Young entrepreneurs in hoodies, carrying laptops, chatting excitedly about their latest venture: it’s a scene straight from networking sessions in San Francisco — and StartUp Turkey, where nearly 100 companies came together to pitch, network, and secure funding for ideas with a slightly different flavour.
About a third of the companies participating in the event are based in the Middle East and North Africa, representing a region that’s demographically young and tech-savvy.
“People today are changing their behaviour. They’re using AirBnB and Uber…these businesses are in the DNA of this part of the world.” says Hicham Zarrouky, CEO of Sheaply, a Moroccan company that connects travellers with buyers who want products from abroad.
Zarrouky started the company from a WhatsApp group run by friends and family who wanted goods from France and beyond, since Amazon is not available in Morocco. The sharing economy has always been the way Middle Easterners have done business, according to Zarrouky, referring to the Silk Road and goods traded on camelback for centuries.
Yousef Hamidaddin, the CEO of Oasis500 — a Jordanian firm that invests and helps mentor entrepreneurs in the Middle East — sees start-ups as a way to revitalise the region. “Who’s going to rebuild Syria? Who’s going to rebuild Iraq? Who’s going to rebuild economies that are challenged with different issues and they need efficiency to be driven on a continuous basis,” he says, “I think Amman as a capital for that innovation can work really well.”
But some entrepreneurs face cultural barriers while launching their start-ups. For Hussam Hammo, who runs a company that publishes mobile video games in Arabic, investors in the Middle East tend to think “you failed once, why won’t you fail again?”
That sort of thinking can be discouraging for entrepreneurs like Hammo who need to experiment and fail, and fail again. He ended up turning to Silicon Valley to fund his latest project. “You need education for investors,” says Hammo. “But for him to give you $25,000, he wants to own half your company.”
Peter Hansen came to StartUp Turkey on behalf of MuslimFace, a social networking site for Muslims. He senses a “general discontent” with current social media networks in the Muslim world, where “Muslims have been exposed to ridicule.”
Having invested in companies all over the world, from Haiti to Dubai, Hansen feels investors in Europe to be quite conservative. But he’s optimistic about StartUp Turkey, “it is really being embraced and encouraged, and that’s really nice to see.”
Author: Sara Nasser