Sharjah Media City Chairman Dr. Khalid Omar Al Midfa Talks Venture Building, Startups, And Success Rates

"My mantra is: 'Don't expect others to do a task that you would not be prepared to do yourself.' I think this is something that makes a leader stand out."

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It's always great to find someone who shares the same principles as you do, and that should explain why I had a renewed sense of appreciation for Sharjah Media City (Shams) Chairman Dr. Khalid Omar Al Midfa when he shared with me his personal philosophy for governing people at his enterprise. "My mantra is: "Don't expect others to do a task that you would not be prepared to do yourself,'" Dr. Al Midfa says. "I think this is something that makes a leader stand out."

Sharjah Media City
Dr. Khalid Omar Al Midfa, Chairman, Sharjah Media City

This is perhaps a tiny detail, but I like to think that this statement from Dr. Al Midfa offers a glimpse into the strategies and systems he has used to make Shams a pioneering entity that's now known for being "a catalyst for creative businesses to grow and thrive" in the UAE. Launched in 2017 following an Emiri decree from H.H. Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, UAE Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah, Shams is today described by Dr. Al Midfa as a unique free zone with its own integrated infrastructure that aims to become a first-choice investment environment for everyone from large companies to small- and medium-sized enterprises in Sharjah and the UAE, with a particular focus on the media and creative industries.

"Since its inception, Shams has been working on two main tracks," Dr. Al Midfa explains. "The first is establishing an integrated business community, and incubating small-, medium-sized, and emerging businesses to help them to grow and prosper; the second is training media professionals to advance in the creative industries sector, and providing talents capable of growing Sharjah's and the UAE's media scenes. Along with my dedicated colleagues and partners, I am committed to elevating Shams into becoming a global media hub– one that offers the most innovative and up-to-date media services, and the center of a thriving regional media industry."

Extending over an area of two million square meters, Shams currently boasts of a vibrant community of businesses from a variety of sectors, with media, e-commerce, and real estate being key among them. The free zone had 5,689 companies registered with it in 2021, and it's worth noting that a total of 4,293 businesses renewed their licenses with the entity in the same year. This can be seen as a testament to the benefits Shams provides to its tenants, which include 100% ownership for foreign investors, a suite of integrated business development solutions, as well as a wide range of commercial activities that can be used as desired.

"We believe in creative ideas, and we have the capacity and enthusiasm to turn these into viable projects," Dr. Al Midfa says. "Shams creates talent and entrepreneurs by providing opportunities for their ideas to take flight. Every pioneering project starts with an idea, and we take these concepts and shape them into tangible initiatives that can set new standards in the media sector. Our future is bright, and I see Shams becoming established as a leader in the local and regional media sector within the next few years. With the first of our three main buildings complete, we look forward to our business growing as our physical environment progressively expands."

Related: Incubating Innovation: Sheraa Chairperson H.E. Sheikha Bodour Bint Sultan Al Qasimi

H.H. Sheikh Sultan bin Ahmed bin Sultan Al Qasimi, Deputy Ruler of Sharjah and Chairman of Sharjah Media Council at inauguration of Shams Business Centre of Sharjah Media City (Shams).

98% of construction work has already been completed on Shams' three buildings, with the first opening its doors to the public in March this year. But even while its built environment was being realized, Shams made sure it continued to engage and interact with its target communities- Dr. Al Midfa points out here that his entity organized 43 workshops in 2021, which had 1,173 experts and members of the public participating in them. "A standout achievement was our successful launch of 218: Behind the Wall of Silence, the first crowdsourced film in the Arab world," he adds. "To cap it all, we have achieved a customer satisfaction rate of almost 90% according to our latest survey, something that we are very proud of in view of the challenges of the global coronavirus pandemic."

Indeed, while the onset of the COVID-19 crisis did present Shams with plenty of challenges to deal with, Dr. Al Midfa and his team were able to keep business going relatively unscathed. "During this trying and testing period, Shams remained proactive by utilizing the latest virtual and digital technology to manage its business, communicate with customers, and provide access to its services," he says. "This was aided by 99% of its offerings being available on digital platforms. Pre-pandemic, we had utilized electronic platforms for virtual communication between employees and departments, and for managing meetings- this put us at a high degree of readiness to run our operations smoothly during lockdowns. The figures show that Shams achieved a considerable growth in its number of registered companies in 2020– something that proves that our preparedness was instrumental in enabling us to expand our business."

The manner in which Shams was able to circumvent the challenges resulting from the global coronavirus pandemic does offer an alternative take to the doom and gloom that's often associated with the COVID-19 crisis, and it's a perspective that Dr. Al Midfa wishes for entrepreneurs operating in the MENA business arena to embrace as well. "The global pandemic –a situation unprecedented in modern times- has created a unique set of challenges for entrepreneurs, with the startup ecosystem suffering high burn rates and companies requiring stimulus support packages from governments to survive," he says. "However, the crisis has also created an array of opportunities, with the rapid expansion of digitalization and the need to conduct transactions remotely enabling companies to fill gaps in the market that have dramatically widened. Companies in the MENA region that have done well in this new landscape and have made an impression on me include established online food delivery services such as Talabat, Zomato, and Deliveroo, and e-commerce platforms, such as the automotive marketplace SellAnyCar.com, online optical store platform Eyewa, and mobile-only e-commerce network Zon."

Sharjah Media City Chairman Dr. Khalid Omar Al Midfa. Images courtesy Farooq Salik/Entrepreneur Middle East.

According to Dr. Al Midfa, the trajectories of these different ventures show that, even through the course of the COVID-19 crisis, the principles that govern success in the entrepreneurial domain remain the same as ever. "The pandemic hasn't changed one aspect– if you have a good idea, conduct proper due diligence, and commit yourself to never giving up, your startup has a high chance of success," Dr. Al Midfa declares. "With these qualities in mind, it is never a bad time to bring your startup to the market."

And the Arab world is a great place to do just that, he adds. "The MENA region is a popular investment destination for both regional and global investors, and it is set to be the only region in the world to record a rise in economic growth this year, driven by higher oil prices and an acceleration in business-friendly reforms," Dr. Al Midfa says. "With a country-specific focus, we can see that the UAE market has strengthened its presence in 2022 with more opportunities– a sign of the UAE economy's flexibility and resilience. These attributes facilitate entrepreneurial activity, whether it be with new startups, or the expansion of existing businesses."

Dr. Al Midfa believes that Shams is particularly well-placed to support enterprises in this regard, especially when it comes to those that operate in the media and creative industries. "Shams was established to support Sharjah's vision of developing human capacity, and to value the notion of knowledge as being the most important asset of all," he notes. "Its field of focus is on building the skills and expertise of those either already working in the media and creative industries, or who wish to find a fertile environment in which to launch a new venture in this area… It also encourages those with an interest in the industry to consider a media career and to actively pursue opportunities, whether as presenters, camera operators, technical specialists, entrepreneurs, or indeed any role that is found in a diverse media ecosystem. Ultimately, Shams aims to be a resource for all who wish to become more involved in the exciting and rapidly evolving media scene, and thus become an environment where future media leaders can hone their skills."

Looking at Dr. Al Midfa's own skills as a leader, it's clear that he has built them through his years of experience in the UAE's business scene, which he entered with a bachelor's degree from the UAE's Etisalat University College (which is today called Khalifa University), as well as a master's and PhD degree in telecommunications engineering from the UK's University of Bristol. He kicked off his career trajectory as an Assistant Professor at Khalifa University from 2004 to 2007, which was followed by a year-long stint in 2009 as the CEO of the UAE's Advanced National Research and Education Network, Ankabut. In 2011, Dr. Al Midfa became the General Manager of Sharjah Media Corporation, the governmental organization in which his responsibilities included "leading operations, providing strategic vision and long-range planning, maximizing business operational efficiency, and creating year-on-year business growth."

Related: Sheraa's Sharjah Startup Studio To Help MENA Startups In Their Post-COVID-19 Recovery

Shams Business Centre of Sharjah Media City

This led to his appointment as the Chairman of Shams in the same year it was launched, and in this role, he oversees the entity's leadership team in delivering a variety of key performance indicators, which run the gamut from "aligning organizational objectives" to "creating consensus for solutions and future direction." "I believe that one of the most important things I do is to promote an environment of openness and transparency within my team, and to encourage employees to speak out without fear of censure," Dr. Al Midfa says. "You get the best out of people when they are comfortable in expressing themselves fully, and this generates a positive atmosphere in the workplace. Allowing people to talk freely enables the prompt identification of any issues, which may otherwise go undetected, and it also aids in discovering new and effective ways of working. It all adds up to being a recipe for good enterprise operations and organizational growth, with high morale and low staff turnover aiding productivity and efficiency."

This tactic may sound like an easy thing to accomplish, but Dr. Al Midfa admits that putting it into practice does take a bit of work and patience. "The main challenge I have faced with this approach is conveying to new team members that there is no catch," he reveals. "At first, naturally, they can be reticent about speaking their mind. However, after just a few months, I am proud to see their confidence grow, and for them to feel that they are established members of the team, with their own unique voices."

This brings us back to Dr. Al Midfa's ethos as a leader that was mentioned at the beginning of this article- he's clearly someone who has no qualms about getting his hands dirty while on a job, and he pushes those around him to follow a similar mentality as well. "Of course, effective delegation is an essential aspect of any organization– people have different skillsets and professional training, and they need to be assigned to roles where they can effectively utilize their assets most effectively," Dr. Al Midfa says. "However, I also believe that a degree of "cross-pollination' is good business practice, as it enables employees to undertake different roles if needed. I actively encourage my team to learn what their colleagues from their own and other departments are doing. Not only does this help ensure functions can still be successfully completed if we happen to be a team member down, with a colleague able to step in and temporarily take over, it also engenders a more holistic understanding of the organization, with employees able to understand how different roles contribute to the whole."

It should be pretty apparent by now that Dr. Al Midfa is someone who believes in the adage of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, and he confesses that it's a lesson that he learnt when he was younger. "I was very headstrong in my youth, and whilst this gave me the drive to succeed, it also blinded me to opportunities to learn from my colleagues," Dr. Al Midfa recalls. "I was locked into thinking I had to be very competitive in everything that I did, and too often, I would see my colleagues as rivals in the workplace, not co-workers aiming for the same organizational goals. This changed for me one day when someone who I hadn't previously regarded very highly saved me from a mistake that I had made– one that had the potential to cause me a problem. His act of generosity changed my attitude, and it made me realize that the key to enjoying my work was to make the most of the people around me, and to draw on my workmates' strengths to enhance my own."

Source: Sharjah Media City

The significance of this particular moment in Dr. Al Midfa's life cannot be understated- in fact, if he were ever given a chance to go back in time to change something he did, this is the lesson he'd be keen on learning much sooner in his life. "If I could change anything, it would be to have adopted this mindset earlier on in my career," he says. "However, I learned a valuable lesson on that day, and it is one that I carry with me to this day. I believe it has shown me how to be a better employee and -now- a better leader."

The Executive Summary: Leadership Lessons From Sharjah Media City Chairman Dr. Khalid Omar Al Midfa

1/ Be a role model "As the head of your organization, you need to serve by example. Good leaders should exemplify the behaviors and attitudes that they want to encourage in their team. By doing so, employees will respect and admire you, and they will strive to emulate your actions and deeds."

2/ Encourage feedback "Have an open door to your office, and allow your team to come to you with their thoughts and ideas. Work on being a participative leader by encouraging your employees to give their feedback to you, and involving them in organizational plans and strategies. Having team members be active contributors will improve morale and workplace productivity."

3/ Be passionate "Showing zeal and enthusiasm for what you do is a powerful motivator. Great leaders look beyond the bottom line of achieving targets and generating profits; they show that the journey to reach the goals is one that should be fun and all-consuming. By showing passion for projects, you will inspire your team to display the same."

Related: Sheraa's Five-Year Impact Report Showcases Sharjah's Transformation Into An Innovation-Driven Entrepreneurial Ecosystem