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MIT alumni group launches startup competition in Jordan

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AMMAN: A leading U.S. university launched Tuesday its startup business competition to find some of the best innovators in the Middle East.

At Amman’s King Hussein Business Park, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Enterprise Forum in the Pan Arab Region kicked off the Arab Startup Competition, which will accept applications on a rolling deadline with the winners announced in March in Doha.

The initiative, which started six years ago, is more relevant than ever today, eventgoers said.

“This is what’s needed at this point. It makes sense,” said keynote speaker Tarek Yousef, economist and CEO of Qatar-based Silatech. Silatech works to boost regional youth employment by mobilizing investment and technology.

“The Arab Spring suggests a testimony to youth empowerment. It is the agenda of the moment and for the next 15 years,” Yousef said.

The tumultuous political situations in the region means there’s no educational reform in sight. Pressure is on young entrepreneurs to grow their respective economies through post-graduate business training, he said.

“It might be the only thing that can be done while things are being settled in the political arena,” he said.

The obstacle facing startups, which such competitions are trying to address, is access to investments, particularly seed funding in the businesses’ early stages – a problem Yousef is looking to address through the launch of a new-angle investment network in Doha.

In the MENA region, more men and women than the global average are interested in opening businesses, Yousef said. But they failed when it came to execution. He thinks there’s a chance to turn things around, “if we can make it sustainable and affordable.”

Now, with the MIT Enterprise Forum’s new partnership with Oasis 500, new entrepreneurs will get the support that is often lacking as they execute their plans.

Usama Fayyad, executive chairman of the Amman-based incubator and accelerator, which has invested in 60 companies over the past two years, hopes to solve this problem.

“Competitions often lack follow-up, acceleration and mentorship,” he said.

“We will help accelerate the process, give advice and help businesses in a short period meet milestones.”

Addressing the importance of good mentorship and advice, a four-member panel – Ahmad Barqawi, founder of iAraby in Jordan; Amad Almsaodi, Yemeni founder of AqarMap in Egypt; Amira Azzouz, founder of Fustany in Egypt; and Mustafa Saeed, founder business development director of Qabila in Egypt – discussed the lessons they learned from their own experiences of starting and running their own startups.

Almsaodi, a previous winner of the business plan competition who established the Egypt-based real-estate search company AqarMap, told the audience that much of what he learned about running his business was by trial and error.

“Everything we thought we were going to do, we did the opposite,” he said. Almsaodi is no stranger to the business world, having spent nearly 10 years working for Boeing and Nike after graduating from the University of Washington in Seattle.

So far, Almsaodi has changed his business model seven times. But he isn’t discouraged, he said, and he hopes to expand further into the region, possibly to some of the “scarier markets” where others are reluctant to venture.

“In the beginning, we wanted to promote a culture of entrepreneurship and inspire people to start businesses. This has been picking up,” said event organizer and MIT alumnus Hala Fadel, who founded the regional branch based in Lebanon five years ago.

The group has been working through its global and local networks to develop and encourage the startup ecosystem in the Middle East.

The organizers and the participants are well aware that they have a tall task ahead of them in creating a flourishing community of startups at home with global reach.

In spite of these challenges, or perhaps because of them, MIT’s Pan-Arab alumni branch plans on continuing its mission with even more networking events, giving young entrepreneurs the kind of support and regional connections that were previously only available abroad.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 11, 2012, on page 5.

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