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How does a Belgian-Italian who grew up in Brussels, attended high school in Argentina, and studied public policy in Paris end up, working on entrepreneurship in the Middle East and North Africa? Francesca Bombassei’s path to her current role as Seedstars’ Regional Manager has followed the twists and turns of what I found to be some of her defining character traits – curiosity, a knack for getting things done, and a willingness to live outside her comfort zone.
Francesca started our call off by telling me, “I’m not a founder myself, I’m just supporting them. They’re the interesting ones!” and her excitement about the challenges and opportunities faced by founders in MENA shone clearly throughout our discussion. WIth Seedstars’ she has quite literally toured the region multiple times over, meeting with thousands of aspiring founders, investors, government officials, and numerous other ecosystem stakeholders. Few people can realistically claim as holistic a view of the region’s early stage startup environment as hers.
I’m very excited to share those insights and observations, as well as Francesca’s own personal journey, in our interview below:
Can you introduce yourself and give an overview of Seedstars’ work?
My name is Francesca. European by blood, world citizen by heart. My professional life revolves around overseeing Seedstars’ work in the Middle East and North Africa.
Seedstars is a Swiss-based company founded in 2013 with a mission to impact people’s lives in emerging markets through tech and entrepreneurship. That’s what drew me in.
At Seedstars, we divide our operations under three pillars:
- We work hand-in-hand with entrepreneurs, supporting them as they build their company;
- We invest in startups (for impact: profit and purpose);
- We “walk the talk” by experimenting at all levels of the organization… to the extent that we even launch ventures ourselves (e.g. QuickCheck, Lendigo).
Where do you personally fit into that business model?
I oversee the MENA region, which entails determining how we can support the growth of the region’s ecosystems and most importantly, its entrepreneurs. This also entails figuring out the best way to push capital towards high-growth potential MSMEs. At a broad level, this also means building robust partnerships in the region, because we’re definitely not doing all of this alone. Historically, we’ve mostly partnered with the public sector, but also with international finance or development institutions operating in our ecosystems.
I can’t stress enough – it’s the positive impact that we can create in an emerging market that drives us all on a daily basis, myself included. It’s really by entrepreneurs and for entrepreneurs. We love what we’re doing!
How did you end up in this role?
You’re going to laugh.. It wasn’t planned at all, but I guess life is a bunch of things that aren’t planned, they just happen. I grew up in the very prosperous city of Brussels, also known as the beating heart of European politics and spent my teenage years in Argentina. Unsurprisingly enough, my background is very public policy-oriented (and so were my career plans). But since my time in Buenos Aires, I’ve always had – somewhere in the back of my mind – the call that “hey, there is a whole much less structured world out there, a world full of opportunities, people who have dreams, unmet basic needs, etc.”.
Throughout my policy-oriented studies, mind you – I spent my summers doing projects around social entrepreneurship and education. At the time, I didn’t appreciate how much those projects were taking up more space in my life.
I worked for a bit in the public sector then decided to pursue a second Masters’. It was in my last week of class that I randomly came across a LinkedIn post about “impact, innovation and emerging markets”. Sounded appealing! Piqued by curiosity, I hopped on a plane and went to Lausanne to volunteer for the Seedstars Global Summit. I loved the energy and mission. We had a call afterwards, and a month later – just enough time to go through the application process and pack my bags – I joined the company!
I started as MENA’s VC analyst. My job consisted in looking for high-growth potential startups, meeting with driven entrepreneurs and ecosystem stakeholders. 1000 business plans read over, 300+ startups trained, 14 countries, 6 months, 1 carry-on luggage (that ended up breaking on the fifth month). It was very intense, back-to-back but extremely enriching. I traveled to two or three times each week, meeting startups, giving training, running pitch competitions, debating business plans, giving conferences, etc. It was also a unique experience in terms of the people I met (a big thank you to all Seedstars ambassadors for their passion and commitment!), the homes I got invited to for dinner, the traditional celebrations I got to participate in, the food I tried, the endless wanders in souks across the region, etc.
While on this tour, I only grew more and more convinced in Seedstars’ work and impact.
After that marathon, the stars aligned for me, and Alisée (Seedstars’ founder) asked me if I wanted to oversee the group’s activities in the region. I jumped at the opportunity!
What’s the size and structure of Seedstars MENA team?
Seedstars strives to catalyze entrepreneurship for impact and high growth companies worldwide. We try to structure our teams such that we become this platform that multiplies the effect of other people’s work.
First, we have what we call internally an “infrastructure platform”, which gathers all the essentials of a company – Finance, HR, Accounting, Marketing, etc. – and then we have regional teams that plug-in to around this platform.
This means that there are many people at Seedstars contributing to the MENA region, but also other projects for other regions. Specific to the MENA-region, we have two groups:
- Across the region, eight people focused on running programs, supporting entrepreneurs and handling the interface with all the stakeholders we work with in the region.
- We also have one hub, Seedspace, in Cairo that employs another cohort of people.
What are Seedstars flagship events in the MENA region and beyond?
Seedstars’ main activities are and remain the programs we run, longer term, more in-depth, more impactful. The main programs we ran in the region over the last year include:
- Misk Growth Accelerator Powered by Seedstars and Vision Venture,
- Anjal Z Localization program in the field of early childhood education,
- Migration Entrepreneurship Prize,
- ICT Accessibility Award,
But as you are asking about events, let me start with the inception of it all — seven years ago, Pierre-Alain and Alisée, the two founders of Seedstars decided they wanted to invest in high growth companies in emerging markets, so they packed their backpacks, put sneakers on, and left on a world tour for a few months. This was the “jump on a bus, rent a bicycle and go to the next city” type of world tour – a proper world tour. That’s how they met the first entrepreneurs, that’s how they met the first ecosystem enablers, etc. They realized that they needed to replicate that formula to best understand and support the investment readiness of entrepreneurs on emerging markets.
This is how Seedstars’ flagship competition, the Seedstars World Competition was born, a series of 100 events across 5 regions.
The tour works as a funnel with first a local stage where startups compete to go on to the regional stage, There, they get access to an investment readiness program and eventually to the Global Summit, which is THE culmination of the tour. Historically, it is a 2-3k attendees at the EPFL in Lausanne, one of the biggest engineering schools in Europe. The event closes with Seedstars investing in one startup and an investor forum for other startups to make relevant connections.
Of course, 2020 has been a bit of a shift. We had to take the Summit fully online. It was super hectic, but it also made the Summit way more inclusive. Turning this whole project online enabled us to increase our reach by 250%.
This is promising for the future too because it means that people who could not physically travel to capital cities are now able to be part of the competition. The only thing they need is good access to the internet, which is much simpler than having access to a bus, or the permission and finances to travel.
Could you tell me about your own entrepreneurial experience?
While I’ve not started my own companies, I have worked on two entrepreneurial projects. The first one was Changemakers International, which aimed to educate youngsters about social entrepreneurship.
There are so many kids who leave high school and have no clue what they want to do in life – which is absolutely normal when you are 17-18 years old – but the system we grew up in says that when you’re 18 years old, you’re supposed to know exactly what you want to do and you’re supposed to start specializing in that field. With Changemakers International, we wanted to provide those youngsters an option to discover entrepreneurship for good, which isn’t taught in traditional high and middle schools.
We partnered up with the University for Peace, a U.N.-mandated university located in Costa Rica, and created this curriculum around social entrepreneurship.We had those youngsters experience social entrepreneurship from a theoretical perspective – how do you actually set up a business plan? How do you target customers, etc? In parallel, we wanted to give them the opportunity to have hands-on experience in a social enterprise in Costa Rica. On top of that, they would get the whole cultural experience of living in Costa Rica, which has surprisingly quite a large community of international students.
The program combined these three aspects: involvement in your local community, working with a local social enterprise, and learning the theory behind social entrepreneurship. It was super interesting to work on this because it covered and connected so much. Back in 2015, when we were working on this, people only started to put education and entrepreneurship together know it doesn’t seem like a long time ago, but when it comes to social innovation, social enterprise and emerging markets, that’s like a million years ago. Back then, it was a surprising connection for people.
A few years later I took a consulting job at an HR firm, which was mostly headhunting on the European and Middle Eastern markets. This didn’t really align with my previous experiences, but I was really curious to do something new. I got there and on the second day, my manager came up to me : “Two years ago, we launched a startup. It failed big time, but we still like the idea, we just need to re-design it all and launch it again. You’re here for five months, how about you launch it?”. Challenge accepted.
That’s how I launched a spin-off for that company. Once again, it’s not my startup, it’s a company that I launched on behalf of somebody. It was an exciting project – the idea was to complement the C-level headhunting of the firm with a matchmaking service between mentors and senior people who were undergoing a professional reconversion and stepping outside the “one-life, one-job” mentality that most 50-60 year olds have. The challenge with this one was the tight timeline – five months is short! Four years in, the spin-off is still up and running!
Where did the connection to MENA come from?
That’s even more random than me coming across Seedstars! As I told you, when I was a teenager, we moved to Argentina and opened my eyes to the world for the first time. I stepped outside of my comfort zone – the micro-bubble of Brussels where I grew up. In Argentina, my whole life switched from French to Spanish. It’s exciting to learn that it’s actually doable to live in another culture and another language. Plus, when you’re 15, you think the world is yours.
I said to myself, “OK, let me learn another language!” I figured it would be exciting and it would lead to meeting more people. I decided to challenge myself a bit more and learn a language that has nothing to do with the ones I already knew. Back then, my main linguistic bases were Germanic languages (Dutch and English) and Latin languages (Spanish, French and Italian, etc). I randomly picked three challenging languages: Russian, Chinese, or Arabic. Next thing I remember is trying to figure out pros/cons for each. Arabic caught my interest because it is a Mediterranean language and, as anybody who has Italian blood flowing in its veins, I am very attached to the Mare Nostrum. I also remember the 17 year old me thinking of weather in the region throughout my decision-making process.
I entered university that fall to study International Relations, Public Policy, and Arabic. After my time in Argentina though, I had fallen in love completely with Latin America. It was crystal clear to me that I was going back. At my university, you have to do two years on campus and then the third year abroad. You can either do an internship, learn a language, or go do a classic year abroad at a university.
Guess what? I was determined to intern in Latin America. I spent three months relentlessly applying to internships… in vain.
December 6th rolled around: the deadline we had to inform our advisor of our third year plan. I remember sitting a Modern Standard Arabic exam that morning. I think the prompt was “Tell us about your vacation.” I wrote five sentences, and felt very proud of myself. I got home and decided “You know what? I’m going to take the next year going further in my Arabic.” Six months later, I moved to Cairo with no expectations whatsoever.
Then, plot twist! I fell in love with the noise of spoons stirring mint tea, with smells of shisha, with honks, with overpopulated streets, with the looks of bawabs on the street, with the Nile banks, etc. I stayed in Cairo for two years; and decided to dedicate the next few years of my life to the Arab World(s). Here we are, five years later, with the same curiosity and determination.
Hold up, that was an impressive list of languages! Within your work nowadays, what do you end up using the most?
Most of my work is in English with the exception of the Maghreb where French is the go-to language. The reality is that I don’t use Arabic too often in a work context but I make it a rule to use Arabic in the day-to-day when traveling around the region.
I strongly believe that speaking a language is a passport in life. It creates a bond and triggers unexpected conversations. It opens many doors, linguistically speaking but most importantly culturally speaking.
I’ve been asked to give conferences in Arabic, but I confess that to do so would take me 3x more preparation time and my calendar looks so full already that I often take the easier route: English.
Just culturally speaking, I think it would be amazing to bring back the Arabic language in the workplace, but that’s probably a conversation for another time.
Do you anticipate staying and working in the Arab world for the foreseeable future? What is that you find so engaging?
The answer is a very very clear YES. Recently, Seedstars did some internal re-shuffling. I was proposed to take on a position that didn’t focus on the MENA region. I straight up thought, “no, I’m staying here.”
The “why” is a trickier question, and it’s honestly one that I still haven’t been able to answer fully and rationally. I think a lot of it is just pathos. It’s the emotion that goes with the region, its people, its smells, its history(ies), the freezing cold winter suns and burning-hot midday sun shines. It’s seeing an immense pool of opportunities for the region, its countries and each country’s subregions. I guess my answer is this – there’s so much to be done and I want to be part of that. My emotional tie to the region is obvious but remains hard to define. It’s my own internal Nahda. Like Riham Abdelhakim says in her song: “feeha haga helwa”.
Could you describe that “immense pool of opportunities” for me? What makes you so sure that it exists?
For one, just the demographics of the region and the changes already underway. If you look at the Mashreq region, you see that, demographically-speaking, an immense portion of the population is below the age of 30. These people have their lives ahead of them, and the population just keeps growing. That represents a massive opportunity.
If you look at the Gulf and the Rif in North Africa, you see that those populations, until very recently, lived nomadically, apart from urban life. Now, everything is different. Cell Phone penetration, internet connectivity, and so many more things foster new connections that just didn’t exist before. This, in turn, creates new needs in daily lives. All that demand needs to be answered and people are creating those answers! It’s purely a demand and supply curve. All of these elements combine to create huge potential. Demographic and societal changes in the region also come with an increase in purchasing power.
The next immense potential that I see is that people today still aren’t working hand in hand. What I mean is that, on the one hand the entrepreneurial community is not working with policy makers enough, who are not working with regulators enough, who are not working with established private sector entities enough. The list goes on and on. The disconnect between these actors creates another immense pool of opportunities. The day that all of these strategies align, and these people work hand in hand, you’ll see an enabling environment that is striking and that generates way more success stories in the region.
Entrepreneurs in the MENA region also still need to step up their game relative to global skill, even if they’re only focused on the regional level for now. At the market level, we need a more enabling environment in terms of regulation, financial markets, trade between markets, and, the last main element, is the funding.
There is still a funding gap. More investors are needed at very early stages. We see a structuration of all of these elements, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. I think Tunisia has put some really interesting thought into the “Startup Act.” Now, the big question is, how do they roll it out? When there is a reflection, something is going to come out of it.
To answer your question in a nutshell, why do I still see untapped potential? Because I still see so many challenges that people are trying to solve. Solving these challenges is going to lead to even more opportunities at the micro and macro levels. That’s what we’re here for!
Do you ever feel like it’s a tough balancing act between investing for positive social impact and investing for a financial return? How do you walk the line?
At Seedstars, we go for profit and purpose. We don’t see this as a tough balancing act, in fact, we see it as an enabler of our broader mission. We see it as part of sound economic development on emerging markets. So, no it’s not a blocker at all. On the contrary, we only look at this.
If you don’t have profit and purpose, you can go to other investors. It’s not what we do. It’s not so much about compromising, but about finding the right balance between a return on financial investment and a return on investment for our broader theory of change.
What’s on the horizon for you in terms of personal projects?
At a personal level – maybe it’s just part of our generation, maybe it’s just the people that surround me – I think it’s really important to re-think the way we consume and the way that we live our lives. That can mean reducing our bandwidth use. That can mean upcycling and recycling. That can mean going zero miles and consuming only from local producers. That can mean traveling less by airplane, etc. I feel like I don’t do enough of these things in my day-to-day life. I’m exploring a bit, trying to understand how to get involved at the local level, with local associations that support people who live on my street, who produce in the fields next door, etc. That’s one thing that I’d really like to do more of.
My plan for the winter is to start with baby steps such as visiting local urban farms, buying from local producers, taking long train rides versus fast airplane routes, etc. I think if all of us reorient one day a week towards these kinds of initiatives, we could make a big change.
What would be the advice you would give to someone interested in doing something similar to what you’re doing?
It’s going to sound a bit cliché, but the first element is to follow what you feel you have to do today and not your dreams from when you were twelve. Ask yourself, “what would you like to be doing tomorrow at 10am?” Whatever your answer is to that question, that’s what you need to be doing! It comes down to listening to one’s self, which is hard on a daily basis because we’re all driven by predefined success stories, but we need to create our own! Be passionate about what you want to do. I think that’s key. If you’re not passionate, you’re never going to get out of bed in the morning.
The other thing is curiosity. If you’re curious, you’re going to talk to people. You’re going to grab coffee with investors and founders, with people working in the field you’re passionate about. That’s how you’re going to know what you can spend 12 hours a day working on, and determine what will keep that passion awake and alive despite the hard work it requires. If you can focus on something for that long, with passion, then that’s what you need to be doing.
Give yourself some space for things that you’re weren’t expecting. Maybe you wouldn’t have associated those things with “success”, maybe your parents wouldn’t have defined them as “success,” but what’s important is that they actually make you happy.
Finally, just go out there and do it. Nobody is going to do it for you.
In a way, that’s the summary of my story so far. Get out there, try, fail, pivot, try, succeed, optimize, ENJOY, repeat. There are a billion people with inspiring stories in the MENA region. Talk to them, if it speaks to you, try it out!
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