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Silicon Valley tells UAE entrepreneurs: be able to take a risk

The ability to fail and learn from that failure is an important part of developing an environment of business success.

Economic prosperity requires Emiratis to reclaim their entrepreneurial past. That point was eloquently made by the prominent Emirati businessman Ahmed bin Byat in an article in The National earlier this month.

In the past, entrepreneurship was a matter of survival rather than a passion as it is now. Mr bin Byat raises several fundamental issues with regards to the development of an entrepreneurial mindset among our young people. More importantly, he notes that different agencies and resources need to come together to develop an ecosystem where entrepreneurs can thrive.

Various entities have gone to great lengths to promote entrepreneurship within the UAE, but the underlying reality is that it begins and ends there - with promotion. While efforts spent on promotion have skyrocketed, the hard work to streamline policies and develop infrastructural supports hasn't caught up. The speed and innovation that is crucial for entrepreneurship is clashing with the endless approvals that are required by government entities.

Several questions were raised in Mr bin Byat's article, which focused on encouraging entrepreneurship, inspiring youth to create jobs and the underlying responsibility of "sowing the seeds" of entrepreneurship. All of this contributes to the ecosystem and infrastructure development that is crucial.

Almost two months into my MBA at Stanford Graduate School of Business, I have witnessed several elements of what makes Silicon Valley so special - what makes this California centre of entrepreneurship into, well, Silicon Valley. More specifically, why has northern California thrived as a birthplace for some of the most innovative companies to date? From my observations, I can offer three explanations for this remarkable success.

The first is culture. When I look at Silicon Valley, I believe the entrepreneurial ecosystem is founded on the values of innovation, creativity and risk-taking, all of which are ingrained into the people, universities and institutions that reside here. In a sense, it is more of a culture than a system.

The more the UAE works towards institutionalising a "system" of entrepreneurship, the more it distances itself from the underlying culture and the creative disruption that is needed to promote and foster an entrepreneurial environment.

The celebration of entrepreneurship is another factor. There is a special way in which people come together to celebrate both success and failure here. It truly is a thing of beauty.

In particular, I want to focus on the second part - failure. While I was attending a recent entrepreneurial panel, I noticed that it was almost as if people's failures were seen as a matter of earning their stripes. That was the perspective of now-successful entrepreneurs. One of panelists had actually failed eight times en route to his first success. The point is that he was proud to talk about it, and to explain the environment that allowed entrepreneurs to recover from failure.

According to the World Bank's ease of doing business index, the UAE ranks 143 out of 183 countries in terms of how easy it is to close down a business. If entrepreneurs - by nature of the system - are not allowed to fail, or are given an extremely hard time if they do, there is no practical way to celebrate risk-taking and the possibility of failure.

The third point is education. At Stanford, we have a course called "Start-Up Garage", in which students from different disciplines come together to work on actual start-up projects. This course is as real as it gets because an actual product or service is being developed, which requires a business plan to be created. The start-up concept can be further developed after the course, or even rolled out to the market or relevant industry if the plan is finalised.

What this does is give students hands-on experience of entrepreneurship, under the guidance of mentors and industry experts, and within a relatively safe environment. It allows students to explore ideas, build upon them and - more importantly - take risks they otherwise wouldn't take without the safety net of the classroom.

If an entrepreneurial culture is the answer to issues relating to youth employment in any country, a Start Up Garage model that teaches entrepreneurial skills is a fundamental part of the formula required to reach that outcome.

Unfortunately, our entrepreneurial culture that was so rich in the past has been relegated to the back seat. We are in a new culture today where entrepreneurship is a heavy underdog when young Emiratis are able to choose the stability of government employment.

If we are serious about entrepreneurs leading the next wave of economic development, government entities can start by taking a step back and streamlining the start-up process. This will allow a natural culture of entrepreneurship to develop. When you fuel that with a spirit of celebration and the right educational support, we set a solid platform for the UAE's very own "Silicon Oasis".


Khalid Al Ameri is a social affairs commentator studying for his MBA at Stanford University in California

On Twitter: @KhalidAlAmeri

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