Fifty teams made the semi-final round this month during the MIT Enterprise Forum Arab Business Plan Competition in Abu Dhabi. Hala Fadel, the chairwoman of the MIT Enterprise Forum for the pan-Arab region, explains why she and a US university - the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - are involved in a contest for entrepreneurs in the Middle East.
q: Why did MIT get involved in this competition?
a: That relates to my personal story. I went to MIT and participated in the MIT Business Plan competition … and I happened to win it and [started] a business thanks to it. I came back to this region and I thought entrepreneurship is not promoted enough and we need more businesses. I remembered the help I received thanks to this competition and I thought maybe we need to bring this kind of help to the region, so I decided to start the MIT Arab Business Plan competition in 2006.
q: What kind of business did you start?
a: I started a telecom software business that would aggregate the telecom spending of big companies. If you take American Express in the US, it has 5,000 offices around the country, but they didn't know on an aggregate level how much they were spending with each telecom carrier. It would aggregate this and help them better negotiate their rates with the carrier. I ended up selling this company to one of our clients.
q: You say entrepreneurship is not promoted enough in the region. Why?
a: There are a lot of entrepreneurs, but our culture isn't used to valuing them enough. So they are here but we need to promote them and encourage them, starting with the family-and-friends circle. If you say in this region that you're going to start a business, chances are people will say you are a fool because we are used to having businesses that are inherited or that are so big you cannot even dream of starting one like this. So there isn't this culture of starting small to eventually become big, and to bring knowledge and know-how to this region.
q: What do entrepreneurs in this competition win?
a: They receive a cash prize of US$50,000 [Dh183,000] to start their business, and other than that they get a lot of exposure. For example, our winner from last year - an Egyptian team - is now in Silicon Valley. But as the goal is to start businesses in the region, he has his whole development team based out of Cairo, and he has sales and marketing in Silicon Valley because his clients are mainly in the US. The company is called talkcloud.me. It's an application where if you are browsing a page on the internet you know who's searching for the same thing as you and you can start chatting with them. You can ask them questions directly about their search and why they're interested in the subject, for example.