Diaspora-driven Entrepreneurship has been a goal of strategists in each and every country all over the World. How it can be an achievable goal in the MENA region? Your feedback is appreciated on this article published in Venture Magazine.
The conclusion of the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship last April ignited a handful of new initiatives in the region aiming to support local entrepreneurs and develop a comprehensive innovation eco-system. Unfortunately, very few of these initiatives were focusing on reconnecting with the Arab diaspora in the US. Such a move has been challenging, despite the fact that it could provide a valuable support mechanism for this region’s budding entrepreneurs. Last year, during the Global Entrepreneurship Week in Jordan, I got the chance to talk to Sami Shalabi (a Boston-based entrepreneur who founded Zingku; which was acquired by Google in 2007). He asked how the diaspora could support Arab entrepreneurs. To be honest, I didn’t have an answer. A few months later, Shalabi co-founded (with Habib Haddad and Elie Khoury) a special portal called “YallaStartup” aiming at fostering innovation and early-stage entrepreneurship in the MENA region. The three of them realized that a lot of entrepreneurs in the region face the same problems and thus decided to build a community-based Q&A platform to enable knowledge sharing. The effort was urgently needed and constituted a generous contribution from Arab entrepreneurs who found success abroad.
In June 2010, the US delegation of entrepreneurs invited a group of top-notch Silicon Valley venture capitalists and entrepreneurs originally from the region to tour the area. I was delighted to see the positive spirit among the audience in Lebanon and Jordan. However, everyone is expecting the Arab diaspora to play a greater role in the region, but only a few have launched initiatives to fulfill such a challenging goal. Speaking about the role of diaspora in other parts of the world, I can take Taiwan, which positioned itself as a hub of semiconductor manufacturing, as an example. It did so by leveraging its competitive advantage: The Taiwanese diaspora working in Silicon Valley. Examples do not stop there; Japan and India are a few leading examples of countries that have involved their diaspora communities in developing their local economies in different ways. Japan transformed itself by sending gifted Japanese abroad to bring back ideas that were adapted to Japan’s culture and needs.
On the other hand, India — with the world’s second largest diaspora next to China — has doubled its income through remittances. Meanwhile the Indian diaspora has mediated the massive entrepreneurial energy that led to the rise of India’s Information Technology (IT) and IT Enabled Services (ITES) sectors. Based on statistics from the labor ministries of the GCC, more than half a million white collar Jordanian workers worked in the Gulf region during the past 40 years. Their efforts should be considered a great contribution to the welfare of other communities and it makes sense to tap into their brains. From my point of view, the best model for Jordan could evolve by encouraging the Arab diaspora to set up their offshore research facilities in Jordan. That cooperation could also offer local entrepreneurs a bridge to the networks of Arab diaspora business leaders abroad. There are many areas in which Arab diaspora entrepreneurs could offer their support to young startups in the region. They include:
Mentorship, mentorship, mentorship
TechWadi, the leading networking association for Arab and Arab-American professionals in the technology industry recently launched TechWadi 100, a network of highly accomplished entrepreneurs, executives, and investors dedicated to mentoring promising entrepreneurs in the MENA region. TechWadi 100 charter members pledged time, energy, and finances, with the goal of giving back to their community in the most effective manner. Endeavor — a global network of High-impact entrepreneurs — recently organized the Mentor Capital program to create a unique opportunity for leading investors and promising entrepreneurs from Turkey, the Middle East, the U.S. and Europe, to discuss their challenges and opportunities. Both initiatives have been successful.
Jordan is in short supply of early stage risk capital. Offering angel investment can fill in this funding gap and add smart money to knowledge-based startups in Jordan.
Establishing new incubators and accelerators
In Jordan we have a network of 8 incubators branded as “Jordan Innovation Center,” in addition to the newly launched Meydan Ideas Space and Oasis 500. But these are not enough as there are more brilliant ideas out there looking for incubation.
Supporting R&D in cooperation with universities
R&D and innovation are required if we are not aiming for more copy-cat types of companies. It is not surprising that some of the best high tech companies are in Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay area, the site of some of America’s best universities.
Sharing success stories
Sharing success stories will help inspire young people and change the culture in the region.
Lobbying for new government polices
The voices of successful Arab entrepreneurs are being heard by decisionmakers more than before. It is time for entrepreneurs to lobby for better infrastructure, policies and business regulations.
Co-investing with regional VCs
Venture capital (VC) is not mature enough in the Arab world. Bringing the VC experience from Silicon Valley will educate VCs in the region, and prepare regional startups for smooth exits in the US and Europe.
Engage in Silicon Valley tours
For an entrepreneur, a Silicon Valley tour could add a lot of value and maturity for his/her startup. To that end, regional VCs have been organizing Silicon Valley tours to entrepreneurs in which they invest, aiming to prepare them for world-class exits and successful future rounds of investment.
The Arab diaspora is a strategic asset for our emerging economies. Many have contributed to this region through remittances, however, there is a missing role for them in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) and — most importantly — transfer of knowledge and entrepreneurial networks. I hope governments, NGOs and entrepreneurs themselves will utilize the diaspora’s passion towards supporting economies in their countries of origin in creating a future of success stories similar to those happening in the West.