEA, and his drive and dedication remains as resolute and radiant as it was the first time I met him. “From the very beginning, the idea was to contribute to a connected ecosystem,” Croci tells me today. “We knew we could not solve the gaps in the ecosystem by ourselves, so our aim was to bring together different players in a meaningful way to maximize the impact for the founders and startups of the region. And that is pretty much how we are rolling out things at Microsoft for Startups MEA now."
As a program that aims to “accelerate growth with a customized set of offerings and resources that evolve with your startup from idea to exit,” Microsoft for Startups operates with a pretty specific (and straightforward) ethos from a global perspective. But when launching the initiative in the MEA, Croci came to the realization early on that making use of a cookie-cutter approach to kick things off in the region wouldn’t probably work. “I think my mindset originally was that Microsoft had built this global proposition, and I needed to figure out ways to make it work here in our region,” he remembers. “But that idea soon shifted- I realized I needed to learn about the gaps and challenges here, as well as the opportunities, to figure out how we at Microsoft for Startups can provide tailored offerings that addressed these different factors. Yes, we had a global mandate and strategy, but we had to shape it in a meaningful, relevant manner for the regional ecosystem.”
Now, Microsoft for Startups operates with a rather clear directive Croci put it, it’s a platform that, quite simply, “helps startups grow with the best of what Microsoft has to offer.” With its focus currently on B2B tech startups, especially those in the early stages of their business cycles, Microsoft for Startups aims to help entrepreneurs in a myriad of ways. For starters, participants get access to Microsoft’s tech and tools like Azure, GitHub, and Microsoft Teams to run their businesses better.
They are also treated to personalized tech mentorship, content, and training compiled by the Microsoft for Startups team, all with the aim to move their businesses ahead. Perhaps most importantly, the startups in the program get to take advantage of Microsoft’s standing on the global market landscape to unlock high-value business opportunities for themselves, which can range from access to funds, to commercial tie-ups. “The global program is meant to be a journey where we take B2B startups on board and nurture them to become, say, more enterprise-ready and market-ready,” Croci adds. “So, it’s about teaching them how to go to market, how to sell to enterprises, how to do proper marketing, and so on and so forth. And once they get to a certain stage, we can turn them into our partners, and sell with them to accelerate their sales and growth.”
It’s this part of the Microsoft for Startups plan that is perhaps going to be the most interesting to watch unfold in the MEA. The region has been known to have a chasm of sorts between its corporates and startups, where the former aren’t often aware of the myriad of entrepreneurial innovations out there they could use to their advantage, and the latter are usually found to be lacking in the know-how needed to realize such important business relationships. “Startups don’t necessarily know how to navigate to go about working with a corporate,” Croci notes. “But there are similar issues to be found in corporates too- maybe they don’t have the commitment to see such relationships through, or maybe they don’t have the right culture or top-down alignment, or things of that nature. So, that’s where we come in- we want to bridge the gap between startups and corporates.”
Left to right: Ali Samir Oosman, Noor Salama, Roberto Croci, Sania Kaddoura, and Philipp Pabst (with Baloo). Source: Microsoft for Startups (MEA)
And Croci believes there’s a plethora of ways he and his team can go about doing this in the MEA. Maybe a startup could plug in its offerings at a corporate to help it realize its digital transformation objectives. Or perhaps it’s a corporate that wants to diversify its portfolio, and therefore decides to support a startup that is set to be a gamechanger in its industry. Of course, we can keep guessing the various ways in which startups can leverage Microsoft for Startups’ offerings in the region, but perhaps the most important thing to remember here is that Croci and his team will be there to guide them through all of it.
However, there is a question the more suspicious among us might be wondering about at this point: what’s Microsoft getting out of doing all this? What does the multinational corporation actually get by investing in startups? Croci graciously answers my query by saying for starters, the obvious benefit is that Microsoft gets to ensure that its products like Azure, Teams, etc. are being used by these new, up-and-coming enterprises. However, he also notes that’s only a small part of the long-term game Microsoft is aiming to play.
While the startups it supports today stand to become Microsoft’s partners (“For Microsoft, they aren’t customers, they are partners”) in the long run, the company is also aiming to bolster its relationships with existing clientele by offering new innovations and outlooks that will help secure their futures as well. “Microsoft for Startups is thus Microsoft’s investment in the digital ecosystem,” Croci declares. “Through this initiative, we are supporting both corporate digital innovations, as well as growth and acceleration for startups.”
Image courtesy: Microsoft for Startups (MEA)
To kick off its operations in the MEA (which, by the way, includes Pakistan and Turkey), Microsoft for Startups has currently launched two major initiatives catered to the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. The first is its GrowthX Accelerator program, which has built in partnership with the Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO). Running through the course of 12 weeks from August to November this year, GrowthX aims to provide 15 startups from the region with the technology, mentoring and market knowledge they need to grow their respective businesses, while taking advantage of the access they get to Microsoft’s global network of customers and partners, as well as the slew of benefits that ADIO will offer them in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi.
Besides making this select group of entrepreneurs an attractive proposition for the investors that GrowthX will bring together at its conclusion for a demo day, all of these efforts are also geared at making them ideal candidates for the corporate matchmaking program that Microsoft for Startups will be curating as well. “We have worked with our corporate partners to identify a few challenges that they face for which our startups could potentially provide solutions for,” Croci explains. “So, with GrowthX, the idea is to get to a stage where we’ll have enabled our startups to co-create with corporates.”
With big names like Unilever, Etihad Airways, IKEA, Accenture, and others already on Microsoft for Startups’ roster of corporate partners for the MEA, GrowthX has also been seeing a stupendous amount of interest from startups in the region, Croci reveals. And unlike those early months of the COVID-19 crisis when he was the sole person working at Microsoft for Startups MEA, Croci now has a fledgling team behind him to identify, from the applications that have come in, the startups that make the most sense to be included in GrowthX’s first cohort.
Today, the Microsoft for Startups MEA payroll includes Strategic Partnerships and Deal Flow Managers, Ali Samir Oosman and Philipp Pabst, Cloud Architect, Sania Kaddoura, as well as Community and Program Manager, Noor Salama, with Croci adding that he is hoping to grow the team further soon. Given that all of them have had experiences with the startup space in one way or the other, there is a rather palpable camaraderie among all of the members in the team (which seems to have also been aided in part by Pabst’s dog, Baloo), and it bodes well for the entrepreneurs who will soon be working closely with them in the GrowthX program.
Besides GrowthX, ADIO and Microsoft for Startups MEA are also collaborating on a virtual conference series called “Highway to 100 Unicorns,” which will feature more than 100 regional and international speakers talking about topics of importance to the region’s entrepreneurs and startups. It’s clearly an effort at building a community, and given its accessible nature, “Highway to 100 Unicorns” is hoping to bring together innovators from around the region and beyond and eventually have them become part of, say, Microsoft for Startups’ GrowthX Accelerator program, or other such initiatives that it has in the pipeline.
Image courtesy: Microsoft for Startups (MEA)
Indeed, Croci makes it clear that “Highway to 100 Unicorns” and the GrowthX Accelerator mark only the start of what Microsoft for Startups have in mind to boost the region’s startup ecosystem. For one, there’s already work being done in the background to expand GrowthX’s focus on B2B startups to include B2C startups as well, with Croci saying that he and his team believe the latter domain to also offer significant opportunities that can be tapped into by corporates in the regional landscape.
Besides this, there are a couple of other initiatives in the works with ADIO that Croci says he can’t reveal much details about at this stage; however, he does let slip that one of them is aimed at ensuring the region continues to have a healthy population of entrepreneurs in every generation to come.
As he speaks about initiatives like these, I can’t help but notice Croci’s eyes lighting up with excitement about what the future holds for Microsoft for Startups MEA, and it becomes quickly apparent that he, like other changemakers we have in the world today, is being driven by the impact his and his team’s efforts will have on the region not just for now, but for the long term as well. “There are countries in our region for whose people entrepreneurship is a matter of life and death,” Croci concludes. “So, keeping that in mind, having this opportunity to really influence entrepreneurship, and make an impact here, is truly the only driver one needs.”