How The Arab Spring Planted Seeds Of Innovation In Egypt by [email protected]

Entrepreneur Dina Sherif talks about innovation in Egypt.

The 2011 uprising in Egypt that saw the overthrow of longtime President Hosni Mubarak was more than just a grass-roots political movement for the country. The historic event ushered in a new era of thought about how to rebuild Egypt’s struggling economy. Government jobs that were once the backbone of society are no longer a reliable option for the burgeoning masses of youth, who are turning toward the private sector and entrepreneurship — finding opportunities their parents never had.

Dina Sherif, CEO and cofounder of Ahead of the Curve (ATC) and an advisor to the Egyptian president, wants to guide that youthful energy through her enterprise. At ATC, she seeks to promote entrepreneurship and sustainability through innovative business models. Sherif is also the director of the Entrepreneurship Center at the American University in Cairo and an Eisenhower Fellow. She talked recently with [email protected] about the profound changes taking place in Egypt and discussed her vision for the country’s future. What follows is an edited version of that interview.

[email protected]: What is the level of entrepreneurship and sustainability in Egypt and the Arab world right now?

Dina Sherif: I’ll talk a little bit about Egypt, but I’ll put it more broadly in the context of the Arab region. Sixty-five percent of our population is under the age of 34. In Egypt, we have the highest youth unemployment rate in the Middle East. I would say it’s one of the highest in the world right now.

Job creation is the top challenge that we face across the entire Arab region. Our private sector in comparison to other emerging markets is still relatively small. Traditionally, in a country like Egypt, our youth depended on the government to employ them after they finish college. That’s really no longer a possibility, especially with the huge youth bulge that we have right now, so we’re looking to the private sector to create those [needed] jobs.

As you might know, the majority of jobs are not created in already existing large businesses and multinationals. You really need to see jobs created through an explosion of small and medium enterprises. For the past decade, I think there’s been a lot of focus on how do we create an entrepreneurial culture within Egypt and then the Arab region to solve the job creation problem? How do we create the policies in an enabling environment required to see fast business growth?

[email protected]: Is the idea of entrepreneurship one that is starting to catch on?

Sherif: One of the biggest challenges for our youth is they really want to transition to adulthood. If you can’t find a job in a company and you can’t find a job in the government and civil society is not going to create the kind of jobs required, you’re going to go out there and create your own job.

“Job creation is the top challenge that we face across the entire Arab region.”

I think definitely Egypt has a booming startup culture. There’s [also] a booming startup culture in Jordan, one that is growing in Dubai. Saudi Arabia is starting to see a lot of focus on entrepreneurship and new business growth.

Obviously, we’re also looking to the United States for a lot of knowledge, experience and expertise to be able to jumpstart and do it quickly. I think the U.S. has one of the most advanced and sophisticated ecosystems to support new business growth in the world. You have the Small Business Administration that really pushes forward small business growth from the government level. We need to look at those models to help ourselves move a lot faster.

[email protected]: Are countries within the Middle East working with each other on a plan for the region?

Sherif: That’s a great question, and it’s definitely one of the challenges that I talk about at Ahead of the Curve. One of the biggest problems for entrepreneurs in the Middle East is that it’s very hard to cross markets in the region. It’s very hard to move from one market to the other, not just in the region but elsewhere. Very few entrepreneurs are able to reach that kind of scale, and oftentimes when they do they’ll leave Egypt and come here to the U.S., for example. We have quite a few Egyptians who come and start a business out of Silicon Valley, those who work in tech.

In order for entrepreneurs to cross markets to scale their businesses, we really need to open our markets. We’re still, by and large, protectionist economies, which is now hindering our own ability to create sustainable economic growth. [But] we’re seeing some changes. There is a lot happening in the ecosystem with a lot of us. At the Center for Entrepreneurship at the American University in Cairo and at my company, a lot of people across the region who are working on entrepreneurship are really trying to find ways to build a collaborative ecosystem to see faster growth.

“One of the biggest problems for entrepreneurs in the Middle East is that it’s very hard to cross markets in the region.”

[email protected]: Tell us about Ahead of the Curve.

Sherif: Ahead of the Curve was founded not too soon after the revolution in Egypt. I and my cofounder really wanted to work on developing economies through the private sector because I had a background and focus on philanthropy and looking towards civil society to see developments happen. Prior to that, I did a lot of work at the African Development Bank and with big donors, and I just realized that development from that angle was too slow.

The private sector has a lot of potential to solve social problems at a much faster pace and using a lot more innovation. Ahead of the Curve was built to work with the private sector to help them create inclusive, profitable business models that are sustainable and to build our societies in a much more shared, value-driven way. We do a lot of work with large companies and multinationals. But then we realized that’s a top-down [approach].

What are we going to do [from the] bottom up? We created a subsidiary called Entrepreneurship with Impact Ventures, which is the first impact investment fund in the Middle East to work on early stage startups with social impact. It’s been a really cool journey so far. We’ve invested in a number of [ventures that work on] business, health care, retail and transportation issues. I see a lot of potential in that specific startup space.

[email protected]: Is it at a stage where it’s getting off the ground and the impact hasn’t been fully felt at this point?

Sherif: I would say that we have a couple of really good examples of businesses that have moved into their growth phase. I think when it comes to impact entrepreneurship, investors are starting to catch on that this is a space that can be very lucrative while at the same time solve major problems. I mean here’s the story in the Middle East — we don’t have the luxury of time. We just really don’t. We have too many problems.

And if we don’t create jobs fast, you know what happens? Youth

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