The Middle East will need to build its own definition of entrepreneurship
In an era when no one seems to agree on anything, there is one issue on which everyone seems remarkably aligned that the salvation of our youth is in entrepreneurship.
With most governments unable to afford and guarantee jobs to their large, educated youth population, the only way to gainfully deploy energetic and promising young people is to turn them into job creators, instead of job seekers. Active and well-advertised initiatives to support, encourage and enable entrepreneurial ventures are visible all over the region in the form of subsidies, training and mentoring programmes, incubators and accelerators.
Most of these efforts look to the Western, Silicon Valley model of entrepreneurship. Oft-used terms such as angel investing, seed investing, B2B, B2C, scaling, traction, burn rate and venture capital have become an integral part of the entrepreneur lexicon. Hubs such as Dubai have attracted talent and skill from around the region and ecosystem supporters from all over the world, creating an unusual and heady mix of ideas and expectations.
But there seems to be a lack of local and regional models of entrepreneurship and, sometimes, even essential localisation of alien imports. The region, especially Dubai, is a testament to entrepreneurial zeal and has an exceptional tradition of, proverbially, making something out of nothing. The region has always defined its own rules and built its own models of success and rarely has an imported model been successful as it is.
The most common refrain heard is the lack of funding in the region. Considering that this region has been blessed with an abundant and liquid investment past, this appears to be particularly contradictory to an observer from outside. Possible lack of investment interest in regional talent is an issue for us to resolve and the best way to do so is to show attractive exits. We need to convey to the talented lot, spending their time thinking of their next start-up, that there are options and opportunities besides making the Middle East version of the latest Silicon Valley trendy start-up.
While localisation of tried and tested ideas is a viable option at times, there is immense pending opportunity in solving local and niche problems that can best be tackled by those on the ground. That they may not be global and restricted in scope may actually be a great way to rule a new category, and a captive geography, for the pioneers. The need of the hour is to look beyond the glamour of starting up, which remains a hard and lonely trudge.
The history of entrepreneurial activity in the region is full of success stories, and actually shows that the best of them created their own models, their own markets and, finally, profits and riches for all connected. While we are seeing a growing, but nascent, crop of home grown venture capital and angel groups, there is a long way to go before we have the availability of abundant experimentation capital that matches the promise and expectation already created. The role of regulation, scope of governmental engagement and participation of the private sector require attention and specific work on and can make the region flourish as a magnet for talented entrepreneurs and promising start-ups.
Promising, out-of-the-box and pioneering enablement initiatives such as the in5 Innovation Centre, Oasis500, Sheraa, Astrolabs, Badir, Tumooh, Flat6Labs and AltCity, as well as a host of corporate initiatives have added a new flavor of home-grown innovation and stake-holding. They are nudging long-held mindsets, restrictive regulations and unreasonable expectations to allow the region to get the due dividend of its young and eager population.
Why then do we expect that the region will need to build all the exact pieces of the entrepreneurial jigsaw puzzle we see in the West? We will need to build our own definition of entrepreneurship, our own specification of what we would call a start-up and, similarly, our own system of funding, valuing and investing for the opportunities in the region.
We will learn from all, the finest from around the world, but we will be served best by what we create to suit our specific set of needs our very own definition of entrepreneurship.
Prashant Gulati is the founder and managing partner of the Smart Start Fund
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