Sometimes a business school can choose just the right strategy at just the right time. That was the case for the American University of Cairo’s School of Business when it decided to launch its Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program (EIP)—just three months before the Egyptian Uprising, one of the most pivotal political, social, and economic events in our country’s history.
Since the Egyptian Uprising of January 2011, there has been a growing sentiment across Egypt that it is time to focus on the private sector—that entrepreneurship will change the lives of Egyptians. This is a huge shift in mindset. Egyptians are traditionally risk averse, preferring to “wait and see” over taking action. Now people want to learn how they can make a difference. EIP, as it turned out, was the right program at the right time.
Where Do We Want to be?
The origins of EIP began in 2009, when we were conducting a survey of our market. There had been a proliferation of new business schools and programs in the Middle East, and we knew that the only way to stay ahead of this pack was through continuous improvement. We began looking ahead to the university’s 2019 centennial and asking ourselves one question: Where do we want to be by that year?
We looked at the fact that Egypt’s population is increasing by 1.9 percent, or 2 million people, each year. Of Egypt’s 85 million citizens, 7.1 million work for the government. That leaves a huge population ready for a more robust private sector. It would be a catastrophe for Egypt not to utilize its most precious resource—its human capital. We also noted that Egypt is not home to many large corporations—it has more small and medium-sized enterprises.
We asked, “How can we produce innovative leaders who will develop more of these startups that will transform our economy?” To stay competitive and relevant, the School of Business needed to graduate entrepreneurs who did not just start companies, but who also introduced change to Egyptian society.
All Citizens Welcome
To accomplish this ambitious goal, we launched EIP in October 2010. Through EIP, we offer seminars, workshops, networking events, a mentorship program, business boot camps, and business plan competitions. We help entrepreneurs generate ideas for businesses; then, we connect the most viable startups to incubators and help them find venture capitalists, angel investors, and other sources of seed funding. We hold a number of mentoring events, such as “Speed Mentoring,” in which mentees have a series of 30-minute networking sessions with a range of startup veterans.
We realize that great ideas come not only from our big cities, but also from the 4,000 villages across Egypt. For that reason, EIP’s events and services are open to students at all Egyptian universities and to all citizens in Egypt’s 26 provinces. Most of them come to our Cairo campus to attend workshops and mentorship sessions, as well as interact with other students and future entrepreneurs. Some of them access information and services online, because our program is offered in a blended mode.
EIP also sponsors a series of business plan competitions, which are supported by 32 partner organizations. These include regional companies such as Arabnet, an online hub for Arab digital professionals, and Egypreneur, a networking hub for Egyptian entrepreneurs. Our partners also include international organizations such as Intel, the Global Entrepreneurship Program, and USAID. In June 2011, EIP partnered with Science Age Society to hold Startup Summer Camp, where 60 mentors and ten investors evaluated startups, and then EIP helped the winners further develop their ideas.
EIP also partners with Cairo-based venture capital firm Sawari Ventures to run Flat6Labs, an incubator and accelerator that invites prospective entrepreneurs to submit ideas via its website at www.flat6labs.com. The program then accepts the best applicants into a three-month program at our incubator, where they have access to the faculty, facilities, and mentors they need to commercialize their products and become independent companies. In exchange, Flat6Labs takes a 10 percent to 15 percent stake in their operations.
The EIP is further complemented by our student-governed club, the Entrepreneurs Society. Active since 2003, the club organizes its own training workshops and conference. The society has produced more than 50 companies in areas ranging from the food industry to Web development to tourism. Club members also write their own publication called “The Lead,” which includes mini-case studies and lists of market opportunities.
Since the Egyptian Uprising of January 2011, there has been a growing sentiment that entrepreneurship will change the lives of Egyptians.
The Entrepreneur Society’s most recent endeavor is the Hit Project 2012, a reality show competition that they produced jointly with AUC’s Kamal Adham Center for Television and Digital Journalism. “The Hit,” which is filmed and edited by student and faculty from the Adham Center, follows 16 teams of AUC student entrepreneurs through all the phases of their startups. The winning team will sell its product on Souq.com, an Arab e-commerce site and sponsor of the show. Live episodes of “The Hit” are available at www.thehit2012.com.
In Sync with History
When we decided to build our strategy around the EIP, we knew that entrepreneurship would be important to the country’s future. But we truthfully had no idea just how timely the EIP would be. The uprising resulted in the overthrow of the regime in Egypt—and introduced major transformations in the Egyptian mindset. After that, we knew EIP had an even bigger role to play than we had thought—and we had to update our curriculum to address those developments.
For instance, our case-writing center had not been very active since it opened in 2007, but in just the last two years, it has produced more than 100 cases. Egyptian companies, unlike those in other parts of the world, are traditionally reluctant to share the details of their businesses, including their financials, their successes and their failures. But the uprising has changed attitudes. More companies are willing to share their experiences with us. They used to think their power rested in withholding information; now they see more power in sharing it.
We launched three different series of leadership panels, including one called “Transforming Egypt.” We brought in students, researchers, faculty, and industry experts to discuss how our economy can be brought back on track. Several research papers resulted from that meeting, which we have shared with government official to aid their decision-making processes.
We partnered with TechWadi, a Silicon Valley nonprofit that promotes Middle Eastern entrepreneurship, to hold “Egypt Rising.” The event brought together thought leaders in education, business, technology, and healthcare, as well as successful Arab expatriates, to outline a plan to develop Egypt’s economy through entrepreneurship.
Before the uprising, we changed our curriculum based on traditional competitive trends. Now, our position has become more profound. People younger than 25 years old make up 58 percent of the Egyptian population, and that number is growing. Egypt’s youth are passionate, fresh, and experiencing exceptional moments not only in their lives, but in the history of their country. That combination is building positive momentum in this country, inspiring our youth to think in brand new directions.
We are in a country that is more than 7,000 years old, but it is still the land of opportunity. So much of it remains untapped—but we plan to change that.
Sherif Kamel is dean of the American University of Cairo’s School of Business in Egypt.