The Middle East Institute in Washington, DC hosted a discussion on Egypt’s growing start-up sector at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Jan. 22. Christopher M. Schroeder, author of Start-up Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East,opened the conversation by pointing out that Americans typically focus on Egypt’s very real problems while ignoring the country’s real opportunities.
Dina Sherif, co-founder of Ahead of the Curve and senior adviser for engagement at Silatech, said she regards Egyptians, especially youths, as assets who will solve the nation’s economic problems. Tahrir Square was not just about ideology and politics—protesters were concerned about economic injustice, Sherif opined. Today there is a growing community of young entrepreneurs launching start-ups. She cited Flat 6 Labs as an example of an organization that encourages entrepreneurs to support each other. Sawari Ventures and Flat 6 Labs are turning American University in Cairo into a “mini-Silicon Valley,” where Egyptians are creating the jobs they need.
Another entrepreneur, Mona Mowafi, co-founded Rise Egypt, an organization that is mobilizing the global Egyptian diaspora to invest in social entrepreneurship for development in Egypt. Rise Egypt finds and supports social enterprises that create positive social impact. The organization asks Egyptians what they need and provides mentorships, advice and capital.
Yumna Madi, co-founder and chief business development officer of KarmSolar, discussed the possibilities of commercially viable solar energy projects, including high-capacity solar water pumping stations.
After a career as an investment banker, James A. Harmon said he decided to “get re-potted” and do something meaningful for the public sector. In 2004 Harmon launched Caravel Management LLC, an emerging and frontier markets fund.
Harmon emphasized the need for more international support for innovative job creation and development plans in Egypt, and other countries undergoing the Arab spring. Egyptians don’t need charity, they want investors, Harmon added, but neither banks nor fellow Arabs are willing to take the investment risks necessary to fund entrepreneurs.
Harmon urged Americans to invest private funds in the Middle East, which he called the “new frontier.” Egypt is an excellent source of human capital, Harmon concluded. And the sky is the limit for potential infrastructure projects, including improving traffic flow, recycling, education and health care, and creating alternative energy projects.