Exclusive Q&A With Amir Hegazi, Author Of Startup Arabia
Life-long Entrepreneur and Managing Partner of intoMENA, Amir Hegazi, features high-tech entrepreneurs from the Middle East in his latest best-selling book, Startup Arabia. These entrepreneurs are contributing to one of the most rapidly maturing tech hubs in the world today, and this book reveals how they go about it. Some featured entrepreneurs include Careem’s Muddaisar Sheikha, Fetchr’s Idriss Al Rifai, Payfort’s Omar Soudodi and MAGNiTT’s Philip Bahoshy. Through in-depth interviews, MENA’s high-tech entrepreneurs detail the challenges they faced, the lessons they learned and the advice they would give to the next generation of Middle Eastern entrepreneurs.
Whether you’re thinking of kick-starting your own startup, taking your already established entrepreneurial venture to the next level, or working at an emerging one, this book has something for you. It will provide you with a closer look into the region’s startup environment, entrepreneurial journeys, and how both could potentially be a cure for many of the region’s socio-economic problems.
Amir Heghazi shares his thoughts exclusively with MAGNiTT on why he wrote the book, what he discovered and what he hopes to achieve through sharing these stories.
1- What brought you to write this book?
The initial inspiration for Startup Arabia was really the genesis of two events: the first took place back in December 2012, when I attended The Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) in Dubai and heard Fadi Ghandour speak passionately about the “youth bulge” and the 100 million projected unemployed youth in the region by 2020. I had never heard this problem mentioned before. Needless to say, Fadi did a great job highlighting the problem and offering entrepreneurship as a viable solution to this socio-economic epidemic. His message instantly struck with me then and stuck with me ever since. I instinctively recognized the dire ramifications of such mass unemployment, not just on individuals’ quality of life and the economic climate in general, but practically on all aspects of society, on the entire well-being of nations and the region as a whole.
Anyone who had a chance to live or travel across the region, has come across disadvantaged youth, with nowhere to go to find a job let alone manage a career, often at no fault of their own. After all, many have followed exactly what was expected of them (i.e., “they did their homework”). They studied at school for many years growing up, earned good grades, attended good colleges, and earned their diplomas. They are decent folks, educated, young, and hungry to work hard and find their way in life. Yet, they’re often left empty handed. And whereas earning a college diploma may have represented, in the past or at least symbolically, the beginning of a new road, the reality for many was quite different. For this group, and they’re in the millions, it represented at best the beginning of a major roadblock or at worst a dead-end, so what gives? Where did they go wrong? And what is the solution? These were the kind of questions I thought about back then and remain on my mind today.
If Fadi is right and entrepreneurship is the answer, then education and inspiration have to be at the heart of this solution. And who’s better to educate and inspire the youth than successful, local entrepreneurs. Sure, anyone can read and watch videos about top Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk. But are they really relating to and connecting with them? Generally-speaking, local success stories from local companies and local entrepreneurs will always resonate better with local population. In fact, the closer the story is in circumstances and even proximity, the more relatable it is and the more it’s likely to “hit home”.
The second event that triggered my interest in writing this book, which happened four years later, was the Amazon acquisition of Souq in March 2017. Prior, I was a top executive at Souq reporting to Ronaldo Mouchawar, one of the top visionaries in the region and a true entrepreneur in every sense of the word. Ronaldo instilled in the team a culture of making an impact, or “making history” as we liked to say internally. For me as I know for many of us at Souq, Souq represented something special that went well beyond providing a great value to our customers, it was out to break a mental barrier of some sort that can be best described as “it can happen here,” that a local-grown company can in fact become world class. This went in the face of anyone who never saw or imagined this possibility. We didn’t know exactly how this will take shape whether it’s an IPO or some great exit, or acquisition; nevertheless, the intention was always there, to do something so great and prove this point.
So the moment I heard about the acquisition, I instantly realized the importance for this story to be told; having lived it firsthand, I knew it was rich and timely. Then I looked around and realized that, while Souq might have reached a pinnacle of some sort, there were plenty of successful “climbers,” whose stories are equally as insightful and aspirational. That’s when I decided to give this a shot and try to chronicle some of the best stories out there in a single publication, that can hopefully smake a contribution towards solving this “youth bulge” time-bomb Fadi warned us about.
2- What is your goal for Startup Arabia?
My goal for Startup Arabia is twofold, one is to help empower the nextgen of MENA entrepreneurs, by providing engaging content and a platform whereby other stakeholders can leverage and contribute to create impact. Whether it’s by getting the book in university programs and ultimately in the hands of university students as well as that of aspiring entrepreneurs across the region; by helping instill in an all-around attitude for success or so called a “growth mindset” and educating folks on what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur and widen their perspective on the entrepreneurial endeavor in general; or bringing more awareness in general to the challenges inherit in startup ecosystem in the region and potential solutions.
The second goal would have to be educating international readers on the region and help dispelling many of the common myths and stigmas surrounding this part of the world, by showing them real-life examples of successful, innovative, open-minded individuals out to make a real positive impact, in a thriving business-friendly environment. In short, help open their eyes to the realities of the region through new lens of seeing a more balanced view of this part of the world.
3- Did you find anything particularly challenging in your writing?
The challenge is always how can you bring to life through words the spirit and emotion behind the stories of those amazing entrepreneurs. How do you present that narrative in an educational yet inspirational way? How can you connect to your readers and make the featured entrepreneurs as relatable through print as they are in person? In short, how can you captivate the reader and touch his or her heart yet leave him with priceless and memorable lessons that will serve him or her in their entrepreneurial journey.
Having said that, the level of co-operation and support I gained from all the contributing entrepreneurs featured in this book, with no exceptions, made the process so much easy and joyful, and enabled me to put out a product that I hope will provide real value to readers everywhere.
4- What were the top traits you found amongst all entrepreneurs you interviewed?
I can summarize in the following three traits I came to learn about the entrepreneurs I interviewed:
Trait #1: It was never just about the money.
As much as these individuals have achieved in terms of financial success, they are all deeply committed to a personal cause they’re passionate about, typically solving a massive problem or a major economic inefficiency in the market. Typically, they deeply relate to customer pain and genuinely would like to help. At their core, they’re all trying to bring about positive change for the world and for themselves. In that sense, they’re after something bigger than themselves with the potential for massive and lasting impact.
Trait #2: They combine idealism with pragmatism.
They have the ability to think big and act small. That is, they strive for grand aspirations yet remain focused and take pride in the day-to-day nitty-gritty. They never let their current reality frustrate them or discourage them from pursuing their long-term goals. In the meantime, they never let their big, lofty dreams distract them or undermine their action and appreciation of the beautiful, small, baby steps they have in front of them.
Trait #3: When others might quit, they double down.
They all seem to have a knack for stubbornness or rebelliousness when things get tough. It’s not rigidness per se; quite the opposite—whenever they faced an insurmountable challenge that was sure to take the wind out of others and kill their momentum—these remarkable individuals seemed to shine. Maybe not necessarily always, but often enough. In fact, this ability is one of their defining qualities I came to observe. Anyone can do well and ride high during the uptimes, but it’s the downtimes where someone’s true colors show. They zero in on the problem, seek outside advice, divide and conquer, and scramble till they come out on top if by nothing else than by virtue of trying many things and holding on to any glimpse of promise.
Mainly, they keep moving. When one door shuts, they don’t just sit there dwelling on it. There are always other doors to find and knock on. They recognize that continued success is never dependent on any single opportunity, no matter how big it is. There are always things to do, so they’re always focused on what they can do and the best use of their time, efforts, and resources per any given circumstances, even if it means going back to the drawing board or having to start all over and plan to re-knock on that once-shut door again down the road.
5- What was your biggest surprise you found in your experience with those entrepreneurs?
The biggest surprise I encountered with those entrepreneurs was how different they really were. Granted I tried to select entrepreneurs for the book who were different, so some of that was by design, nevertheless it was striking to see how many different “shapes and sizes” entrepreneurs can come in, from ones with consulting background, to others straight out of college, from ones with obvious knack for business from early age, to others who seem to stumble upon business, from some that were tech wiz to others who tech phobic, you name it. Whatever the category, there were ones who check-marked it and others who didn’t.
Having said that, I was also struck by how likable each was, in their own style, whether they came across as particularly humble, particularly fun, particularly positive and encouraging, particularly respectable, particularly generous or kind, particularly candid, particularly great listener, etc. There was always that one magical factor that made you drawn to that person, it wasn’t necessarily “charisma” per se, as much as I would say likability. You definitely sense that at their core, they’re simply “good people.”
6- What do you hope readers of this book take-way after reading?
My biggest hope is that Startup Arabia will serve to plant a seed for readers in terms of recognizing that entrepreneurship is a viable and rewarding career option, and in a way “awaken the entrepreneur within themselves.”
To quote a short excerpt from book intro: “My ‘shot for the moon’ aim for this book is to help awaken dreamers and encourage them not to abandon their aspirations by accepting their current realities in the name of ‘being realistic.’ Quite the contrary: I hope they will think, act, and live up to their dreams. There is hidden power in such pursuit. Whenever you set out pursuing a dream (or for many, searching for a dream), you’re already a success. Failure stems only from inaction. I encourage you to go after your personal dream and follow an entrepreneurial path. You owe it yourself to tap the best from within you and never hold back.”
For full press release, click HERE.
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