When Stars Collide: A Recap Of The Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival 2021

More than 4,000 people attended the event, which had 55 business leaders, experts, influencers, and cultural figures from around the world leading nearly 60 activities comprising keynotes, panel discussions, workshops, and more.

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Judging by the enterprising and creative talent convened by the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center (Sheraa) for the 2021 edition of the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival (SEF) in late November, it is reasonable to believe that, in 50 years from now, entrepreneurship will serve as the main pillar of the UAE’s post-oil economy. And the talent needed to make this vision a reality will find a home at Sheraa, said CEO Najla Al Midfa, in her opening keynote at SEF 2021. “In a world of doubters, let us be the first believers,” she said. "As a community, we don’t fail when a business ceases to exist. We fail when we stop believing in our entrepreneurs.”

Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival
Najla Al Midfa, CEO, Sheraa

Held at the Expo Centre Sharjah, the fifth annual edition of SEF was staged under the theme of "When Stars Collide,” with the two-day event organized in partnership with the ICT Fund, an initiative of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority and the Digital Government of the United Arab Emirates, Sharjah Media City (Shams), Alef Group, and the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority. More than 4,000 people attended the event, which had 55 business leaders, experts, influencers, and cultural figures from around the world leading nearly 60 activities comprising keynotes, panel discussions, workshops, and more.

Given the UAE’s 50th National Day in December this year, the first session on the SEF 2021 stage looked into how entrepreneurship could help secure the country’s future for the next 50 years, and more. On this panel discussion, H.E. Dr. Ahmed Belhoul Al Falasi, UAE Minister of State for Entrepreneurship and SMEs, pointed out his entity’s goals in this regard, which is “to create a platform for the ecosystem, by the ecosystem, as well as to bring students in schools and universities into the system to increase the funnel of founders in the region.” Dr. Al Falasi, who spoke alongside Wamda Capital Executive Chairman Fadi Ghandour and Careem co-founder Magnus Olsson in a conversation moderated by Enhance Ventures Founding Partner Alper Celen, also noted that the ministry had an aspirational target of the UAE having 20 unicorns by 2031. "Our overarching goal is to work with entrepreneurs to help them overcome barriers and ensure their progression across different stages of the journey,” he said. "We work on enabling entrepreneurs to make the transition from micro- to small or small-to-medium enterprises to maximize their potential.”

H.E. Dr. Ahmed Belhoul Al Falasi, UAE Minister of Stofe for Entrepreneurship and SMEs, Fadi Ghandour, Executive Chairman of Wamda Capital, Magnus Olsson, co-founder of Careem and Alper Celen, Founding Partner of Enhance Ventures

According to Ghandour, the UAE’s startup ecosystem has already changed the face of the country’s economy. “The startups here are building the future of the country’s next 50 years, but there are entrepreneurs in the government too, individuals who are challenging the status quo, looking at ways of doing things better,” he said. "The existence of a Ministry of Entrepreneurship in the UAE testifies to this.” Meanwhile, Careem’s Olsson noted that due to the support being offered to businesses in the UAE today, “entrepreneurs can now focus on the problem they are solving, and not on having to to build the rails underneath.” He added, "The startups here are taking on the challenges of solving local problems, but very soon, the UAE will be the hub that comes up with solutions for addressing global challenges.” However, Ghandour stressed the need for more support from an investment standpoint. "I urge national investors, and especially family-run businesses, to stop being conservative, and reinvest their funds here,” he said. "The UAE’s ecosystem is thriving and happening– this is where you can make your money grow.”

Michael Acton Smith, co-founder and co-CEO, Calm

SEF 2021 also played host to a number of globally renowned entrepreneurs this year, one of whom was Michael Acton Smith, co-founder and co-CEO of “the world’s first mental health unicorn,” Calm. In a conversation with VentureSouq Founding Partner Sonia Weymuller, Smith shared a few of the key lessons he learned over the course of launching and running Calm. “When we started building what we called ‘the Nike of the mind,’ we first bought our domain name (calm.com), and that speaks volumes about the importance of the brand name,” Smith said. "Another good lesson from building Calm was to use public relations (PR) and influencers not only to talk about our business, but to make the topic of mental health more acceptable in the society.”

Dr Naif Al Mutawa, co-founder of Tuhoon, Craig McDonald, co-founder of FlexiPark, Emirofi Olympic weightlifter Amna Al-Haddad, and Triska Hamid Editorial Director of Wamda

This theme was also the highlight of another panel discussion at SEF 2021, which had Tuhoon co-founder Dr Naif Al Mutawa, FlexiPark co-founder Craig McDonald, Emirati Olympic weightlifter Amna Al-Haddad, and Wamda Editorial Director Triska Hamid exploring how entrepreneurs can go about safeguarding their mental well-being while building their businesses. “Entrepreneurship can get very addictive, and sometimes, you need to step back and rethink it,” Al Mutawa noted.

Another of SEF 2021’s standout sessions was led by Pauline Nguyen, co-founder of the world’s most awarded Vietnamese restaurant, Red Lantern, who is known to be one of Australia’s most impactful speakers and developmental coaches. In her keynote, Nguyen dove into the topic of personal development, which she said is always derived out of a personal disruption of sorts, as well as a personal introspection that such an endeavor demands.

Pauline Nguyen, co-founder of Vietnamese restaurant, Red Lantern, and one of Australia’s most impactful speakers and developmental coaches

According to Nguyen, this is the process one must undergo in order to attain success, be it in a personal capacity, or a professional one. “Mastery in business is about mastering influence, because people will always follow a calm, composed, and confident leader,” Nguyen said. “In that process, spirituality should be considered as physics that is yet to be explained. So, we don’t have business problems, but personal problems that reflect on business. Today, I believe, we are in the crisis of spirituality, in both business and life."

The stars of the recently released documentary, Beyond the Raging Sea, Egyptian adventurers-cum-entrepreneurs Omar Samra and Omar Nour used their time at SEF 2021 to draw parallels between the journey of entrepreneurship and their 2017 attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean on just a light boat. “Just as in a risky adventure, you need to take that leap of faith in your business journey without often having the requisite experience,” Nour said. “We had no previous rowing experience before the Atlantic expedition, but what we did have was plenty of heart, and the wish to raise awareness on the plight of refugees who flee on sea.”

Egyptian adventurers and entrepreneurs Omar Samra and Omar Nour, who are the stars behind the recently released documentary Beyond the Raging Sea

Samra added that while the beginning of their journey across the Atlantic was an exciting phase, it wasn’t too long before they had to contend with the realities of the journey they had embarked on. "We were slumped over in exhaustion every day, with problems and complexities thrown at us that are akin to an entrepreneur’s journey while building their businesses,” Samra explained. “The beauty of life, and in entrepreneurship, lies in the highs and lows, but that is where uncertainty, loss and failure also resides. Your failure can be extremely public, but the key thing is to just start your journey, regardless of results.”

This year’s edition of SEF also had a variety of speakers from the MENA region testifying to the entrepreneurial landscape in which they operate in. In a session looking into the legacy of Careem, one of the region’s most successful startup success stories, Tarek Fouad, Head of Growth at Shurooq Partners, moderated a discussion featuring former and current employees at the unicorn, including Bassel Al Nahlaoui, MD – Mobility, Careem, Wael Nafee, partner at Raed Ventures, and Asma Alyamani, Head of Product at Mamo Pay.

Related: The Ride Continues: How Careem's Culture Fueled The "Careem Cartel"

Wael Nafee, Partner of Raed Ventures, and Asma Alyamani, Head of Product at Mamo Pay

“The biggest impact it has had on the ecosystem is bringing the belief that you can build a startup on this scale and level,” Nafee said. “There are many ways you can help build a startup and establish its mission and values. Already knowing the hustle, I moved to my current role, because I want to help more startups to do that.” Meanwhile, Alyamani advised other founders that "recreating the success system and culture (for any startup) is cool, but also complex, so emulating it [the Careem culture] is a great challenge.” For his part, Al Nahlaoui noted that there is no end in sight when it comes to Careem’s work in the ecosystem. “At our heart, we are still about helping people with our solutions,” he said. “This region has 700 million people, and we still consider ourselves to be at the beginning of our journey.”

Youth from the MENA region also had a significant presence on the SEF stage this year, with the audience getting to hear from names like actor and singer Rashed Al Nuaimi, poet and scholar Afra Atiq, pastry chef Sahar Al Awadhi, Manar Al Hinai, co-founder, Sekka, Hayat AlHassan, co-founder, Sweech, Maria Sobh, co-founder, The Concept, Ihsan Al-Hayek, Regional Manager – MENA, Dapi, and many others on the first day of the event.

Related: Why Nurturing Local Talent Is Key To Building A Sustainable Tech Industry In The UAE

Hayat AlHassan, co-founder of Sweech, Maria Sobh, co-founder of The Concept, Ihsan Al-Hayek Regional Manager - MENA of Dapi, and Manar Al Hinai, co-founder of Sekka

Trending topics in the ecosystem also found a place at SEF 2021, one of which had Hussein Wehbe, entrepreneur and former government advisor, Elias Tsikhlakis, MD, eyewa, Abdul-Rahman Risilia, founder and CEO, ARC Talent, and Saeed Al-Nofeli, Director, in5, engaging in a discussion about attracting talent to the region’s startup ecosystem. In another session, Morrow Collective co-founder Anna Seaman, Jumy co-founder Anthony Monteard, Republic MENA Managing Director Anwaar Almahmeed, Cheeze CEO Simon Hudson, and artist Amrita Sethi came together for an illuminating chat that was aimed at demystifying the concept of the metaverse.

The second day of SEF 2021 started with a panel discussion moderated by Kyma co-founder and CEO Farida El Agamy, which dove into the facets that make a great CEO. The three panelists -Nisreen Shocair, CEO, YOOX Net-a-Porter Middle East, Amir Farha, founder, COTU, and Mohamad Ballout, co-founder and CEO, Kitopi- agreed that empathy should be a key trait of any successful leader, especially in the times of crisis.

Related: Kitopi's Mohamad Ballout Is Aiming To Have His Cloud Kitchen Platform Dominate MENA (And The World) With A US$415 Million Funding Round Led By SoftBank

Mohamad Ballout, co-founder and CEO of Kitopi, Nisreen Shocair, CEO of YOOX Net-a-Porter Middle East, Amir Farha, founder of COTU, Farida El Agamy, co-founder and CEO of Kyma

“When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, my initial reaction was not ‘This is an amazing opportunity for online business,” but ‘How do I take care of our people?’” Shocair said. “We did that by creating a buddy system and opened helplines, since everyone was working remotely and needed an infrastructure of support, particularly for their mental wellbeing. Our team members felt they were protected by the company, and, as a result, surpassed their targets.” Ballout echoed this sentiment by pointing out that leaders of organizations need to learn to not be egoistic, and instead allow themselves to be coached. “Running a business can be like participating in a championship, you want the best team players and continually focus on building momentum,” he said. "But, during the COVID-19 crisis, what we [sometimes] saw around us was a lack of empathy, and without empathetic leadership, you cannot get anywhere.”

Ali Tabrizi, filmmaker of hit Netflix documentary Seaspiracy

SEF 2021 also saw Ali Tabrizi, the filmmaker behind the hit Netflix documentary, Seaspiracy, take part in a panel with Majid Al Futtaim-Holding Chief Sustainability Officer Ibrahim Zu'bi and Seafood Souq co-founder and CEO Sean Dennis on building a changemaker mindset when it comes to topics around the environment and sustainability.

Serial entrepreneur Anas Bukhash, the interviewer behind the hit talk show ABtalks

Meanwhile, serial entrepreneur Anas Bukhash, the interviewer behind the hit talk show, ABtalks, delivered a talk that offered a game plan for people wanting to figure out how they can go about building a meaningful life for themselves. Another session had Tahmima Anam, author of The Startup Wife, discussing why an overhaul of gender dynamics is needed in our current startup landscape. “We are hardwired in our brains to see men as visionaries and not women in leadership positions in the tech culture,” Anam said, in an on-stage conversation with Entrepreneur Middle East Editor In Chief Aby Sam Thomas. “To reclaim our power and our space, women must firmly believe that their presence in leadership positions is beneficial to the entire ecosystem. Women leaders are good for society, and it also makes good economic sense to have women at the helm.”

Tahmima Anam, author of The Startup Wife, along with Entrepreneur Middle East Editor in Chief Aby Sam Thomas

Discussions on the startup space continued with Maha Al Fahim, Founder, High Water Venture Partners, Ahmad Al Naqbi, CEO, Emirates Development Bank, Samer Choucair, Director, CE-Creates, and Noor Shawwa, Managing Director, Endeavor UAE, sharing their insights on the myriad of financing options that entrepreneurs can and should tap into while building their businesses in the region.

Another session had Sarmad Al Zadjali, co-founder, Mughamer, Fatima Showaiter, founder, Ark Coffee, Maryam Bin Al Shaikh, Manager, Sharjah Business Women Council, and Najla Al Ansari, founder, Not A Space, look into the particular benefits of launching a business in Sharjah, as opposed to anywhere else. The Emirate was also highlighted by Aida Muluneh, founder and Director of Africa Addis Foto Fest, who noted how it was a place that understood and appreciated the value of culture.

Aida Muluneh, founder and Director of Africa Addis Foto Fest, along with Mohamed Somji, Director of Gulf Photo Plus

In a conversation that was centered on the creative economy, Muluneh shared with Mohamed Somji, Director, Gulf Photo Plus, offered ideas on how creatives can ensure the sustainability of their careers by applying business principles to organizing their work. Having said that, she also encouraged them to have a deep-rooted purpose behind what they do- something that has helped her in her own career. “Culture teaches the world who we are, and it has an impact on shifting people’s perceptions,” she said. "Africa is so underrepresented and shown from a perspective that is not documented by us. Through my photography, I want to share with the world my side of the story of my country and my continent.” 

Vishen Lakhiani, founder of Mindvalley

SEF 2021 continued with its annual tradition of creating a special place for broaching on the topics of mental wellness and self-improvement, with Mindvalley, a learning experience platform founded by Vishen Lakhiani, organizing a number of power-packed sessions at the Mindvalley stage. Lakhiani himself delivered a speech that focused on how people can tap into creative visualizations to ensure their success in both work and life. “Using the power of our mind, we can harness all the positives in ourselves, influence our health, and turn on our creativity, using the right techniques,” he said.

This was followed by the highly anticipated talk by Lewis Howes, author of The School of Greatness, who advised the SEF 2021 audience to stop chasing greatness, “because that is when greatness starts chasing you.” He also revealed what people need to figure out if they are to unleash their true potential: “Ask yourself three questions. ‘What do I want? What is my fear? What do I need to heal?’ At the core of these lies the feeling that ‘I am not enough.’ Addressing what is holding you back and taking action to overcome those will help you accomplish greatness.”

Lewis Howes, author of The School of Greatness

Howes ended his talk with a nod to the inspiring journey that the UAE has had to reach its golden jubilee this year. “I am inspired by the vision, unity, innovation and creativity that has spurred the phenomenal growth of this country,” Howes said. "50 years ago, this was all just a dream, but a few visionary leaders came together to realize this dream, and committed themselves to make it happen.” This statement marked a fitting end to SEF 2021 as well, which, five years ago, was only just a dream, and now, continues to grow in stature and popularity, year after year. Watch out for SEF 2022!

Related: Sheraa CEO Najla Al Midfa Announces A US$1 Million Fund To Support Startups Amid The COVID-19 Crisis

Tamara Pupic

Written By

Tamara Pupic is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Middle East.