CAIRO – Celebrating the establishment of Global Entrepreneurship Network’s (GEN) first campus in the MENA region in November in Cairo, Egypt Today conducted an interview with GEN’s founder and president, Jonathan Ortmans.
GEN is an organization that provides a platform for programs and initiatives to help new firms start and scale within one global entrepreneurial ecosystem. GEN is headquartered in Washington but operates in 170 countries where it works to foster healthier local ecosystems.
Tell me a brief about GEN’s First Campus in the MENA region, mainly about its target and main activities.
GEN’s first campus in the MENA region, [email protected], in partnership with Tatweer Misr, will help strengthen connections among ecosystem stakeholders and facilitate access to resources for young entrepreneurs, including technology labs with state-of-the-art workstations, workshop rooms, co-working spaces and much more. Entrepreneurs will have access to a diverse team of experienced entrepreneurs, mentors and funders all under one roof to nurture and support them at every stage of their journey. This includes GEN bringing best-in-class programs, communities and support from our network to Egypt’s next generation of entrepreneurs.
What is the main target of Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW)?
Global Entrepreneurship Week is a celebration of innovators who dream big and launch startups that bring ideas to life. Since its launch in 2008, millions of people across 170 countries celebrate GEW each November through local, national and global events and activities. From large-scale startup competitions and workshops to small, community discussions – GEW reaches new audiences and connects participants to a network that can help them take the next step, no matter where they are on their entrepreneurial journey. Global Entrepreneurship Week is a mission to celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit – it’s a way for us to inspire more people to consider the path of entrepreneurship at some point in their life.
When did GEN launch its first Global Entrepreneurship Week in Egypt? And how has GEW been developed throughout these years?
Egypt was one of the first countries around the world to celebrate Global Entrepreneurship Week. Since it launched in 2008, it has grown from a few activities that first year to more than 100 events, competitions and workshops. We started with a spark of an idea, beginning with 77 countries in 2008, and then more than doubling that number by 2018. What initially started as a campaign to promote youth entrepreneurship has matured over the years to now engaging startup community leaders, policymakers, researchers, investors and other startup champions.
I’d like to know more about Global Entrepreneurship Congress (GEC).
The Global Entrepreneurship Congress gathers together thousands of ecosystem builders, entrepreneurs, investors, researchers, policymakers and others from more than 170 countries to explore effective interventions to help founders start and scale new ventures around the world. It was first hosted at the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City and since has been to Dubai, Istanbul, Johannesburg, Liverpool, Milan, Medellin, Moscow, Rio de Janeiro and Shanghai. The next Congress, scheduled for April 2019, will be hosted in Bahrain where we expect one of the highlights to be a ministerial meeting, gathering government officials and policy experts to review innovative new approaches to shaping public policy to advance new firm formation.
What’s your opinion about the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Middle East and in Egypt specifically?
The ecosystem in Egypt is rapidly evolving and has seen significant growth in the past few years following the 2011 revolution, which opened doors for many young people to start thinking about ways to innovate, create and control their destinies – unleashing their entrepreneurial potential. We have also seen similar enthusiasm for startups in the region more generally. This is why GEN has been so excited to open a hub in Cairo, at the very heart of where we are seeing some of the most encouraging progress. Because it is entrepreneurs and their companies who will work to help create new jobs moving forward, and it is entrepreneurs who will make available goods and services found elsewhere that are not yet available here.
Do you think that Egypt offers a healthy ecosystem for entrepreneurs?
With a large youth population, low wage costs and numerous niche markets yet to be saturated, Egypt is an ideal place to offer young entrepreneurs a suitable environment to experiment and develop their ideas. Tatweer Misr has, from its inception, been dedicated to building the educational capacity of Egypt in order to fuel the creation of the most dynamic workforce possible. We see this collaboration between Tatweer and GEN as a natural extension of this goal.
Do you think that the government is well engaged in the ecosystem or is there a gap between entrepreneurs and decision makers?
At GEN, one of our core beliefs is that to develop the best environment for entrepreneurship to flourish, with minimal barriers for founders and investors, all key stakeholders need to sit at the same table – from policymakers and entrepreneurs to investors and ecosystem builders. We see that potential and that commitment in Egypt. While the startup ecosystem is relatively nascent, there has been increasing engagement by the Investment Ministry, as well as other stakeholders, since the inception of the government’s economic reform plan. Dr. Sahar Nasr is smart and highly respected globally for her deep understanding of the needs of entrepreneurs and I think Egypt should be proud of having government leaders like her fighting to build the ecosystem.
There is a tendency among most Middle Eastern entrepreneurs to go for tech startups which are based on application or website. What do you think about that?
A lot of the startups that we have seen emerge in Egypt and the region over the past few years have been directly in response to specific issues people are facing in their daily lives – such as food delivery and transportation – and thus technology and the use of apps has been crucial to solving the challenges of consumers in a very direct way. However, we are also seeing the continued evolution of startups that are not app-based and seek to solve challenges that are tougher – especially as technology has opened the doors to everyone who sees a way of doing something better or cheaper – even if it means disrupting dated businesses and business models. By the time [email protected] opens, I think you will see an army of entrepreneurs disrupting semi-regulated industries across the MENA economies, which is why we are planning ahead for the next generation of entrepreneurs in energy, transportation, health care, and other related industries to ripe for new innovators and ways of serving consumers.
Most Middle Eastern entrepreneurs depend on raising funds to get to survive for the first period. What’s your opinion?
At the outset, entrepreneurs should focus on the iterative process of experimenting with ideas not raising money. If the result of the experiment gets increasingly promising, they can start to shift time onto raising money. Starting a company is not about getting income or a job, but taking a risk with your time and comfort to birth the new.Icounsel startups to focus in the first couple of years on mentorship, finding people with unique knowledge of the industry they hope to join – or disrupt. They should be focused on getting access to a peer network to pull from on demand when they need it and finding pathways to new markets – not raising money.
A healthy local ecosystem that GEN hopes to contribute to enables these things to happen free to the entrepreneurs. [email protected] will aim to help mature this capacity and streamline the funding process for companies.
What do you think are the main challenges that entrepreneurs face in the Middle East and Egypt in particular?
While many entrepreneurs will point to the need for more access to capital, I see the need for increasing the density of the ecosystem, strengthening connections and collaboration while increasing the skills of the workforce. Initiatives like [email protected] facilitate cooperation between startups and can provide the space and community needed to overcome many of the obstacles being faced.
As part of the mission to enrich the communities in which they work, GEN, along with our partner Tatweer Misr, is also committed to ensuring the next generation is equipped with the knowledge necessary to be job creators instead of job seekers. This is important to the work we foresee [email protected] fulfilling. By uniting all the players in the ecosystem, we can help bridge gaps in the ecosystem, provide potential new markets to startups and most importantly secure better access to knowledge, networks and training. When I last visited Cairo, I took some time off to look at the Pyramids. It was thousands of years after Egyptian innovators figured out massive scientific and logistical challenges that nations like America were born. Innovation is in the blood of Egyptians and we are keen to ensure the region recognizes this and is confident like we are about the region’s future.
Do you think that media plays a role in supporting the ecosystem? To what extent does media pay attention to entrepreneurs?
The media has a much more vital role in fostering the ecosystem than anyone realizes. First, simply showing the public how entrepreneurship generates employment, feeds the economy and encourages self-reliance in society is very valuable. Second, so many view entrepreneurship narrowly as just business. The media can show how founders are more creative than simply “business people” and how new generations of Egyptians should view it not just as an opportunity to do well but an opportunity to do good by creating opportunities for all. The media can show how inclusive entrepreneurship ecosystems are by telling the stories of more diverse founders to inspire others to follow. If we want to see an increase in groups who are underrepresented in the ecosystem – we must spotlight current success stories and highlight those trailblazers. We need the media to keep educating the public and shining attention on new initiatives and startup innovations in the region.
Do you think that the Middle Eastern community is ready to accept Financial Technology (fintech), Bitcoins and blockchains?
While fintech is relatively new to the region it is also new to the world. Vital to success in any country will be whether regulators are innovating with entrepreneurs or not and it is a level playing field in that regard for all nations. Fintech will be increasingly embraced and I suspect more blockchain applications to be integrated with time and education and if policymakers can keep ahead of innovators in the region in terms of regulations and legal frameworks that enable not block progress.
Can you offer advice for Egyptian entrepreneurs?
To entrepreneurs, you are much more important than just creating business or wealth, you are contributing to the society, you are learning about new value for society, you are creating jobs for people, and you are leashing innovation, so don’t embrace to entrepreneurship as a business, think of it as you are doing an experiment, you are conducting an experiment that you will learn from. So to all entrepreneurs, it is a spiritual exercise as you are pioneering something.