Saudi Aramco World: May/June 2014 - page 30

M
“We pay $12,000 per month for 12 megabits,” exclaims Bery-
tech Director Nicolas Rouhana. “How am I supposed to help
entrepreneurs if I pay that much?”
Meanwhile, the poverty of crumbling neighborhoods like Khan-
daq al-Ghamiq—visible from the windows of Berytech and the
Digital District—is an aching reminder of the deeper challenges
of job creation, both in Lebanon and across the region, where the
World Bank estimates 100
million jobs will be needed
in the coming decade to
absorb new workers.
As suggested by the
title of his 2013 book,
Startup Rising
, writer
and investor Christopher
Schroeder argues that the
new generation of Mideast
entrepreneurs is poised to
have a sweeping impact
on the region and its eco-
nomic future.
“Technology offers an
irreversible level of trans-
parency, connectivity and
inexpensive access to capi-
tal markets unprecedented
only five years ago,” he
writes.
The product of a year of
traveling throughout the
region, Schroeder’s book
is a catalog of the dozens
of startup successes across
the Arab world. He makes
frequent reference to the
potential of the region’s
youth population of 100
million under the age
of 15, and Internet and
smartphone penetration
growing at double-digit
rates in many countries.
Convinced of the indus-
try’s future, Schroeder now
sits on the boards of both
Oasis500 and Wamda, a
Beirut-based tech-news
agency and organizer of
entrepreneurial workshops from Casablanca to Doha.
“The youth, well-educated and unleashed, are really an asset.
Entrepreneurship generally, and tech availability specifically, of-
fer us tools and capabilities not even on the table to discuss five
years ago,” he wrote in an email.
Yet at the same time, it’s hard to deny that a great number of
the industry’s young stars come from privileged backgrounds
or have attended prestigious universities, often in the West, and
that they are generally comfortable in English. In fact nearly
every session and speaker at ArabNet in Beirut spoke entirely in
English, despite the fact that 80 percent of the Arab population
speaks only Arabic, according to the United Nations 2005 Hu-
man Development Report.
And entrance into the industry is not cheap. A single desk
at facilities like Oasis500 or Berytech rents for a starting price
of $300 to $350 per month, which is about the same as a dis-
counted youth entrance fee to a three-day ArabNet conference.
This may not seem expensive in the West, but these numbers are
roughly equivalent to or
greater than the average
monthly salaries in much
of the Middle East.
In response, organiza-
tions like ArabNet and
Oasis500 say they offer
scholarships and massive
discounts to financially
challenged individuals with
compelling applications.
“There are a lot of
ways to get in if you can’t
afford the fees,” says
Omar Christidis, ArabNet
founder and director. The
30-year-old Yale graduate
notes that all who partici-
pate in the Ideathon pitch-
ing session receive free
event access.
“In theory, most of the
opportunities are open to
anyone regardless of class,”
he explains over a choppy
Beirut Skype connection.
“Now does education play
a role in filling out the ap-
plication form? Yes.”
And Christidis acknowl-
edges that many of the re-
gion’s youth may not have
the luxury of experiment-
ing with entrepreneurial
ideas due to commitments
to earn a living. “If you
are a breadwinner for your
parents, you may be less
likely to take the risk,” he
adds, while cautioning that
these same digital divides
characterize most world tech markets. “Is entrepreneurship in
Silicon Valley catered to those with little means?”
Industry veteran and Aramex
CEO
Fadi Ghandour says he too
is aware of the divide, and he touts a new partnership with the
United Nations Development Program to help fund 200 micro-
businesses in Jordan. The initiative, which Ghandour says will also
be extended to Lebanon, is offered through Ruwwad, a youth em-
powerment and volunteering organization that he also chairs.
“The Internet abolishes divides, and it is an equalizer and
has brought down the cost of innovation and doing business
Early tenant in Beirut’s newly established Digital District, Nicolas Rouhana
is director of Berytech, which has a $6 million fund to invest in startups.
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