Countries in the Middle East and North Africa, especially those currently or historically wracked by conflict and displacement, have generated waves of immigration and refugees across the world. For places like Lebanon and Palestine, this has led to a larger population living outside the historical borders of the country than inside them. Syria may see a similar phenomenon over the course of the next generation. Millions more from the Middle East and North Africa have simply left the region in search of better economic and educational opportunities. As the world has grown more connected, and capital, knowledge, and people can traverse the globe quicker than ever before, some have begun to wonder whether these tragic outcomes can transform into assets for economic development.Marwan Abdelhamid, a Palestinian living, working, and studying in the U.S. right now, is working on an answer to that question. GrowHome is a startup that he co-founded to build connections between the diaspora and entrepreneurs in their home countries.
Lama Amr, Executive Director, BuildPalestine
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.
Khaled Zaidan, Head of Alternative Investments at Watheeq Financial Services
Khaled Zaidan has worked as an investor in Saudi Arabia for the past 10 years and has witnessed the changing investment landscape. An early proponent of venture capital and startups, a mix of initiative, hustle, and investment savvy has recently landed him the position of Head of Alternative Investments at Watheeq Capital. Words on a page don’t always do justice to this type of thing, but I hope Khaled’s passion for the space, and excitement for his new role shine through in the interview below. I’m sure those of us that follow this sector in the region will be hearing more from him in the coming years.
Hasan Haider, Founder and Managing Partner, Plus.VC
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.
Germine Bouchnack, Associate and Egypt Operations Manager, Middle East Venture Partners, Egypt
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.
Aouf Abdellah, CEO and Founder, GO Platform, Algeria
Algeria and its potential has fascinated me for a while. It’s a huge country, with the largest population in the Maghreb (many of whom happen to speak at least two languages), a widespread diaspora, and an enormous youth bubble. The country seems ripe for disruptive startups, and yet, it’s lagged behind its neighbors in developing a startup ecosystem. The powerful central government has historically revolved around traditional industries, namely exporting petroleum. The country’s insular nature also makes it a bit harder to find “on-the-ground” information about entrepreneurship in Algeria, so I was really lucky to connect with Aouf Abdellah, the Algerian founder of GO Platform.
Abdellah is part of a growing movement of Algerians turning to entrepreneurship as the government loosens regulations and the economy looks beyond oil. Not only is he extremely optimistic about his country’s future and the economic opportunities therein, but he’s dedicated his career and startup to ensuring that Algerians across the country benefit from those opportunities. GO Platform’s mission is to provide young people with the opportunities and mindset to realize their dreams.
Ambar Amleh, Founding Partner and Chief Operating Officer of Ibtikar Fund, Palestine
Like most of the countries covered by this blog, Palestine has both its own set of unique obstacles to overcome and strengths to build on when it comes to entrepreneurship. Few are better equipped to present those challenges and opportunities, as well as the current efforts to address them than Ambar.
Through her work launching and operating Ibtikar, Palestine’s only active venture capital fund, Ambar has made great strides in advancing the Palestinian startup ecosystem at home, and its image abroad. Despite the serendipitous path that led her to Palestine, which started in Mexico and has passed through (among other places) Arizona, Jordan, and Capitol Hill, there’s no doubt of her current and future dedication to finding and supporting great Palestinian founders.
Read on to learn about Ibtikar’s founding, portfolio and future, understand the Palestinian startup ecosystem, and follow Ambar’s personal journey to becoming one of its most important players.
Adnen Ben Hadj Yahia aka “Nino,” Cofounder of El Space
Adnen, known as Nino to his friends, graduated from Tunis Business School in the years following the Arab Spring’s most successful revolution and has worked at the forefront of the small mediterranean country’s social innovation sector since. In between founding two startups and furthering his studies in the U.S., Nino co founded El Space with his friends, Tunisia’s premier social innovation hub. Over the past five years, El Space has grown to occupy two physical locations, as well as the metaphorical heart of a growing community of Tunisian entrepreneurs using business to create positive change in their country.
Francesca Bombassei, Seedstars Regional Manager MENA
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.
Anas Al-Chalabi, MENA Region Entrepreneurship Manager at Jusoor and Humanitarian Business Technologist
There are some people you talk with that have such palpable energy and passion for a subject that, by the end of the conversation, you yourself are a total convert to their cause. Doing all the interviews virtually makes it all the more impressive that I could feel Anas’ excitement for his work with refugee founders, and his love for the Middle East, practically from his first word through our Zoom call. Read on for my full interview with him!