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The (Right) Formula To Cultivate Entrepreneurial Talent Lessons learnt in the road to building a startup ecosystem in Sharjah.

By Najla Al-Midfa

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A scene from Sheraa's inaugural startup showcase in 2017

In a region with the highest official unemployment rate in the world -as high as 30% amongst youth- creating entrepreneurs out of disenchanted young talent in MENA can seem an arduous task. At the moment, over 25 million working-age youth are unemployed, most of them university graduates. These are even more drastic statistics when one considers that 60% of Arabs are under the age of 30, thus causing "a huge loss of productive capacity" and costing the Arab world's economy about US$40-50 billion in lost revenue every year.

According to the openDemocracy article, Jobs Above All Else, the International Labor Organization estimates that the MENA needs to generate 5 million new jobs per year up till the year 2030 to keep up with the growth of the working-age population. At Sheraa, we believe in building generations of job creators, not job seekers. Entrepreneurship is exactly what our youth need- to learn to see not just the problems of a society, but the potential solutions, and to take the responsibility of solving them into their own hands.

We're not doing it alone, either. We have so far partnered with various Sharjah-based entities including Crescent Enterprises, a multinational firm, Air Arabia, a budget airline, and Bee'ah, an environmental and waste management company. They help us generate and support ideas in social entrepreneurship, travel and tourism, and sustainability respectively. The potential is there, thrumming under the surface. Innate change makers who simply need an environment supportive enough to allow them to grow, and would-be entrepreneurs- those who are made by building their skills, their confidence, their ambition.

And to harness that potential as effectively as possible, Sheraa has a few key principles embedded in our programs.

Related: Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival Gets Set To Unite The UAE Entrepreneurship Ecosystem


This is perhaps the hardest part, simply because of how much must go into making it a reality. However, it is also the most essential, because it is only when attitudes are shifted towards problem-solving, critical thinking, innovation and possibility, that people begin to make a change.

Would-be entrepreneurs must feel that it is not only safe, but rewarding to challenge the status quo. They must not only learn to ask questions, but also learn what the right questions to ask are. They must learn to see obstacles as challenges. And they must learn to recognize and seize opportunities to collaborate- entrepreneurship is not a zero-sum game, and should not be treated as such.

Essentially, to be an entrepreneur, they must know that it is actually possible to be one, and then learn to think like one.


To solve problems, one must first acknowledge that there are problems to solve. To challenge the status quo, one must realize that it just doesn't work. And to face a challenge, means to face the possibility of failure, criticism, and feedback from the people one is surrounded by.

All of this requires honesty on the part of the entrepreneur. And it requires honesty from us as well, as we analyze what works and what doesn't. Which ideas have potential and which don't. Who has talent, but requires skills, and who has the skills but must hone their talent. Honest work is good work, and we value that throughout the journey.


Speaking of talents and skills, another key aspect of building an entrepreneurial ecosystem is learning to recognize them, and nurture them as much as possible. It also means identifying any skills gaps and seeking to close them, which we constantly do through our workshops that teach skills both hard and soft.

These three principles are embedded in all our programs, but none more so than during the initial ideation and incubation stages.

The entrepreneurial funnel Our headquarters provide a prime location. The Sheraa hub is situated in the American University of Sharjah campus at Sharjah University City, which is home to 30,000 students and over 25,000 alumni. This gives us access to a huge market of untapped potential, empowering and educating the youth to launch their own ventures.

We spent the first six months post-launch building our community, hosting 50 inspirational events attended by over 3,700 aspiring entrepreneurs. In our first year, we also held 45 training sessions and workshops on ideation, coding, finding your passion, and more, with almost 1,000 participants in total. Through a mix of their feedback and our research, we implemented a structure for Sheraa's entrepreneurial funnel.

The initial workshops lay the foundation for what is now our Sailors Program, which teaches app development, digital marketing, and graphic design. Graduates then get paid internships with the startups in our Ideathon, Incubator, Accelerator, and Manassah programs.

Ideathon The program is the first stage of the entrepreneurial journey as mapped out by Sheraa, and it is where we identify people with talent, skills, and promising ideas for startups. It is also the beginning of cultivating that culture of critical thought and business acumen that every entrepreneur needs, as we teach aspiring entrepreneurs how to validate their ideas with customer feed-back, develop their business model, and learn to pitch their idea persuasively and effectively. In the 10 Ideathons held so far, we've generated over 80 ideas, many of which have been carried over to the Incubator.

Incubator The Incubator program was established this year as a bridge between the Ideathon and the Accelerator. Here, we take things to the next level, adding financial sup-port, mentorship, networking opportunities and business collaborations.

The program lasts between three to six months, depending on the pace of each founder, allowing the selected applicants the flexibility to manage their startup along with their other responsibilities as students and/or employees. It is designed to provide these startups with mentorship and the skills to continue product development and testing, build their prototype, and make their first sale.

Over 20 teams have entered the program, and one has already made it through to the most recent cohort of the Accelerator. This stage is where entrepreneurs are truly tested on the principles we teach them in the Ideathon, with continual feedback, milestones they must achieve, and commitments to their team, their mentors, and their startup.

Accelerator The Accelerator program is where a select cohort of 10 teams receive a $10,000 equity-free grant, free access to our co-working space, expert workshops, free UAE-based business licensing, and more, in order to grow.

The program culminates with a Demo Day wherein the startups pitch their ideas to ecosystem players, investors, and our corporate partners, reinforcing the principles of support, collaboration, and providing the right culture for the ecosystem to grow.

Our first accelerator cohort of 10 teams graduated in February, earlier this year -during a Showcase Day event attended by H.H. Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi and Sheraa's Chairperson H.E. Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi- armed with the confidence and skills necessary to make their business a success.

We have received almost 300 local and international applications for our second cycle, which we shortlisted to 35 candidates. Now, we are armed with our second cohort of 10 startups.

Manassah Here is where the entrepreneurial ecosystem can truly take off. A network of established startups who are given privileged access to our co-working space, quarterly networking events, seminars and workshops, PR and promotion, and more. The bonds formed during the Incubator and Accelerator programs are further strengthened in Manassah, with new relationships formed in between.

Startups are given a chance to get a foot in the door of their respective markets, as well as receive facilitated introductions to government and corporate entities for potential partnerships. And, perhaps most vital, Manassah startups will be the ones driving the discussions on strengthening the entrepreneurial ecosystem during scheduled roundtable sessions.

To conclude, it is not a matter of finding born-entrepreneurs, but cultivating the youth to become entrepreneurs of the future, and to do that one must build the right ecosystem.This is not easy to do. We could simply aim for being the next Silicon Valley and imitate the ecosystems cultivated abroad. However, this is not Silicon Valley, nor are we trying to be.

Every ecosystem is unique, and our mission is to carve out an environment that is uniquely ours, addressing the needs of our society, and our economy.

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

Najla Al-Midfa

Chief Executive Officer of Sheraa - Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center

 Najla Al-Midfa is the Chief Executive Officer of Sheraa -Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center, a government entity that aims to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs and provide them with a launchpad for success.

She is also the founder of khayarat, a platform that enables young Emiratis to make informed career choices. In additon, Al Midfa is a member of the Board of Directors, and Risk Committee; Chairman of the Audit Committee at United Arab Bank; Vice-Chairman at Young Arab Leaders; a founding board member of Education for Employment UAE, and Women Corporate Directors GCC. 
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