Majd Zkiyah is a man on a mission. Having studied and worked in three different countries, and left his homeland of Syria at 17, he knows firsthand the challenges of building a career in societies where most people equate “Syrian” with a word like “victim.”
Majd’s mission is to change that perception, and lift up the image of skilled, qualified, professional Syrians across the globe. He launched Syrpronet, a global network for Syrian professionals, in September 2019 to promote this vision.
East. Michelle Lee founded the program with the "the vision of expanding technological opportunity to more people, especially those coming from vulnerable backgrounds."
One of StartMENAUp's goals is to highlight the current and rising tech stars coming out of MENA, so it's a real pleasure to share these short profiles of two of the program's participants - Ahmed Haj Ahmed and Siham Tamisili Khanji!
On the surface, Zach Finkelstein may seem like an unlikely investor in the Middle East. Having grown up in the U.S. with no personal connection to the region, Zach did his undergrad at University of Pennsylvania, and went into investment banking in New York City. However, after moving into venture capital as his next career step, Zach quickly warmed to the potential lying in emerging markets, including the MENA region. After leading investments in MENA, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere, Zach actually jumped into the operating seat with a particularly well-known and growing portfolio company at the time, joining Careem as their VP of Corporate Development. Since 2018, he’s brought that experience and confidence in emerging markets to Class 5 Global as a Managing Partner.
Hisham Kassim plays that role in MENA’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. As the Managing Partner of Kassim Legal, he runs one of the region’s only (perhaps the only) boutique corporate firms focused on startups, Venture Capital, and Private Equity. As we chatted, his vast knowledge and network in the region were readily apparent. We covered his background, and that of Kassim Legal (spoiler alert: it’s a family firm), but also discussed the similarities and differences in legal structures and approaches between the U.S. and MENA region. I even managed to pry some legal advice for the region’s early stage founders out of him. I’m joking, of course, about the prying part at least. Hisham also donates his time and expertise freely as part of his desire to contribute to a stronger startup community in the region.
يلعب هشام قاسم هذا الدور في النظام البيئي الريادي لمنطقة الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا، بصفته الشريك الإداري لشركة قاسم القانونية، يدير واحدة من شركات البوتيك أي المتخصصة وربما الوحيدة في المنطقة التي تركز على الشركات الناشئة ورأس المال الاستثماري وحقوق ملكية الأسهم الخاصة حيث بينما كنا نتحدث، كانت معرفته الواسعة وشبكته في المنطقة واضحة جدا.
وقد قامت "يلا نحكي" التي أطلقت في عام 2017، بالعمل على التطرق للمواضيع والسرديات التي غالبا ما تترك دون أن يمسها مجتمع الجاليات العربية في الشتات، وزيادة تأثيرأصوات الشباب العرب الذين يعيشون خارج منطقة الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا، فعند القيام بتصفح سريع لموقعهم الإلكتروني، ستجدون محتوى رقمي يتراوح بين وصمة الصحة النفسية في المجتمع العربي، والهوية الجنسية في الشتات، وصولا للموارد اللازمة لدعم الأصوات الفلسطينية، فقد وجدت YLT مجتمعا مستعدا للاستماع والمساهمة في هذه المحادثات، من خلال ما يقرب من 70،000 متابع على Instagram.
Launched in 2017, Yalla Let’s Talk has made a mission of tackling topics and narratives often left untouched by the Arab diaspora community, and lifting up the voices of young Arabs living outside of the MENA region. A quick scan of their website, and you’ll find content ranging from the stigma of mental health in the Arab community, to queer identity in the diaspora, to resources to support Palestinian voices. With nearly 70,000 followers on Instagram, YLT has tapped into a community ready to listen and contribute to these conversations.
Last summer, Mays and Hani took the bold step to build a business around this initiative. As a PhD student and corporate lawyer, respectively, in addition to managing Yalla Let’s Talk, neither of them has an abundance of free time. That said, they recognized the importance, need, and potential for the space that they’d built, and realized that to make that space sustainable, they needed to build a media company around it.
Crowdfunding and social innovation have grown immensely in recent years across the world, and the MENA region is no exception. Especially in a place like Palestine, with a large, global diaspora and network of supporters, and no lack of social challenges on the ground, crowdfunding for social enterprises has the potential to catalyze positive economic change. To learn more, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lama Amr, the recently promoted Executive Director of BuildPalestine.
When it comes to understanding the MENA region’s Seed stage venture capital and startup ecosystem, you’d be hard pressed to find someone with a wider breadth of experience than Hasan Haider. Formerly the Managing Partner of 500 Startups’ MENA Fund, Hasan and his partner Sharif Elbadawi launched Plus.VC in the fall of 2020 to continue the work they started at 500 Startups in 2017, backing the region and its diaspora’s most exciting Seed stage founders.
Like any good entrepreneur, Hasan’s foray into this world started with a pain point he experienced as a consumer. Namely, he couldn’t get access to the DVDs he wanted to watch in Bahrain. To solve this, he founded his first startup. As I heard the rest of his journey, I realized that this “see something, do something” attitude has really guided Hasan’s career all the way up until the founding of Plus.VC. He identified the missing components in his own experience as founder, which led him to set up Bahrain’s first angel investing network. That exposed him to the region’s funding gap for Seed stage startups, which propelled him to 500 Startups. While there, he was involved in nearly ¼ of the regions’ Seed deals, a track record that sets Plus.VC up nicely to invest “early and often in the non-obvious emerging market entrepreneurs, taking an early leadership role with founders to set them up for success.”
Read on to learn more about why Hasan’s so fired up about the region’s potential, what it’s like raising for a VC fund in MENA, what Hasan looks for in a founder, and so much more.
I had the great fortune of touring Egypt’s startup ecosystem with Germine Bouchnack, an Associate at Middle East Venture Partners (MEVP) and their Egypt Operations Manager. Talk about a rising star! Germine’s journey into entrepreneurship started during university and has traversed such notable local, regional and global institutions as Hult Prize, the Commercial International Bank (CIB), and Flat6Labs, before joining MEVP at the end of 2020. I’d suggest you follow her closely, because in a few years, this will be just one of the early articles or interviews profiling her work. I’m confident that her passion for entrepreneurship and venture capital, combined with her desire to make an impact at both a grassroots and national level will continue to lead her career into new and exciting places.