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Follow The Leader: Najla Al-Midfa, CEO, Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center (Sheraa) "My mantra is simple: keep the passion alive, and get things done. The two go hand-in-hand, because without passion and commitment, the quality of the work suffers."

By Tamara Pupic

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Just before this year's summer started, news broke that Najla Al-Midfa had been promoted to the position of Chief Executive Officer of the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center (Sheraa), a launch pad for the UAE's aspiring and established entrepreneurs, and a subsidiary of the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (Shurooq). In between many genuine messages of congratulations spreading across social media, there seemed to be some confusion over what her job title had been until then -it was General Manager- as people had become quite used to witnessing Al-Midfa going above and beyond the call of duty. This by itself provides the crucial insight into Al-Midfa's approach to her work -novel, hands-on, and no-nonsenseas well as the effects it has brought about in her sphere of influence- discernible, profound, and lasting.

In January 2016, Al-Midfa launched Sheraa –meaning "Sail" in Arabic- under the patronage of H.E. Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Chairperson of Shurooq, at the American University of Sharjah. In just over two years, the Sheraa team has inspired a loyal community of over 6,000 entrepreneurs, regularly hosting public workshops and events with over 300 local and international speakers. Its main activity -a full-stack entrepreneurship program catering to startups at all stages: pre-seed, seed, and Series A- has produced even more spectacular results. At the pre-seed stage, Sheraa has helped almost 200 aspiring entrepreneurs develop and validate their business ideas. Of these, more than 50 have been incubated and supported, while building their prototypes and gaining initial traction in the marketthe three top performers last year made over US$80,000 in sales revenue.

Additionally, 30 startups have graduated from Sheraa's seed and Series A stages, having raised over $12 million in investment to date. These startups continue to generate over $8 million in annual recurring sales, and have also created jobs for over 100 employees. Al-Midfa puts much of the success down to the backing of the Sharjah government, which has allowed her team the freedom to experiment with the offerings in their programs, taking the time to analyze where the gaps in the ecosystem lie, and how best to fill them. Sharjah itself, as one of the UAE's more ambitious emirates, does offer a solution for one of the biggest hurdles entrepreneurs face -keeping costs down, and hiring the right people.

Going forward, Al-Midfa says, it will be all about ensuring consistency. "We know that building an ecosystem takes time, especially when one must also instill an entrepreneurial culture, and so we have worked to perfect our programs and continue to run them every year," she says. "If there are elements that do not quite work, we change them. We have always been open to feedback from our stakeholders, especially our entrepreneurs, and this has been instrumental towards our progress."

Related: The (Right) Formula To Cultivate Entrepreneurial Talent

Al-Midfa opines that the UAE as a whole has vastly improved its business climate, having adopted entrepreneurship-friendly measures, including increased licensing opportunities, easing the visa process, and mobilizing full support for the private sector. At the moment, she says, the main challenge startups face is market access. "Sheraa seeks to change that by partnering with different stakeholders to cultivate a cooperative, supportive ecosystem that helps startups grow," Al-Midfa explains. "One way we do this is through our Supplier Matchmaking Day, which has had resounding success thus far. We held our first event last April, under the Arab Supply Chain Impact Initiative, and had 16 MoUs between participating startups and government and corporate entities signed on the day."

Al-Midfa attributes much of Sheraa's success also to their local and international partners, including Air Arabia, Bee'ah, Crescent Enterprises, Sharjah Media City – Shams, and Sandooq Al Watan, as well as the American University of Sharjah and University of Sharjah. "Also important is ensuring that we are contributing to cultivating an environment that supports creativity and divergent thinking in Sharjah," she says. "To do this, it has been necessary to engage with stakeholders across academia, government, and the private sector –in addition to entrepreneurs, of course– and aligning them around Sheraa's mandate. For Sheraa's impact to be truly scalable, I am constantly on the lookout for opportunities to refine Sheraa's strategy to pursue geographic and programmatic expansion opportunities, while establishing a financially sustainable model to support these growth aspirations."

The Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival (SEF), a two-day annual festival that brings together different stakeholders to network and inspire further innovation, has been another crucial vehicle for growing Sheraa's community and expanding its reach to the wider ecosystem. Over 2,000 entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, and ecosystem supporters attended the first rendition, held in November 2017, which featured over 60 inspirational talks with 150 local and international speakers. The success and impact of this event and other Sheraa programs led to the entity winning the Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Development Award at the 2017 Enterprise Agility Awards, presented by Entrepreneur Middle East.

Najla Al Midfa, CEO, Sheraa. Image credit: Sheraa.
With the stage now getting set for the 2018 edition of SEF, Al-Midfa credits all of Sheraa's successes and endeavors so far to her 15-person team who, she says, are young, high-performing, passionate go-getters and believers in Sheraa's mission and in the power of human potential. "As the CEO of Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center, my main role involves curating the culture of not only our team, but also the entrepreneurial community as a whole," she explains. "The ecosystem cannot thrive without passionate, creative, determined people paving the way, and those are exactly the type of people Sheraa seeks to attract."
Sheraa encourages startups in five focus areas: travel and tourism, sustainability, social enterprise, the creative economy, and Emirati innovation. As a whole, however, it remains industry-agnostic, because all sectors have room for innovation, Al-Midfa says. In startup founders, she looks for passionate, driven, and knowledge-hungry people. When it comes to their fledging businesses, she bases her decisions on the quality of their idea, its scalability and potential for success, as well as its ability to disrupt the market.
Al-Midfa adds, "We want to encourage entrepreneurs to come up with market- worthy solutions that are in line with their passions and what they have expertise in, rather than just what they think is "trending.' At the end of the day, we look for truly high-growth startups that are transforming the entrepreneurial landscape. However, I do believe the word innovation is overused, but the overuse does not necessarily invalidate its importance- rather, it points to the fact that everyone knows it is something that is vital to encourage, but they do not fully understand what it is, or how to do so. Instead, they tend to assume that anything related to "tech' or following the latest entrepreneurial trend is what's innovative. Entrepreneurial innovation is, in its simplest definition, making something better. This could mean improving an existing model or creating a completely new product or service, but if it's bettering the current iteration and our society, then it is innovative."
To Sheraa's startup founders -future leaders of their respective industries- Al- Midfa offers a special piece of advice: their assertiveness must not give way to plain stubbornness. "First and foremost, they must believe in the organization's mission, and they must trust the team they have chosen to help achieve it. They must be confident and able to assert themselves both internally and with external stakeholders, in order to build the company's reputation as being bold and true to their word. However, a good leader must have a certain degree of empathy and open-mindedness, as well as the ability to think flexibly. Essentially, all the traits that make a good entrepreneur tend to make a good leader."

We end our interview taking one more look back, and, in hindsight, there is no matter for regret when it comes to Sheraa's journey so far. "I am incredibly proud of how far we have come, and I do not think I would do anything differently," Al-Midfa concludes. "However, given the pace of our progress, I would want to remember to slow down and appreciate our achievements and savor our successes, to ensure we are consistently and sustainably growing. We are in this for the long haul, and there are no shortcuts to building an ecosystem- it takes time and commitment. My mantra is simple: keep the passion alive, and get things done. The two go hand-in-hand, because without passion and commitment, the quality of the work suffers."

ASK THE EXEC - Najla Al-Midfa, CEO, Sheraa

What are your five tips for entrepreneurs to build a sustainable business?

"Your team is one of the biggest investments you will make. Hiring the right talent, and trusting them to deliver without micromanaging, is vital for the success of your company. However, a light touch does not mean you should be afraid to let go of someone who's not performing."

"Be aware of all the inner workings of your startup. Learn to manage your costs, manage your staff, and put policies in place that ensure everything runs smoothly. Also, know when a project just is not working out, and learn to let it go."

"Being an entrepreneur can be incredibly lonely. It is so important to join a community of fellow entrepreneurs, through programs such as Sheraa's, so you have people who can encourage and support you through the ups and downs of running your business."

"It can be easy to get distracted, whether by a new project, a new contract that doesn't quite align with your mission, or a new commitment. Learn to say no to the things that detract from your core mission– that is how you ensure long-term growth."

"If you're not passionate about your business, it will show, and it will reflect in your work. Have fun, enjoy what you do. But also know when it's time to take a break. Burnout is very real."

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

Tamara Pupic

Entrepreneur Staff

Managing Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East

Tamara Pupic is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Middle East.


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