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Five Steps To Build Your Entrepreneurial Community In The MENA Entrepreneurs should be clear on their networking goals, and pay attention to what others say, using the tools available to ensure each interaction is intentional and meaningful.

By Maryam A. Hassani

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It's one thing to network, and another to build a community- and both are substantially more difficult for an entrepreneur new to the MENA region.

The UAE, attracting 40% international guests to its networking events, is very multicultural. And for those who stay, it's all about knowing the right people, and adjusting your approach to get into the right circles.

The UAE holds some of the biggest global tech events, from Abu Dhabi Finance Week to GITEX. The latter boasts of over 170,000 attendees across the four-day event- that'd leave one with just 68 seconds to engage with each individual, and determine who those "connectors" are.

But newcomers shouldn't be disheartened by such stats. Professional networking in the tight-knit community is best through warm introductions and a friendly rapport.

Here's an explainer on how entrepreneurs new to the MENA can access the right community groups, and once there, make a favorable impression

1/ PUT YOURSELF OUT THERE– GO TO THE EVENTS Multiple communities exist in the tech space; however, you need to know how to get in. In the MENA region, everything happens on WhatsApp: more than 8 in 10 of the population are on the platform. That figure soars above other regional social networks, meaning entrepreneurs looking to find when and where the meetups are will find them there. But the question is, how do they get added to these informative WhatsApp groups?

The best chance of getting pointed in the right direction is to go to the flagship events, and make friends with the most popular guests. Think of events like STEP Conference, GITEX, and Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival. Spanning across multiple tech fields, these events are some of the industry's most-attended, highest-rated, and most anticipated. In addition, being part of application-based communities like Global Shapers, or a startup program like Techstars, for example, is another way to get invited to great events.

2/ UNDERSTAND THE CULTURAL CLIQUES With the MENA tech ecosystem still growing, many people across communities already know each other, and you are likely to see familiar faces at all the major tech conferences. The trick is understanding how each clique likes to socialize. For example, in Dubai, perhaps you find yourself interacting with a sector-based crowd, like the blockchain bros. If that's the case, keep your crypto terminology updated, since you'll stick out of the crowd otherwise. Or, say, you stumble into a more traditional community- they typically meet at a coworking space or cafe right after work. Then, you have your outgoing communities, which tend to meet up later in the evening around downtown.

As an Emirati founder in the Middle East, I usually prefer daytime events. Still, as a first-time founder, there's something to learn from every community- particularly those formed organically by experienced founders, since they are often more open to helping and giving advice. That said, some communities are government-led, and they have a more structured feel to them, with events such as weekly breakfasts scheduled at particular times. Newcomers should not feel deterred if guests there tend to keep to themselves, and are more focused on the buffet, than meeting new people. That's just what happens when you put food in front of a hungry founder!

Related: The Challenges Of Change In The MENA Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

3/ BUILD RAPPORT THE MENA WAY Though it's hard to keep up and stay consistent with events (trust me, the introvert in me knows!), it's important to attend community events regularly. In an ecosystem with so many visitors passing through, putting in the effort to show up -and give back- will leave a lasting impression. Focus on building meaningful relationships, be humble, and adopt a give-first approach. The next time you are in the area, invite them for coffee, and ask whether they know any community members with whom your background can help. Reaching out to those who know you well will help you receive warm introductions, and get you into those tight-knit communities. Now, while it's a tactical approach to bond with someone who can help connect you forward, it is essential to be authentic. Find commonalities. Follow up. Pay it forward. Whether sending thank-you emails, connecting on professional platforms, or scheduling future meetings, make each interaction count, and always do what you say you will.

4/ KNOW YOUR PURPOSE (AND OTHERS') Not every event or community meetup guest will have the same intentions as you. Besides understanding the cultural cliques, it's a must to contemplate and align intentions as well. Suppose you are there to get leads or find new clients. You can consider a more targeted approach. If the event has an app, text through that, while respecting their time and preferences, of course. Ensure communication is relevant and valued. Those new to the region should start with a more thoughtful approach - focus on getting to know the space and community, and see where you fit. A sense of direction and purpose makes initiating conversations and leaving a memorable impression easier. Knowing your purpose also enables you to articulate your goals and interests clearly, making it easier for others to understand how they can collaborate. It allows you to focus on creating meaningful connections that are more likely to be mutually beneficial in the long run.

5/ FIND TOOLS THAT WORK FOR YOU LinkedIn and WhatsApp have become essential parts of the networking toolkit. However, leveraging relationship management tools such as Dex, as well as artificial intelligence (AI)-native networking tools like Zealous (which is my enterprise, by the way!) can help professionals network efficiently, and make the most of their time and effort. Meeting someone and adding them to LinkedIn is only the first step; what is really going to make the relationship is what you do afterward. Leverage features or event apps that help you screen professionals by relevance. Looking for a co-founder? Fundraising? Want to make friends? Clarity on who you should meet -and if they would want to meet you too- is beneficial for both parties. Today, networking apps are available that help you connect with people by relevance to ensure every relationship is meaningful. AI is assisting professionals in nurturing these connections, from timely reminders to reconnect at the most appropriate time to predesigned prompts that help clarify intentions. The main challenge in MENA is that it's all about having an "in." By understanding what the communities are about, showing genuine interest, and providing value to the members, you are more likely to be introduced to the community. Entrepreneurs in the area should be clear on their networking goals, and pay attention to what others say, using the tools available to ensure each interaction is intentional and meaningful. All the best!

Related: Dubai Chamber of Digital Economy Releases A Free Guide For Entrepreneurs Who Want To Launch Businesses In Dubai

Maryam A. Hassani is the co-founder and CEO of Zealous, an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered networking tool for goal-driven individuals to find, meet, and stay connected with their professional network at their preferred time and place.
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