We work towards promoting the entrepreneurial mindset among Arab innovators: MITEF Pan Arab Managing Director

MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab and Hub71 (a Mubadala initiative) signed a new strategic partnership last July, aiming to utilize their respective networks and know-how to support the MENA startup ecosystem through mentorship, financing and long-term support. 

MAGNiTT sat down with Maya Rahal, MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab’s Managing Director who shared some insights on the organization’s objectives and its partnership with Mubadala’s Hub71.


Q: What made you look to partner with Hub71 for this competition?

A: At MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab we are constantly on the lookout for partnerships and synergies across the MENA tech ecosystem, to offer our network of alumni as many opportunities to grow as possible. Our mission matches that of Hub71’s, where we work towards promoting the entrepreneurial mindset among Arab innovators. 

‘Hub71 MENA Growth Competition, powered by MITEF Pan Arab’ is yet another proof that the Arab Startup Competition has grown to be the ‘go-to’ place for the best innovative minds the MENA has to offer. Together, we hope to amplify our impact in the effort to have ‘the next great thing’ come from Abu Dhabi.

In short, we saw a strategic resonance in the long-term mission and vision that Abu Dhabi government has for the regional tech ecosystem.

Q: Scale is the name of the game. How does partnering with such organizations support startups looking to enter new markets?

A: For any market, partnering organizations is a good sign. Collaborations among stakeholders have always been a great ‘ecosystem activators,’ meaning that they not only generate media buzz but also pave the way towards real investment opportunities and networking. Whether it’s a competition, acceleration, or incubation, such programs allow for knowledge-sharing across borders, where Arab entrepreneurs learn from each other’s mistakes and lessons.

Although some might argue that the entrepreneurs in the MENA region face the same set of bureaucratic and legal issues; that simply is not true. Each market is both blessed and burdened with its own unique set of particularities which make it special - meaning, one must not look at the MENA as one homogeneous market, and therefore assume that a startup from Egypt can simply operate in the UAE just because it appears to be one whole big market. 

Partnerships among stakeholders with a broad network of entrepreneurs creates these lanes of conversation, which our startup ecosystem needs to be doing more of. 

Q: From your experience working with startups, what do you believe are the biggest 3 pain points they have after completing your competition?

A: It’s very difficult to narrow it down to 3 pain points, especially that the Arab Startup Competition involves entrepreneurs from different growth-stages and industries. Though, from previous experience, we’ve realized that some of our alumni tend to take the judges’ comments personally, rather than consider it as a golden opportunity to uplift their projects and pitch decks. Also, I would mention the fact that some alumni tend to think of competitions strictly as a method to get equity-free prize money and disregard that competitions are simply a way to gauge their startup’s position within the broader ecosystem.    

Q: What role do governments have in supporting founders in their journey?

A: I’m glad you mentioned this! In the conference we held for the 12th edition of the Arab Startup Competition, we had a discussion panel which went over the role of governments in fostering the growth of digital economies, which came to the conclusion that ‘MENA’s governments must be directly involved in shaping the tech ecosystem, yet not try to frame and constrain it.’

Governments can be an entrepreneur's best friend, specifically when it comes to IP laws, tax exemption laws, and even bankruptcy laws. In places like the GCC, governments are taking direct steps to attract the best talent from MENA, as well as prepare local entrepreneurs to grow into the global market. 

On the other hand, governments can also be an entrepreneur’s worst nightmare. For example, some MENA countries still lack the proper regulatory framework for startups to do ecommerce with their customers, hindering their growth and development process. Bureaucracies distract entrepreneurs from the main problem they are trying to fix in the first place.

An open and ongoing conversation must be established between the governments and the entrepreneurs, to truly know the ‘pain points’ we mentioned earlier. We must yet reach that sweet spot where regulations and innovation are in perfect balance, allowing entrepreneurs to continue building great things.

Q: What are your plans for MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab over the next 12 months

A: We just launched the 13th edition of the Arab Startup Competition, which will be the biggest one yet. This year, we are expecting even more applicants to be part of our community of innovators across the MENA. 

We will be announcing our news when the time is right, so stay tuned.         


Maya is currently Managing Director at the MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab, heading operations, business development and leading the team. Before joining the MITEF team, she was Editor in Chief at Wamda Ventures for six years and co-founded Altcity.me a media, tech and startup space in Beirut. Journalist at heart, Maya is a media instructor at the Lebanese American University and holds an MA in Digital Media Production from the University of Toulon, France, and a BA in Journalism from the Lebanese University in Beirut.