For the second year, the Slush team hits the road to meet the world’s startup communities and their heroes. So far, as part of the Slush World series the team has visited 80 countries with the purpose to discover local startup ecosystems and find ways to work together.
One of the most interesting discoveries of the series was the Middle Eastern startup scene. We interviewed participants of Slush’s local events as well as people who drive the region’s ecosystem forward to hear their take on rising tech entrepreneurship in the MENA region.
“The journey has been a huge learning opportunity for us. We do this to explore local startup communities, identify their competitive advantage and see in what ways we could collaborate”, says Martin Talvari, Chief Strategy Officer at Slush, who has been the main globetrotter on behalf of Slush. “The best way to learn is to interact with the community, and the best way to interact with the community is to organize events that add value”, explains Talvari.
This is how it looks like on a practical level—with the help of local startup communities, Slush arranges events that center around local startups presenting what they are working on and invite everybody to network and exchange ideas. Winners of each session are invited to take part in Slush in November.
According to Talvari, one of the most exciting parts of the journey was uncovering the MENA region. In total, Slush has organized events in 5 countries of the region—Iran, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey— and took a close look at Israel, Egypt, Syria by participating in their own local events. In spite of all regulatory barriers for technology startups and often unwillingness of investors to take bets on bold new ideas, the Middle East clearly holds a great promise for the future as an innovation and technology hub.
Slush’s event in Tehran attracted a lot of local tech talent as well as international audience. Neda Amidi, Investment Analyst at Plug & Play Ventures, flew from Silicon Valley to Tehran to spend time with the Iran startup community and join the event as a jury member. “Local startups can benefit from networking events like this by meeting entrepreneurs and investors, sharing their ideas, and hearing outside perspectives. The finalist startup will have a great opportunity to expand their network through the conference in November”, comments Amidi on the Slush Tehran event.
Innovation in Isolation
A great example of the Iranian tech scene is LadyBird Entertainment—one of the large-scale entertainment media companies in the region that can be easily referred to as “Rovio of Iran”. Their work spans the entire media spectrum—from books and games, to apps and animated content. The unique nature of the Iranian market has prompted Ladybird to not only produce their own original content, but also manufacture, promote, and distribute it.
Ladybird’s work is largely comprised of animation, of which they have produced more than 7,000 minutes. The company has more than 90 mobile apps in various stages of development—all designed with an international audience in mind.
When it comes to the Middle East region, it’s extremely interesting to see how local companies find ways to innovate in a relative isolation from the rest of the world. Ladybird’s founder and CEO Masoud Safavi believes that innovation in the region is becoming vital to not only success but also survival. “The playing field has leveled and despite the walls propped up around us, powerful ideas can still penetrate them, or even knock them down. Today, it’s the underdogs—armed with breakthrough ideas and a touch of technical knowhow—that compete with the big guys on the world-stage”, says Safavi.
Female Tech Founders
At Slush’s events in the MENA countries, one could easily spot a lot of women present, both as founders and attendees. This might come as a surprise for an outsider, but a significant part of university graduates in the region are women. In Iran alone, 70% of technology, science, mathematics and engineering students are women. Considering this, it’s not a surprise that an Iranian-born professor becomes the first woman to win the “math Nobel Prize”.
In spite of a high number of well-educated tech-savvy women in the region, female professionals do face restrictions when advancing in their careers or rather choose to settle as mothers and wives due to cultural and religious reasons. However, today’s proliferation of mobile devices, easier access to technology and increasing number of women who want to succeed in their careers have created a climate where more female entrepreneurs found their own technology companies. The percentage of women-founders in the region beats hands down that of the Western countries—as pointed out in Economist’s article, in some cities of the region the share of women entrepreneurs is said to average 35%.
“I think that startups and technology is just an exciting space for everyone—me and other women. People choose to become entrepreneurs for many different reasons—some want to change the world, some like to create, some like autonomy. So I think it’s the same reasons for women as for everyone else. Plus, it’s more accessible than ever”, explains Roxanne Varza who was listed in 2013 as one of the top 30 women under 30 in tech by Business Insider andcurrently leads Microsoft’s startup activities in France.
“In such difficult times Syria is going through, entrepreneurship spirit is what our economy really needs”, Sami Ismail, the main organizer of EK Conference
The current political situation in Syria didn’t stop The EK Conference’s organizers from putting together a startup conference in Damascus as a response to the real need to build a solid education about entrepreneurship is Syria. Our very own Martin Talvari took part in the conference as a speaker online to share the Slush story.
Sami Ismail, the main organizer of the EK conference, thinks that the country lacks the knowhow of building high growth startups, and this affects the local business and investment legislation. He also emphasizes that the country needs the ability to establish VC firms and accelerators and develop the culture of investing in entrepreneurship among Syrian business people.
“This concern is the main driver for me, because we have so much talent and passion among Syrian entrepreneurs and they’re being forced to give up their plans or go off borders to get the support and recognition they deserve back home. Besides, in such difficult times Syria is going through, entrepreneurship spirit is what our economy really needs”, explains Ismail. “We want to accelerate the Syrian economy to be more open and nourishing for the entrepreneurship ecosystem.”
Lebanon is another country where entrepreneurship is on the rise. “In Lebanon, various efforts are coming together from entrepreneurs, startups, universities, investors and support groups. A new accelerator is launching and a national bootcamp program is soon going live”, says Munir David Nabti, CEO at AltCity, one of the leading startup support hubs in Lebanon.
The Most Entrepreneurial Migrants
According to the recent study by Migreat.com, the most entrepreneurial migrants in the US are coming from Greece, Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Iran and Syria.
“One first plausible explanation for these regions to be a hotbed of global entrepreneurs might be related to the entrepreneurial fibre created throughout history. The region is historically the place where international trade was started. This history seems to have left a cultural legacy of mutual exchange, commerce and migration in the local culture. A second plausible reason again related to history is the recent tough economic times these countries have suffered, caused by war or by economic sanctions.”, says Josephine Goube, Director of Partnership at Migreat.com.
It is truly inspiring to see how real entrepreneurial spirit is moving the MENA region forward and a bumpy road is certainly not something local tech talent is afraid of. We are very happy to host a lot of entrepreneurs and technology enthusiasts from the MENA region at Slush this year.
P.S. If you want to learn more about the state of the Middle East startup ecosystem and its role in reshaping the whole region, it’s worth checking out a book by investor Christopher Schroeder Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East.