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Cairo Entrepreneurship: Markets & People (Part 2)

This article is part of the #urbaneconomies series originally published on progrss  and commissioned by districtcoworking space.  

The Pursuit of Talent

Compounded with the difficulties of navigating a market beset with regulatory hurdles, invisible competitors and – recently – an underperforming economy, Cairene entrepreneurs have to deal with a steady brain drain of talents seeking opportunities elsewhere. “This environment is so crushing that people will take the first opportunity that they get to leave. Booking, Google, Twitter – they have the best people from Egypt. It’s a great opportunity for those engineers, but it’s a problem for entrepreneurs [here in Cairo], because what’s left isn’t as good,” says entrepreneur, investor and co-founder of RiseUp Egypt Con O’Donnell.

Osman Osman explains that developing the local talent pool is key to growing the ecosystem as well as to retaining talent. “You need people to come in, build startups and have moderate success and exit, and then they, or the people who worked with them, come back and build more startups, until you build up a critical mass, and for that, you need talent. We don’t have that kind of entrepreneurial talent in Egypt, and to the extent that we do have it, most of them are trying to leave the country.”

In spite of a steady outflow of talent, Managing Partner at Ideavelopers Tarek Assaad notes that cultural and social changes are reflecting directly on the pool of people who are turning to entrepreneurship. “We’re seeing much more experienced people whose alternatives are much more attractive – and not just at the founder level. We’re seeing people joining startups to become managers and people valuing stock options, and that’s very exciting because you need a mix of people who are young and innovative who dream of going out and conquering the world, but you need to have sober managing experience to navigate the bureaucracy,” he says.

Besides the brain drain, years of rote-learning based education and the absence of entrepreneurial education from curricula are also constraining factors for entrepreneurs. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) identifies education and training as one of nine entrepreneurial framework conditions key to providing an enabling environment for new business development and growth, and in the 2012 cycle, Egypt ranked last among the 69 countries assessed.

“When we talk about entrepreneurship and education, we talk about skills and attitude, mindset, and knowledge about different aspects of the business,” says Vice President of the Information Technology Industry Development Agency (ITIDA) and Director of The Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center (TIEC) Hossam Osman, noting that all of these are sorely lacking from the Egyptian education system. “People talk about innovation and entrepreneurship, but they really don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Hashem El Dandarawy, agricultural developer and founder of K-9 Sense – a company that provides products and services for the training and care of canines – describes entrepreneurship as “a hunger – a fire inside a person.” In spite of that, he believes that factors like education and training can help entrepreneurs learn to identify the opportunities around them. Dandarawy, who works closely with entrepreneurs in Upper Egypt, notes that the absence of an accessible and common vocabulary often leaves entrepreneurs at a loss to connect with professionals who can support them – particularly if they are looking for investment. “We need to create a digestible vocabulary for entrepreneurs – a language that is close to people.”

Egypt ranked 84 out of 124 countries surveyed in the WEF Human Capital Report 2015. Source: WEF Human Capital Report 2015.

According to Founding Member of the Middle East Council for Small Businesses and Entrepreneurship in Egypt and lecturer in Business Administration and Entrepreneurship at The British University in Egypt (BUE) Hala Hattab, education is key to creating an entrepreneurial culture. “Entrepreneurship is about being proactive. We train students to look at opportunities,” she says. Hattab explains that, in spite of the growing popularity of entrepreneurship in Cairo, the kind of proactivity that is a combination of culture and education is still missing.

Dina Sherif agrees, noting that: “We don’t teach with the objective of creating entrepreneurial mindsets, which means that we don’t focus on critical thinking, problem solving, and seeing opportunities rather than problems.” She explains that students at the university and high school level need to be introduced to entrepreneurial thinking if a major culture of entrepreneurship is to evolve in Egypt.

According to Dina Sherif, teaching women to be brave and to take risks is key to encouraging them to become entrepreneurs. Sherif also notes that encouraging women to be brave and to take risks is key to creating a balanced entrepreneurial ecosystem. “Women have a lot of self-doubt, so we put a lot of pressure on ourselves… We are raised to believe that we cannot do as much as men. It is changing for younger generations, but it’s not changing fast enough. We don’t teach women to be brave or to take risks, whereas [we encourage these traits in men],” she says. “And it’s not an Arab thing or an Egyptian thing – it’s a universal thing,” she adds.

Stay tuned for part 3 of the fourth article in the #urbaneconomies series. This article is brought to you by:  


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