BEIRUT: Many go abroad to make their fortunes. But over the weekend a group of young entrepreneurs showed a determination to create fortune in Lebanon.
At the sixth annual Injaz Lebanon Company Program National Competition, eight teams of high school students, given six months and a $1,000 start-up budget took the stage, pitching their business plans to a panel of jurors, who judged their ability to make money, market their product, benefit society and create a viable business.
“We’re creating a culture of entrepreneurship. We have to start at an early age to have a return on the economy,” said Roula Harb, communications director at Injaz Lebanon during a quick coffee break at the packed conference at the Lebanese American University.
The top prize went to Visio, a company that gave an impressive and detailed presentation about how they had devised a nationwide recycling plan, which could yield high financial returns and also fill a badly needed gap in Lebanon. All winners were presented their awards by Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh.
Other prizes went to Wrapadub, a small plexiglass device that neatly wraps up headset cords, which won for marketing. S.Mile (Students Making Indoor Life Easier) gave a demonstration of their robot, Helver (a contraction of helper and rover), that delivers medication in a light-up box to bedridden patients, winning the students the “team spirit” award. Bigger Eco, which designed a reusable grocery bag, won in the social responsibility category.
Other participating companies included Tourathi for a candle holder in the shape of the map of Lebanon designed as souvenirs for Lebanese expatriates visiting their homeland; Coup Company, which created a laundry basket with three compartments for black, white and colored clothes; L’Equipe, which made a compact toiletries bag for overnight trips; and PAW, which organizes sports tournaments and other social events for young people.
The prevailing theme of the event was social responsibility – respecting the environment, creating sustainable companies that benefit society, fostering a workspace that respects all roles within the company, and placing the needs of society above profit.
One of the featured speakers was Ziad Abichaker, president and founder of Cedar Environment, an ecologically friendly waste management company, who told the aspiring entrepreneurs to never lose sight of their principles regardless of profit.
He warned them that the odds of building a successful business from scratch were not in their favor, particularly in the Arab world where laws and society aren’t favorable to new startups. But he added that the biggest barrier to success is fear – broken in the region following the self-immolation of Mohammad Bouazizi.
“I’m really optimistic about the days we’re living in,” Abichaker said. “The status quo has been broken and the region will change a lot.”
“This is our turn,” he added.
In contrast with most of the Arab world where women’s role has been marginalized in the business world, the majority of entrepreneurs showcasing at the competition were women, who own 30 percent of Lebanon’s small and medium enterprises.
Another entrepreneur who shared his experience was Tony Haddad, founder of Technica, an automation service for food, beverages and other containers. The engineer-turned-entrepreneur proudly outlined the history of his company from its founding in 1982 in the midst of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon through the July 2006 war, when they consistently met all their delivery deadlines.
“We never made any excuses. We always delivered on time,” he said.
Today it is one of the leading companies of its kind in the region, with operations in 32 countries – major clients include Proctor and Gamble.
Indeed, perseverance in the face of adversity is a character trait that Lebanese entrepreneurs have earned over the years.
In that same spirit, the team from Tripoli, Tourathi, didn’t let their city’s ongoing crisis stop them from getting their product completed in time for the competition – even though the violence caused the temporary closure of a factory that manufactured parts of their candle sticks and also led to nearly half of their team of 25 dropping out.
“The candle [stick] is the map of Lebanon and we put the candle in the north because there have been a lot of problems in the north. Our candle can light the north,” said Omar Kabbarra from the Tourathi, at his team’s booth during the judging session. “We made this product because each member of our company has family outside Lebanon, and this is a great souvenir to remember the country.”
All of the teams interviewed said they planned on continuing with their companies after the competition regardless of the judge’s selections. Luckily for the hard-working entrepreneurs the day wasn’t all about business. On the agenda were also some examples of social and cultural entrepreneurship.
This included an interactive presentation by laughter yoga instructor Sabine El Jizi, who got the audience on their feet for some laughs and stretches.
A display of cultural entrepreneurship – bringing African music to Lebanon – was provided by Sahar Al Khatib, whose group Jebe Bara gave a performance as well as an impromptu lesson of Guinean drum playing to the students and dignitaries in the audience.
The day’s events were wrapped up with the students clapping along to the beat of the drums after seeing the results of their past six months of work.
“This is one of the cornerstones of fighting unemployment,” said Dima El Khoury, executive director of Injaz Lebanon. “When you have a generation that’s innovative and creates something out of nothing, more youth will reach their potential.”