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Entrepreneurs try to start a technological revolution in Egypt

Commentary: As the spotlight shining on Egypt continues to focus on political unrest, you might be missing a huge parallel story: The country is on the cusp of an entrepreneurial burst.
Egyptian Futures Tech October 2013Enlarge
Egyptian students attend a secondary school class at the 'Futures Tech' private school in Cairo on October 23, 2013. Classes are overcrowded, curriculums out of date and facilities crumbling. In Egypt, frustrated parents have for decades relied on private tutors as overpopulation and government neglect have eviscerated public education. (Khaled Desouki/Getty Images)

CAIRO — Egypt’s path to building a new future has always had its obstacles, and so it wasn’t much of a surprise for participants to the opening of the country’s first entrepreneurship summit, RiseUp Egypt, when they learned that all of the streets entering the event were blocked.

The participants trying to make their way to the summit last month represented a who's who of this country’s nascent tech start-up sector and they were set to gather at the "Greek Campus,” formerly the American University of Cairo, right off Tahrir Square in the center of Cairo. To the event organizers, Tahrir Square, which was the epicenter of the historic protests in 2011 that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of autocratic rule, seemed an appropriate place to host the summit and link the country’s economic future with its still-unfolding revolution.

What they didn’t know was that major protests had been planned in Tahrir Square for the same day. Supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi were set to gather in large numbers and police had erected concrete barricades on all nearby roads and alleys to prevent the demonstration.

No vehicles could pass; there was no access to the summit. Steve Haley, who runs the Egypt-based operation for Mercy Corps, an international development organization that is working to facilitate the growth of the entrepreneurship sector in Egypt and played a central role in organizing the summit, and his team got out of their car and started walking the several blocks to the Greek campus, trying different alleyways looking for one without a 20-foot concrete and barbed wire barrier spanning the street.

As they rounded one corner, they saw colleagues from an angel investment group who joined them. Around another corner they were joined by friends from a tech accelerator. Soon in every direction they met up with people on foot all walking to the Summit. To Haley, this was a perfect metaphor, he thought, for the entrepreneurship sector in Egypt. There are innumerable large obstacles to progress but nothing was going to stop these young entrepreneurs from finding creative and successful ways around them.

One thousand people showed up at the summit that day – all on foot. The atmosphere was electric. There was a shared sense that this event was important, the visible culmination of a collective launch of the sector. The campus buildings encircled a large courtyard fitted with an outdoor stage. Dozens of start-up company booths were at one end of the courtyard with entrepreneurs enthusiastically presenting their concepts to anyone who would listen. Investors were meeting with entrepreneurs; business connections were made; collaborations were begun.

One highly popular session was a panel of women entrepreneurs. There were 250 women from Egypt and the region in the audience. It was an incredibly animated hour with women from both the panel and audience talking about the strengths and challenges of being a woman entrepreneur. Whether they wore head scarves or Western clothes, these Middle Eastern women were strong, smart, and determined.

Dozens of entrepreneurs and investors had signed up for "Pitch and Ride," in which an entrepreneur and an investor were assigned to a taxi that was to circle Tahrir Square. The entrepreneur had the time that it took to circle the square - about 10-15 minutes - to pitch his or her concept. With the square now closed, they quickly improvised and took a 10-minute ride in the other direction.

The media focuses on violence and political unrest in Egypt, but an inspiring parallel story is that Egypt is on the cusp of an entrepreneurial burst. One of the most exciting results of the dramatic political change underway in Egypt over the last three years is the enormous release, among the young, educated and tech-savvy demographic, of a sense of agency, a realization that they can in fact make a difference and have an impact on society. It was this demographic that launched both revolutions that successfully removed two rulers who abused their power. These revolutions unleashed a hunger for civil society and a chance for their voices to be heard, a hunger for opportunity and a demand to create their own futures.

Hossam Allam, founder of Cairo Angels, a group of 50 angel investors, told me passionately about this moment as the "perfect storm" of elements in Egypt. The energy released from the revolution has spawned countless new companies, investment vehicles, business mentoring groups, and a spirit of collaboration.

Although government regulations are still cumbersome and slow to change, particularly given the ongoing political crises, there is also a tacit government support of these new directions. Government ministers realize that the unemployment rate of university graduates is twice that of the population at large. Jobs are few. New business creation is imperative. It was telling that, despite a new law banning public assembly, there was absolutely no police or government interference in the large gathering of young people in the open air of the Summit.

Many of these young entrepreneurs are creating organizations, for-profit or nonprofit, to make a difference in society. Mustafa Farahat left a successful position in a telecommunication company to co-found Nafham, an online tutoring platform for K-12 students. Mustafa and his co-founder, Muhammad Habib, have created an innovative solution to the overburdened public education system where 60 students in a classroom with one teacher is often the norm in primary and secondary schools. They have taken the national curriculum, broken it down into 5-20 minute lessons, and have crowd-sourced individuals, largely teachers and university students, to record these lessons. Their website, just one year old, already has 60,000 views a day, a number that is rapidly climbing each week. This is the kind of start-up that has the potential to change Egypt.

Of course, like all new ecosystems, there is no guarantee that this new entrepreneurship sector will succeed. There are some thorny obstacles that could slow down or derail its growth, most notably the ongoing political unrest and unhelpful business laws.

It is encouraging that there is access to seed capital up to $150,000 per deal and a growing number of venture capital and private equity firms who are looking to invest in tested companies that are looking for $1 million or more. However, there is a serious financing gap for risk capital between $150,000 and $1 million, and that is a threat to this early promise.

As the Entrepreneurship Summit came to a close that week, the participants gathered in the main courtyard of the campus. Abdelhameed Sharara, the young entrepreneur whose idea sparked the Summit, came on stage and talked emotionally about the strength of the community, and that nothing would stop them now.

Twitter messages had gone out during the day about a surprise guest at the end of the evening, and as the courtyard became dark, a hologram of Talaat Harb appeared on the stairs next to the stage. Talaat Harb is a beloved Egyptian figure from the turn of the 20th century, known as Egypt's first entrepreneur. Legend has it that he created 27 successful companies that were entirely Egyptian, not British. He is a source of immense national pride. In a dramatic and emotional moment, the Talaat hologram "spoke" to the assembly saying, "I did this against great odds. I brought together people who believed in a strong Egypt. I did this. Now it is your turn. Go do it."

There was not a doubt in the crowd that this was already happening.

Linda Mason is the founder of Bright Horizons Family Solutions, now the largest provider of workplace childcare in the world, employing 24,000 people and caring for over 100,000 children worldwide. She is also Honorary Chair of Mercy Corps.

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This piece is part of a new GlobalPost Special Reports/Commentary initiative supported by the Ford Foundation called "Voices." The mission of "Voices" is to present the ideas and opinions of those who are less frequently heard in the media, including women, people of color, sexual minorities, citizens of the developing world and young people. These voices will consistently discuss topics important to GlobalPost Special Reports including human rights, religious issues, global health, economic inequality and democracies in transition.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/globalpost-blogs/commentary/egypt-technology-revolution-innovation