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Are we on the verge of a Middle-Eastern Silicon Valley?

By Steve Hind & Nabil Mohamed

The Harvard Arab Weekend gets Interesting.

You may have noticed a large number of foreigners walking around campus two weekends ago, making their way to panels in Aldrich or receptions in Spangler. As it turns out, that was the Harvard Arab Weekend (HAW). And it’s quite a big deal. To understand more, The Harbus interviewed Marc Homsy and Ali Osman, two Arab EC’s responsible for directing the entire HAW effort.

The Harbus: A lot of people wonder what it is exactly that this whole series of events promotes. Can you tell us a little bit about the weekend?

Marc: The Harvard Arab Weekend is a Harvard-wide pan Arab conference, commended by the White House as “The Premier Arab World Conference” in North America (In 2011).  It takes place over four days, one of which is fully dedicated to discuss business topics on HBS campus.

The main partner that is helping is the Harvard Arab Alumni Association (HAAA) - they’re the point of contact from year to year that organize the team and set the theme.

The theme differs every year and is always relevant to what’s happening in the Arab World. A couple of years ago it was the Arab Uprising accompanying the Arab Spring tide. This year the theme was “Inspiring Solutions”.

The Weekend takes place from Thursday to Sunday. Thursday is opening keynote, second and third day are Law School panels, Medical School events, Kennedy School events, etc.

…and the final day (Sunday) is the Business School day. We organized the business day and everything that happens in it. This includes a startup competition (held Saturday) boasting of total prizes north of $40K. The prize is growing every year- and the competition is getting more attention not just in the US but in the Arab world as a whole. Our aim is to revitalize entrepreneurial spirit and innovation in Arab World.

The Harbus: What conditions do you have in place to stop the startup competition being gamed by participants who might be merely looking to win some cash without having to pour it into a new business as capital?

Ali: In the past there were strict standards. For instance, all participants were required to present proof of a Minimum Viable Product and previously realized revenue. The issue is that when you impose them you get sub-par teams. This time, because we didn’t impose those rules, we had over 90 applicants (100% year-over-year growth) from which 10 finalists were selected.

The 10 finalists were in different phases - some only had an MVP, some had revenue, some had raised Series A. Judges looked at the caliber of presentations, stressed on how viable the product and model is, and looked at whether consumers are paying for the product.

The Harbus: So basically you’re saying the strategy is don’t limit supply of participants, just limit the judging to ensure people are serious?

Marc: There’s a pre-filtering a filtering process for the startup applications. We chose the best 10 with pre-set criteria. After that the startups are invited to present their ideas and a set of judges can ask questions before an audience at the conference (they have no idea about the startups beforehand). Judges are entrepreneurs, VCs, or even run accelerators. One judge this year was Lebanese entrepreneur Henri Asseily who founded Shopzilla and later sold it for over $500m. Judges are successful people who know what they’re talking about.

Ali: $40k is a drop in the bucket for some of these companies. The opportunity is really the exposure to other entrepreneurs, or investors, or potential employees in the audience. We gave all the startups a chance to present at the career fair on Sunday and they all later had lines of people waiting to speak with them. So basically what we give them is a platform to raise funds and showcase their ideas.

The Harbus: What else happens on the business day?

Ali: A number of keynote speeches, panel discussions, and networking events are held. The networking event this year was at the same time as a career fair - attendees could go back and forth and essentially do both at the same time.

Marc: The panels covered several business topics ranging from Gas shortages in the Arab world, Arab women’s’ roles in business, innovation and entrepreneurship, spurring development through political change, and several other topics; the women in business panel was highly lauded from the audience

Ali: There’s a team of 20 people from HBS running the Business Day of HAW. Teams cross integrated - we are officially responsible for business day but the rest of Harvard-wide conference team still chips in during the business day.

The Harbus: Were the startups in the pitch competition any different - e.g. were they focused on Arab nations on Arab consumers?

Ali: Surprisingly not. There were two biotech companies - I wouldn’t have expected to see that. Lily’s (idea is to source organic foods from Arab region and supply into the US) members’ background is Middle Eastern but they’re setting up shop in Silicon Valley. Even though they were applying to an Arab startup weekend, they’re a lot more integrated with accelerators or TechCrunch Disrupt.

The Harbus: Is a Middle East Silicon Valley on the horizon? Or are people just going to Silicon Valley and leaving the Middle East once they achieve minimum viability?

Marc: All startups have a vision of dual presence in the Middle East and the US to try to gain the best of both worlds. The US has the expertise, the facilities, and the mentors. In the Middle East, startups who have managed to surface have region-based financial backing, and a tested market and concept. One of the government sponsors that approached us actually envisions becoming the Silicon Valley of the Middle East. They want to provide space, cheap electricity, broadband, etc… - everything for entrepreneurs’ minds to thrive in that part of the world instead of losing them to the West.

Ali: For any startup, wherever it’s located, it’s very short-sighted to focus on the local market only. The idea should be viable globally. Fadi Ghandour - CEO of Aramex - was saying that all the companies that work with him would love to come to the US. But who is to say that the market opportunity won’t exist elsewhere in the future. A lot of the industries these startups are operating in have that market opportunity, whether in the US, the Middle East or Latin America.

The Harbus: What was the biggest challenge in organizing the event? Did you get to use any of your shiny new MBA skills?

Marc: The biggest logistical challenge for us was organizing the networking event, because we adopted an entirely novel approach towards organizing it. Lana Koleilat (OH) was in charge. We are used to attending networking events in open spaces,  eating a few cookies, drinking some coffee in a hall and standing there awkwardly until the person you want to speak to is done. We had a vision to lubricate the networking process and make it more systematic. We combined speed dating and networking and came up with a speed networking event - which has taken place before but not on the scale of an audience as formidable as that of HAW. We had 15 tables with 1-2 panelists and 1 facilitator on each.  Attendees pre-registered to their topics of preference and were matched with panelists sitting on a table that fits 10 people. Each person gets to sit on 3 tables, for 15 minutes apiece.

(The Harbus commentary: Worthy to note here that Marc and Ali used a funny little analog alarm clock to announce the end of each speed-networking round. See photo!)

Marc continues…And here, believe it or not, TOM came in quite handy! - we found ourselves trying to optimize the system by using concepts such as throughput time, buffers and Little’s Law (think cranberries) .We also had to be very agile at the time the speed networking event was taking place in order to re-allocate or consolidate rooms with the same topic where the panelist had not showed up

The Harbus: What about the career fair?

Marc: Highest ever number of companies attended this year - 15-20 companies and about 1,000 attendees (the highest in the last 8 years). We saw new companies approaching us, not just those based in the Middle East, but also American companies looking to expand in the region such as Uber, The World Bank, and others.

HAW is becoming a hub to attract the most brilliant talent in the US to come back to the ME and thrive close to their homelands. With the emergence of Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi, educated Arabs in the US have something to look up to and to go back to. Harvard will hopefully become the hub that attracts Arabs in the US to go back to the Middle East.

Ali: We’re seeing increasing numbers of companies and governments interested in sponsoring the event because of all the media attention we’re getting in the US. Sponsorship is an art more than a science. You have multiple competitors sponsoring the same event with different needs that must be met. The Sponsorship efforts are met by the HAAA and the conference team for the wider conference.

With that note of optimism about the region, we wrapped up our interview with Marc and Ali. Can you guess which city in the Middle East might be headed for that envied title of the “Silicon Valley of the Arab World”? We did. Fingers crossed for the next 20 years…

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