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Lebanon’s budding entrepreneurs build their own network

The Entrepreneurship Club holds weekly brunches in Hamra to network and discuss their business goals. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Over tea and coffee at their weekly Saturday brunch in Hamra, a dozen young entrepreneurs exchange ideas about starting businesses, finding investors and making connections.

Most of them are still in college, but they already know that upon graduation they will be entering a job market where entry level positions in their fields are few and far between, and pay is far lower than what they would earn abroad.

Abdallah Absi, president of the Entrepreneurship Club – e-Club for short – began the initiative two years ago at the American University of Beirut with the aim of creating a network to connect aspiring businessmen and women with those who have more experience in the industry.

The budding entrepreneurs are buzzing with ideas and discuss their dreams, their challenges and their latest projects.

Bayan Bibi shows friends her latest endeavor, My Pillow, an online program that connects needy people in Lebanon with philanthropists throughout the world. Thurayya Tabbara has created Prayer Garden, an application that reminds users to pray five times a day, and rewards them with a growing garden as they pray.

“The Entrepreneurship Club empowers and motivates us as young entrepreneurs to start our own businesses and launch our own products,” Tabbara says.

“We get the chance to enlarge our network and meet with successful entrepreneurs and business owners, learn from their experiences, and draw our own tracks.”

Some people come to promote initiatives related to entrepreneurship in the region. Sitting at a nearby table is Catherina Ballout, program coordinator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Enterprise Forum for the pan-Arab region.

Over brunch, she talks about the MIT program, and also gets advice about her future plans from others.

“What’s your dream?” Ali Chehade-Farhat asks Ballout and others gathered around the same table.

Chehade-Farhat has created a social networking website, Dream Matcher, which links people with those who can make their dreams come true.

From learning a new skill to meeting someone, he believes everyone has a dream, and there’s someone out there who can make it come true.

He teases Absi about his record of starting businesses and not always following through.

But Absi insists that entrepreneurship is also about experimentation.

In fact, just weeks later Absi comes back to the weekly gathering to announce that he has just gotten funding for a project he had been diligently working on for the past two years.

Zoomaal will be a crowd-funding website for the Middle East akin to Kickstarter in the United States, wherein users can submit their project proposals online to appeal to donors.

For him, the project is not only a way to fulfill his own dream of establishing a startup, but also helping others realize their own dreams by having a way to fund their projects if they can’t find the support of banks or venture capital firms.

These days the group, which started with around 10 members, now often sees a showing of 50 or more at their meetings – including some seasoned entrepreneurs who are happy to give advice and share their experience. Their total membership of 200 is mainly comprised of current and recent graduates of AUB and Lebanese American University.

“I started the club to promote entrepreneurship. I found there was a gap between entrepreneurs and those who support them,” Absi says, taking a short break from talking shop with fellow entrepreneurs at another of their regular meetings.

For him, Lebanon’s business development centers and universities “don’t do [enough] community outreach ... The whole education system should be built on entrepreneurship, or things will stay the same.”

“If someone has an idea, they don’t know what to do next,” says Rami Panayoti, a computer engineering student at AUB who joined the club because he dreams of one day starting a business. He says he wasn’t able to register for the course on entrepreneurship offered at AUB because it is limited to business students.

Tony Feghali – assistant professor of business information and management decision systems at AUB and co-director at the Darwazah Center for Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship, who has known the e-Club since its formation at the university two years ago – is happy to see students taking the initiative to start a professional network in their field.

But he points out that in recent years there have been other projects related to entrepreneurship in Lebanon, contributing to the country’s startup ecosystem. These include incubators and business development centers that mentor and help find funding for new businesses, as well as venture capital firms that have established themselves in Lebanon, where they didn’t exist just five years ago.

Still, even with all of the recent attention to entrepreneurship in Lebanon, Absi sees the e-Club as relevant. In fact, he believes the e-Club complements other aspects of the ongoing growth of Lebanon’s startup ecosystem.

In March, the e-Club participated in the annual ArabNet conference in Beirut, and they have also hosted a number of events relating to entrepreneurship, often coordinating with local business development centers and investment firms.

Meanwhile, they continue with their weekly meetings, sharing their ideas, frustrations and sometimes success stories with fellow aspiring entrepreneurs who are all hoping to be a part of the next big thing.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 31, 2012, on page 5.

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