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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Nurturing home-grown entrepreneurial talent is the key to driving the UAE’s digital economy.

Now is the time to support and help the next generation grow into the future innovators, writes Paul Kenny

We must create an environment where the next generation of business and technology change-makers can flourish and thrive, writes Paul Kenny.  Ravindranath K / The National
We must create an environment where the next generation of business and technology change-makers can flourish and thrive, writes Paul Kenny. Ravindranath K / The National

When I landed in the UAE aged 22, all I saw was opportunity. Yet I remember trying to search for the local phone number of a global car manufacturer online – and finding they had no digital presence.

Since then, so much has changed in the Middle East and especially in the UAE. I believe that fundamentally the UAE’s fast-growing digital economy has been spurred by fresh entrepreneurial vision at every level – from the country’s leaders to graduates fresh from school or university.

Fast forward a decade, and I have launched a new digital technology company AYM – the main venture I’ve embarked on since Cobone.com was acquired in 2013.

Neither of these businesses would have been possible had it not been for the vigour and energy of entrepreneurial talent that was developed here in the UAE.

Recently, the World Economic Forum ranked the UAE as the most digitally advanced country in the Arab world. If we want to continue the pace of change, we must create an environment where the next generation of business and technology change-makers can flourish and thrive.

That’s why this year I said yes in a heartbeat when the GCC Chapter of the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation for the Global Student Entrepreneurs Award asked me to run the UAE finals in 2018. The award focuses solely on students running businesses while still at university.

University is a key time for developing a business brain.

Looking back to when I was a student, I worked in my family’s business while studying and used the opportunity to experiment with practical ideas to solve tough problems. Students who embark on their entrepreneurial journey while studying can benefit from the perfect real-world complement while learning the theory of business in class.

While not every student on a university campus will be driven to undergo the pressures of juggling study with running a business, for others it is a calling. For me the only way to shape my own destiny was to create it. The entrepreneurial skillset is learned through experience, not just in the classroom.

UAE university campuses are full of entrepreneurs, from DJs to technology innovators.

Yet the future success of our digital economy is also under threat from the lure of Silicon Valley, London’s tech hub and Berlin – which has recently become a haven for aspiring young entrepreneurs.

It is critical we continue to create an ecosystem in the UAE that fosters and supports young talent from the get-go.

Meeting the students from the current competition was a reminder of the level of potential in our young ranks.

This year, Rishav Jalan, a student at Bits Pilani University in Dubai, won the UAE competition with his Wrappup concept, a mini voice recording device that uses artificial intelligence to translate speech into business data.

He’s now off to the finals in Germany, competing to win Dh1.5m in prize money. However, it’s not just about the money – he’s being mentored by the Global Student Entrepreneur Award Organisation and the GCC Harvard Business School Club until the final.

It’s this kind of support that we need to generate for young entrepreneurs. But I urge all those budding campus entrepreneurs to pitch in for the 2018 competition. Global competitions not only to give young entrepreneurial talent from the UAE a place on the world stage – but create a supportive ecosystem that gives home grown talent the security and stability to thrive on their own soil.

The vision is that programmes like this will spark a realisation in students that they are entrepreneurs, even if they don’t yet identify themselves as one yet.

We’re calling for university students (or those within one year of graduation) who are also running businesses that have made a profit of $150.

From next week, over the next six months I’ll be travelling around universities across the UAE and speaking to entrepreneurial communities on campus. As well as sharing knowledge and experience, it’s really about helping students realise the live opportunities here for young entrepreneurs.

Paul Kenny is an Irish entrepreneur who founded Cobone.com and is currently the managing director of AYM

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