x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 September 2017

Dubai business course starts them young on the start-up path

UAE entrepreneurs are helping children between the ages of eight and 14 develop entrepreneurship skills at a new course at Impact Hub in Dubai.

Sallyann Della Casa, the head of the Growing Leader Foundation, guides children through the same entrepreneurial concepts she teaches her adult students. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Sallyann Della Casa, the head of the Growing Leader Foundation, guides children through the same entrepreneurial concepts she teaches her adult students. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

Being grilled by children between the ages of eight to 14 is not how every entrepreneur wants to spend their Saturday afternoon.

But a group of UAE company founders were happy to give up part of last weekend to mentor eight boys and girls living in the Emirates.

The BYOB (Building Youth- Owned Businesses) course at Impact Hub Dubai was designed to draw out the children’s innovation skills and introduce them to the world of business. But the learning was a two-way process, as the adult entrepreneurs got to pick the youngsters’ brains too.

“Who doesn’t like to spend the day with a bunch of genius eight-year-olds?” says the Californian Joy Ajlouny, who cofounded Fetchr, the Dubai delivery app company. “As an entrepreneur, you’re so focused on what you do that you’re one-sided, and it takes an eight-year-old to say something that makes you think of something that hadn’t occurred to you before. They’re not thinking in unit economics and growth projections, they’re thinking in simpler terms and sometimes as an entrepreneur you miss the boat on how to make something simpler.”

During the first half of the four-hour session, the trainer Sallyann Della Casa set out to instil the same entrepreneurial techniques she teaches her adult corporate students through her company, the Growing Leaders Foundation, starting with how to use a business canvas as a framework to decide if an idea can be turned into a business.

“We used the simple example of M&Ms and Skittles, and why we would buy each,” explains Ms Della Casa. “We also discussed more complex models of YouTube, Apple and Snapchat. The kids worked on their own passions and talents, to figure out what they can leverage to start earning some money or potentially turn a concept into a business.”

Next, the entrepreneurs explained how their companies work.

Marie-Christine Luijckx, the Dutch founder of the fruitbox delivery service Fruitful Day, says she is contemplating expanding into the gifting market and tested the idea on the young audience. “I asked the kids – ‘would you gift a fruit box to your parents?’ One kid answered ‘well if there was some chocolate dip in it then I might.’ These kids are ultimately going to be our customers, and I loved their honesty,” she says.

Ms Ajlouny claims that back home in Silicon Valley, learning about entrepreneurship is now a normal part of growing up for many kids. “They start them young in northern California because it’s a place where you eat and breathe start-up technology and entrepreneurship.”

And in a rapidly changing world, getting young people better acquainted with entrepreneurship is an economic necessity, she says, adding that the days when most kids aspired to become doctors, lawyers and firemen are over.

“The kids are becoming brighter and entrepreneurs are now the cool new thing,” she says. “Every kid wants to be the founders of Google and Facebook, because they hear the stories of mass wealth being built. To get them into thinking outside the box, you have to start them young.”

Ms Luijckx says she realised she wanted to become an entrepreneur relatively late in life. She set up her company in Dubai last year after a long career in corporate banking. “As a child, I was expected to go into a traditional corporate job and so I did that for a long time,” she says. “But it would have been great to have this sort of class at a young age to open your mind to other possibilities out there. I possibly would have approached my corporate job differently if I’d known that eventually I’d start my own company.”

Nine-year-old Darshar Skv, a course attendee, wasn’t familiar with the term “entrepreneur” before the course began but says he’d like to become the head of a company when he grows up. It was his father, Bharath Babu’s idea to enrol him on the course. “I want my son to keep thinking in a fresh way,” says Mr Babu, a business development manager from India. “Its also good to give him leadership skills.”

To pick out the most innovative minds in the room, Ms Della Casa scattered paper sheets on the floor and told the kids they could only walk on the paper to reach the table. “I created this obstacle course because it showed me right away who was willing to take risks and try new things,” she explains.

Two of the children who picked alternative routes to the table were later invited by Ms Ajlouny to Fetchr’s offices, to drill her team of engineers. “The engineers need to be thrown these questions about our technology to see that maybe there are some simplistic things that they’re missing,” she says.

At the next business camp this Saturday at Impact Hub in Downtown Dubai, children will design and present prototypes. The four-hour session costs Dh500.

business@thenational.ae

Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter