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.
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.
إنَّ بلدان الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا، ولا سيما تلك المناطق التي مزقتها الصراعات والتشرد سواء حاليا أو على مدى التاريخ، مؤديا الى موجات من الهجرة واللاجئين في جميع أنحاء العالم. وبالنسبة لأماكن مثل لبنان وفلسطين، أدى ذلك إلى وجود عدد أكبر من السكان الذين يعيشون خارج الحدود التاريخية للبلاد مقارنة بعدد الذين يعيشون داخلها. وقد تشهد سوريا ظاهرة مماثلة على مدى الجيل القادم. و لقد غادر ملايين آخرون من الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا المنطقة بحثا عن فرص اقتصادية وتعليمية أفضل. ومع تزايد ترابط العالم، وتمكن رأس المال والمعرفة والناس من اجتياز العالم بسرعة أكبر من أي وقت مضى، بدأ البعض يتساءل عما إذا كانت هذه النتائج المأساوية بامكانها أن تتحول إلى أساسات للتنمية الاقتصادية.
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.
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.
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.