Scott Anderson

Cultural, Economic Shifts Lift Entrepreneurship in MENA

Theodore Khattouf, president and CEO of AMIDEAST (the America-Mideast Educational and Training Services), said the region will need to create 90 million new jobs over the next 10 years to absorb the number of mostly young people seeking work. Daunting as that sounds, Khattouf also offered some perspective on the potential for the region: “South Korea in mid-1950s had a per capita income lower than Egypt’s.”

Khattouf, who was the keynote speaker at the two-day Global Summit on Educating Entrepreneurs organized by the William Davidson Institute, framed the potential and the challenges facing the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The inaugural conference attracted delegates from 20 countries with varied resumes and backgrounds. Attendees ranged from academics designing or managing entrepreneurship education programs at universities and other development groups, as well as NGOs, consultants, investors and microlenders.

Khattouf’s organization, a private nonprofit that provides English language and professional skills training, educational advising, and testing services to thousands of students and professionals in the Middle East and North Africa, is on the front lines of fostering entrepreneurship. After working in the region for decades in various government roles, Khattouf said the time is truly right – and urgent – to expand entrepreneurship.

“The huge youth demographic can be a tremendous engine for growth, or a lost generation,” he said.

Well-known barriers such as corruption, an overloaded court and regulatory system, and a myriad of difficulties raising capital continue to slow the pace of entrepreneurship. In some locations a social net trips up private investment and new business generation. Venture capital throughout much of the region is still in its infancy and banks are extremely risk adverse.

“Starting one’s own business anywhere is not for the faint of heart,” Khattouf said.

Yet, it’s happening. Khattouf said AMIDEAST recently completed a 13-week boot camp where enrollees received IT, interviewing and written/verbal skills training. At the end of the program, 82 percent graduates got jobs.

Later in the day, at one of the breakout sessions that examined the challenges facing the Middle East and how U.S. entrepreneurship programs can help, the panelists? the speakers? said it’s clear the cultural issues around who can and can not be an entrepreneur are rapidly changing. Entrepreneurship is no longer the domain of the wealthy, Western-educated elite – especially as social media and increased numbers of business incubators and competitions emerge. Professor Farhan Kalaldeh, executive director of the Queen Rania Center for Entrepreneurship in Jordan, said employment options are usually limited to working for the government, working for the private sector or emigrating to the West.

“But now we’re saying there’s a fourth option: start your own business,” Kalaldeh said.

Professor Maha El Shinnawy, who runs an entrepreneurship center at the American University in Cairo, said changing the mindset is just as important as teaching new skills.

“In the classroom, we’re not going to create entrepreneurship, but we need to create entrepreneurial thinking,” she said.

Steven Koltai of the U.S. State Department’s Global Entrepreneurship Program, said the transformation since the Arab Spring began in January has been startling. The GEP works with local economic development partners in Turkey, Egypt and Indonesia, among other countries. In January, the GEP’s partner delegation created a Facebook page to encourage new businesses to network with one another and would-be investors. Before the revolution, the page had a few hundred companies signed on. But now more than 2,500 have joined, including a handful of tech firms that are attracting the attention of Silicon Valley investors.

Also speaking at the conference was Noa Meyer of Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women initiative, who introduced many in the audience to the program that provides business and management education to women in under-served regions. Peter Bamkole of Pan-African University in Nigeria, who implemented it there, said the economic development impact is undeniable. He mentioned Ayodeji Megbope, who started a catering selling Moin-Moin bean cakes, called No Leftover Ltd. After starting it with a $10 capital investment, Megbopes’ venture has grown to a $150,000 operation with two restaurants in Lagos and 60 employees in three years. Megbope divides her time between her business and work as a motivational speaker.

The 10,000 Women impact has gained enough buzz that the federal government of Nigeria called the university, Bamkole said. They are now working together on building an enterprise development infrastructure in six geo/political zones in Nigeria.

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skill development