Western help for Egyptian entrepreneurs

July 15, 2011

When they're not fighting for democracy, more young Egyptians are becoming entrepreneurs.

And just like their revolutionary activity, much of this business is online.

Technology startups are creating jobs for some of Egypt's scores of unemployed youth. And to help turn their ideas into businesses, a group of young American and Danish entrepreneurs recently went to Egypt to run the NexGen IT Entrepreneurs Boot Camp, a week-long mentoring workshop.

Since 2005, Egypt has made business startups easier by eliminating minimum capital requirements, creating a private credit bureau and consolidating the registration process, according to a 2011 World Bank report on doing business in the Arab world.

Taking notice of the improved entrepreneurial environment was the U.S. Global Entrepreneurship Program, USAID, the government of Denmark, and the Young Entrepreneur Council, who teamed up to put on the program for 38 young Egyptian entrepreneurs.

Partnerships among entrepreneurs around the world will help to boost innovation and create job growth in the uncertain economy, said Scott Gerber, founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council and one of the mentors who travelled to Cairo. Some of the Egyptian entrepreneurs who attended the program won a chance to continue their education through internships in the United States and Denmark.

"You hear a lot about Facebook and Twitter being used for a revolution, but what does that mean from an entrepreneurial standpoint?" Mr. Gerber said. "In a nation like Egypt, where you have huge youth unemployment, entrepreneurship boosts the GDP and allows economy to thrive."

Ninety per cent of unemployed Egyptians are under the age of 30. Nearly a quarter of men, and almost 20 per cent of women, in this age group are unemployed, according to a United Nations Development Programme report.

"It doesn't matter what the business is, it just matters that you're creating forward-moving companies that will rejuvenate the economy," Mr. Gerber said.

Mr. Gerber said that he and the other mentors were so impressed by the entrepreneurs they met that they put together an investment pool of $125,000 to help Egyptian technology startups.

"Entrepreneurship is a viable career option and a way to rebuild a country, which is what [the Egyptian entrepreneurs]are doing now," he said.

Bey2ollak, a business that created an iPhone application to give users live, crowd-sourced traffic updates for Cairo, was one of the companies that won an internship.

Bey2ollak has only been in business since November, but has already attracted 50,000 users, wrote co-founder Gamal ElDin Sadek in an e-mail.

Exposure to entrepreneurs from different countries helped him get a better idea of how to take the business global, he said.

Many youth groups across the country are turning to entrepreneurship to find homemade solutions for the country's problems, Mr. Sadek wrote.

"In the near future, I expect mobiles to play even a bigger role, unlike Internet, mobiles are everywhere in Egypt carried by the poor and the rich," he wrote.

Others at the conference had yet to launch their companies, but networking with other entrepreneurs helped to turn innovative ideas into business plans.

"It was very interesting and exciting to know that an entrepreneur has the same DNA all over the world," wrote Mostafa El Mehrek, one of the entrepreneurs, in an e-mail. Mr. El Mehrek's business, Barkolna, is set to launch in August. It will let brides and grooms create online registries to make it easier for relatives to shop for gifts.

That sentiment was shared by Yasmine ElMehairy, co-owner of SuperMama, a mobile company with a September launch date that allows women to share information on topics such as childcare and finances.

"We are believers that entrepreneurship is how the future will get better. Not through thousand-person corporations like the pre-revolution, but rather thousands of smaller businesses, each providing 2 or 3 job opportunities," she wrote in an e-mail.

A few mobile applications won't be enough to pull Egypt out of its slump, said Joseph C. Paradi, a professor of technology and entrepreneurship at the University of Toronto. Conventional businesses that produce for mass audiences are also needed to get an economy rolling, he said.

But a country needs an infrastructure to support entrepreneurs if it wants to grow, Prof. Paradi added.

"First a country has to allow young people to come up with ideas and nurture them and encourage them. The second thing is to get financing for those entities," he said.

"Small business is the engine of success," he added.

(Ads will not print)