Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in the UAE
Over spring break, I went with a class from Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business to the UAE as part of the Global Family Business Leadership class. The two things that were most interesting to me about this trip were Dubai’s ability to build their own infrastructure from almost nothing and at the same time to reinvest in themselves by building an entire ecosystem within their own infrastructure, especially in the context of entrepreneurship.
I want to take the time to explore how some of the companies we visited are contributing to their ecosystem and compare that to my experience at Northeastern University.
In my three years at Northeastern University, my time has revolved around entrepreneurship. I have been an employee at 2 start-ups, a venture coach at IDEA, and the co-founder and Executive Director of Generate. At the same time, Northeastern University’s entrepreneurship ecosystem has had massive growth and all the organizations have come together to build a really strong ecosystem — called Mosaic. My friend Neel Desai wrote a piece about what Mosaic is and how all these different entrepreneurship organizations are connected.
I want to look specifically at the contributions from GE MENAT, 1776, and Souk on the UAE’s ecosystem.
Although I normally attribute start-ups and new businesses to entrepreneurship, the first major contributor to the entrepreneurship ecosystem in the UAE was in fact one of the oldest and strongest companies in the world — General Electric. Prior to this trip, I knew of GE and I knew that they were a hugely successful company with a diverse portfolio of products, but after our visit to Nabil Habayeb, CEO of GE MENAT, I caught a glimpse of how big they really were.
In this image below is “The GE Store”, a brief representation of the all the verticals that GE is involved in and how they come together. All of their products and different verticals come back to the core reality of being a research center, growth organization, center of software, and an overall culture of simplification. So how does an organization as solid and successful as this allow others to contribute to entrepreneurship?
GE MENAT had a very simple plan to allow the residents and people of UAE to have opportunities to entrepreneurship — give them access to capital equipment, intellect, and problems and see what the residents of UAE can do. They built maker spaces, hosted classes on new technologies, and presented to the region technical problems they were having and crowdsourced solutions through competitions. GE MENAT provided the resources to allow the residents of the area become makers and problem solvers with little to no initial cost.
The next major contributor to the entrepreneurship ecosystem is 1776 — a venture incubator and fund that supports ventures in sectors such as education, cities, and transportation. We met with Ned Jaroudi,a former husky and current managing director at 1776 Dubai, who he told us all about how the incubator is supporting these entrepreneurs. The first thing that he made very clear to our group of students is that 1776 support ventures that are building significant solutions to significant problems, they won’t be supporting the next on-demand luxury app.
1776 ventures aren’t building products and services that suddenly change the entire scope of healthcare, smart cities, transportations, or any of their other focuses. Instead, 1776 setups these ventures into relationships with people in the government, policy makers, or big players in these industries in order to help them build products, partnerships, and relationships. This kind of collaboration opens up the doors for these ventures to the operators of the industries that they are focusing on building solutions for.
Souq is the Middle East’s equivalent of Amazon, in fact Amazon just bought them! Souq’s CEO, Ronaldo Mouchawar, launched the company in 2005 and is also a double husky. We were lucky enough to be able to sit down with Ronaldo for almost two hours as he told us all about Souq, how the idea pivoted multiple times, and their incredible growth since them. The thing I was most impressed with by Ronaldo is how much detail he knew about every aspect of the company and its offerings from the backend databases to why user experience decisions were made.
The other interesting that Ronaldo talked to us about was Souq’s investment activity. Ronaldo made it very clear that he and the Souq team were willing to invest in other companies in the UAE and Middle East if they were in the same area of expertise, e-commerce, and supported Souq’s growth. One example of this is their investment into Instashop.
Souq is a great example of a company in the UAE not just building an incredible company, supporting technology talent, and creating new jobs but also supporting the ecosystem by reinvesting investing by investing in ventures that can support their cause.
One of the key differences between how Mosaic and the UAE have grown their entrepreneurship ecosystems is the the growth strategy.
At Northeastern University, we take pride in Mosaic being student-run and really being a grassroots movement. These organizations came from initiatives and ambitions that students had and Mosaic was built as a way to improve communication and collaboration between these organizations.
The UAE has had a top-down approach where their government wants to build their entrepreneurship ecosystem and has taken the proper steps to help with this. Their government actively sought out opportunities like building a 1776 office in Dubai. The CEO of GE MENAT meets with the government regularly to see how GE can continue to support increased innovation. Sometimes a top-down approach doesn’t always want to work, but in the case of the UAE it’s different. The UAE citizens and work force have embraced these opportunities.
We discussed in our class that entrepreneurship is all about “creating wealth” and that is exactly what Dubai is doing. They are investing in their own citizens — in their companies, their experiential opportunities, and bringing together their government and companies in order to create an ecosystem that fosters a bright future through innovation.