The agenda for the second (and, unfortunately, final) day of the 8th MIT Enterprise Forum in Kuwait promised a wealth of ideas, speakers, and inspiration.
I can safely report that it did not disappoint one bit.
The morning session kicked off with the ever ingenious Dr. Naif Almutawa, creator of “The 99” (the first group of comic superheroes born of an Islamic archetype). Dr. Naif seldom ends a talk without leaving the crowd thirsty for more, and this time was no different. The clinical psychologist’s talk highlighted the importance of mentorship as it relates to leadership. In essence, he delivered the message that “every leader needs a mentor”. From the onset of this forum and the Arab Startup Competition, this idea has been the undisclosed theme of the event. Dr. Naif’s talk helped resonate that idea even further.
Following Dr. Naif was a panel on the role of private business in supporting the startup ecosystem. Zain Group’s CEO Scott Gegenheimer and Ericsson VP Patrik Melander led the panel. I was pleasantly surprised to find out about the initiatives both Zain and Ericsson were working on to support connectivity in rural areas; something that will have a big impact on the potential market for any startup. I was also surprised to find out that Zain had an initiative in Jordan that acted as an accelerator for statups (called ZINC), and that they were planning on rolling it out in more cities across MENA. In the QA, a few members of the audience voiced their opinion that these private companies have benefited from government support and public infrastructure, and it was their duty to support startup initiatives even more. I completely agree.
I was looking forward to the panel on Access to Capital in MENA, which hosted leaders of the VC industry in the Arab world. The panel discussion was thought provoking. The panel’s message was heard loud and clear, “there is a lack of capital flowing into the tech scene in MENA”. There was one stat in particular that I found surprising: in the US, 5% of capital is invested in technology and startups, compared to 0.1%-0.6% in MENA. The panel called for more openness to startup failure, and a shift in risk assessment in light of the dwindling opportunities in traditional low-risk investment vehicles such as real estate. The discussion was an important insight into the availability of capital for startups.
The other two panels I would like to highlight were on creating a knowledge economy and the long-term energy outlook for the region (attended by Mr. Nizar Al-Adsani, CEO of KPC). The goal of both panels was to look forward and see where the Arab world was heading. The falling oil prices has been a topic of debate among participants, and it was intriguing to find out what perspective Mr. Al-Adsani had to offer. One sentence Al-Adsani mentioned struck me in particular, “Oil at $60 is an opportunity”. Perhaps now more than ever, the technology sector has a chance to prove itself as a true cornerstone of a thriving economy. With oil continuing its fall from grace, there is room for new sectors to shine and show the way forward. Ultimately, the technology sector is about the entrepreneurs who are courageous and talented enough to take a chance on creating the next global giant.
The Arab startup community needs to rally today more than ever to showcase the plethora of original ideas and abundance of ingenuity to pave the true alternative to an economy overly dependent on oil. That was the message and call of action for the way forward.
As MITEF came to an end, I couldn’t help but feel a renewed optimism coursing through my veins. I am now sure, more than I have ever been, that leaders on all levels and across all segments are embracing the need to support the startup ecosystem in the Arab world. My hope is that this continuous drive will reap it’s rewards in the very near future.
Special thanks to MIT and the organizers for putting together a terrific event. And special thanks to Mariam Alrayes for allowing us the pleasure of covering the forum.
(Reminder: pictures of the entire event will be posted soon… stay tuned!)