Fadi Ghandour, the former chief executive of the logistics company Aramex, is creating a US$75 million to $100m fund to accelerate the growth of early-stage tech and e-commerce ventures within the Middle East and North Africa (Mena).
The fund, which he plans to formally announce later this year, will provide tech firms with funding that ranges between $1m and $3m for each venture. Most businesses will be based in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and the Palestinian Territories, although some are likely also to be from Morocco, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Mr Ghandour says.
"This is a space that does not have much capital," he says.
"There is much more money for earlier-stage ventures, but as they grow they won't find capital," Mr Ghandour adds. "You need to find that $1m to $3m that gets them to a bigger size."
Three institutional investors are in negotiations to back a "major" part of the fund, which will operate as a for-profit operation, Mr Ghandour says. The money, he adds, is to be invested into ventures within about four years of the fund going live. "Then we can prove our concept that the region is under the cusp of exploding in terms of tech and e-commerce, and hopefully launch another, much bigger fund."
Mr Ghandour, who founded Aramex then spent three decades at its helm, grew the company and in 1997 it became the first from the Middle East to be listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange.
He retired as Aramex chief executive last year, in part, to focus on growing the region's pool of entrepreneurs.
Over the years, Mr Ghandour has co-founded Mena Venture Investments to help to fund start-ups, and he still sits on boards of organisations that support entrepreneurs with capital, education and incubation facilities, including Abraaj Capital, Wamda and Oasis500.
Earlier this year, he became a board member of Foodonclick.com, which delivers restaurant meals in the UAE and elsewhere in the Arabian Gulf, and he opened an office in Dubai this month to support entrepreneurs from Mena.
Here, in an interview with The National, Mr Ghandour speaks about the state of entrepreneurship in the region and what still needs to be done.
Why did you decide to retire as the chief executive of Aramex last year?
Just moving on after 30 years of running the business. It was time to get the second generation up and running the company. It was time to move on. It had been planned for about three years. The company was doing well. I'm just interested in other things - investing in early-stage tech start-ups in the region, helping entrepreneurs with their business.
Your retirement came on the heels of major frustration among young, unemployed Arabs. What is your assessment of the situation today, and how does entrepreneurship play a role in the solution?
The Arab youth continue to be frustrated, basically for jobs or acceptable jobs that give them a decent living. Entrepreneurship [helps to] satisfy multiple challenges in the region. One: job creation - through creating companies, rather than just jobs in the public sector. And the private sector has to give jobs. One way of doing that is by creating new jobs in entrepreneurship. Most [jobs] are in small- and medium-sized enterprises. Now there are a lot of things lacking to help them.
One of them is access to capital and the tools to build skills, which is perhaps even a bigger issue. But giving the tools and education and getting these kids to be ready for the job market [is important]. It's a 10-year process to get the 21st century skills, which are a global challenge and not only a regional challenge.
Where is the Mena region falling short in supporting entrepreneurs?
Every policymaker across the region understands and knows to be able to create jobs outside the government you need to give the skills. My only issue would be if [they're] only [providing] access to capital. As much as capital is important, you need to build all other infrastructure. I think the UAE gets it. It's going to take a while to see impact. But they're on the right track. Saudi Arabia has also been doing similar things. My only hope is that this should be a regional effort - bringing private and public sectors together.
To some degree, is entrepreneurship being oversold as a panacea for youth unemployment?
No, I don't think it's oversold. I think it's undersold. I think it's under-delivering - we're not doing enough. There's a lot of talk about it as an issue, but there needs to be much more to take it to the implementation process. Other than access to capital or education you need to open markets to each other; inter-Arab trading is [minimal] with other countries. You can't scale unless you're able to sell to your neighbours. Our markets are still closed to each other.
What else needs to be done in the region to promote entrepreneurship?
Creating alternative sources of wealth has been talked about for decades. What needs to be done is more about entrepreneurship and getting the private sector much more involved rather than leaving this to the public sector. Bankruptcy laws in the region are not conductive for people to create companies; you're still liable to go to jail. That doesn't give the youth encouragement to start a business, and the possibility of failure is high in new business. You have to create new laws. Also, open up the markets to foreign investment in the Gulf. I say it's not about transfer of wealth; it's about knowledge. It's about bringing the best in capabilities from developed regions to this region. There are plenty of things that need to be done.
You have invested in Yemeksepeti.com, the biggest online food delivery service in Turkey. As part of that investment, you were asked to join the board for its portal, Foodonclick.com. What is your role there?
Having had a lot of experience doing business it was natural for me to help them expand their capabilities, so key for them is obviously the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Foodonclick is already here in Dubai, doing relatively well. It's expanded substantially - 300 per cent from 2011. They had, in 2012, 147,000 orders in the UAE - about 2,000 meals a day. E-commerce is happening in the region, and the food-ordering business is one of the largest growing.
And this month you opened an office in Dubai where entrepreneurs you support can work from?
Yes, so what I've done as I exited Aramex is I established a small operation out of Media City. That space will have my office then an open space with a lot of working stations for all the companies that come to do business out of Dubai, for entrepreneurs who want to come explore the markets here. All of them need temporary space. They come here for business visits and spend [up to] one week. Instead of working out of hotels you have other entrepreneurs, and I'll be there to help them because all entrepreneurs need hand-holding and knocking on doors for clients, or for suppliers, or whatever.