It was a sunny day at AUC’s downtown Greek campus, the educational facility turned startup hub, when I meet Abdelhamid Sharara, the founder of the RiseUp Summit. Having also spearheaded a training company called Adams after graduating from Injaz, a startup accelerator program, Sharara was determined to use his expertise and background in entrepreneurship to further develop the opportunities available for new enterprises in Egypt following the revolution, starting in November 2013, when the first groundbreaking RiseUp Summit took place. With this year’s conference only a couple of days away, Sharara and I sat down to discuss exactly why the conference isn’t one Egypt’s entrepreneurs can afford to miss.
PM: So how did Rise Up summit start?
AS: Following the revolution in 2011, a lot of businesses have started and everyone thinks of the Arab Spring as [coinciding with] the new ‘tech’ revolution. Chris M. Schroeder wrote a book called Startup Rising. Even Obama even came to Egypt not long before the revolution speaking about entrepreneurship in Egypt. Accelerators and incubators like Injaz and Endeavor continue to do their job and expand even further. Around this time I graduated from the faculty of law at Ain Shams University, and realized that the right thing to do is not to get a job but to start a business of my own. I started Adams after graduating from Injaz’s startup accelerator program. Between 2009 and 2012, the international entrepreneurship scene really changed, and I realized that the material I had studied during my time at Injaz was no longer relevant. Injaz offered me a job to restructure the program. And that’s where the idea to build an online platform that connects entrepreneurs with accelerators and incubators came from, but it turned out to be a bad one.
PM: Why was it a bad idea?
AS: Because people need to connect in person first. Most likely, most of your Facebook friends are actually friends, you met them first or you know them. There needs to be a level of trust [between people] for them to connect online. That level of trust wasn’t there [in the case of said online platform] because the organizations hadn’t met or interacted with each other much. This got me thinking about how Tahrir Square had brought a lot of people together, without any leadership or restrictions, and I thought that launching an event rather than an online platform would be better. And what better time to do this than Talaat Harb’s birthday? A hundred years ago, he did [almost] the same thing, creating a bank where investors and organizations that want to support Egyptian businesses come together. I decided to quit my job at Injaz to launch RiseUp. They were really supportive, and their sales team helped me pitch it. When I met Con O’Donnell, who used to work in Mercy Corps, I realized he’d done the same thing. He gave me $10,000 as sponsorship, from the CEO of the company. So by then, I had the support of Injaz and Mercy Corps. Con called Ahmed El-Alfi [who was to turn AUC’s abandoned Greek campus into a space for startup offices just a few weeks later], and told him: “There’s a guy who wants to get all the investors together with an event he’s putting together, would you like to meet him?” I met Ahmed el-Alfi with a few ideas and a timeline scribbled on a piece of paper. Once I finished the presentation he was silent, then said, “You’re crazy… I like you… Let’s do it.” Fortunately, they were able to finalize [the ten-year lease agreement with AUC to turn the coveted Greek campus into a tech park] ten days before the event, and all of the work to put the event together happened during that limited time.
PM: Why doesn’t this year’s event coincide with Talaat Harb’s birthday, the 25th of November, though?
AS: This year, there are a lot of people coming to Egypt in the entrepreneurship scene coming to Egypt in October. Chris M. Schroeder, who wrote Startup Rising, is bringing a lot of people to the Middle East with a trip exploring entrepreneurship in the region. Dave McClure, the founder of 500 startups, will also be in the region, among other ‘big’ names. I don’t think Talaat Harb would get too upset, although I think as of next year we’ll stick to his birthday. [Laughs]. Last year, the event also coincided with [the second anniversary] of the Mohamed Mahmoud incidents, El-Sisi’s birthday, the Egypt vs. Ghana football match and it was the week of ‘100 days after Raba‘a crackdown’ protests. [The area around the Greek campus] was a war zone. I had the help of over a hundred entrepreneurs and we all decided, “Fuck it, let’s make this happen.” We stayed at the [elevated] platform next to the library during the preparations, which was the safest area on campus. [Cornered between two buildings, where none of the tear gas comes in]. We got some 3G internet hubs and we worked there, it was crazy. Tear gas, weapons and protestors greeted those coming in from the gate. We thought it would be really challenging, but 2,000 people came to the event. They parked at other neighborhoods like Zamalek and Dokki so they could come, and surprisingly, we started on time. At the time, Rise Up was just a one-time event, not a company. So I decided to take it to the next level and found cofounders selected based on their commitment, dedication and passion. Con O’Donnell, Mohamed Mansour and former business journalist, Gehad built the company with me from there. We have an office here at the Greek Campus.
PM: What’s different this year?
AS: There are definitely more international appearances this year, although last year we had 4-5 international speakers, the emphasis was more on Egypt. I think all eyes are going to be on Egypt this year as an international hub for entrepreneurship. You’ll find cofounders from around the world wanting to start businesses here, since investors are coming.
Since last year, I’ve travelled around the Middle East, six European countries, and China and Russia to network, attended events there, inviting a lot of people a lot of whom are coming to the event this year as speakers and attendees. We’re also launching a business concierge event for people to connect after the event, kind of like that original idea we had of connecting entrepreneurs, investors and incubators through an online platform initially, remember? Connecting startups with resources, that’s our mission. We’re an independent organization, we’re inclusive and we work with anyone who wants to add value to entrepreneurship be it the media, ministries, governmental bodies, incubators and so on, from Cairo, Dakhalia, or other countries. We’re very collaborative with everyone and we think of win-win situations.
PM: Do you think the entrepreneurship scene is biased in the favor of ‘tech’ startups?
AS: It is, but this is what we are trying to change. That’s the global trend, everyone is biased towards mobile applications and web platforms. It grows faster, it’s more attractive to investors than long-term investments or getting their return in seven years, and so on.
One of our main focuses this year is regarding technology as an enabler for other industries. It’s not just mobile and ICT. We’re focusing on other industries as well, including energy, transportation, the arts. Sometimes people want to invest in agriculture or furniture. Other industries need to grow as well.
PM: Which industries are majorly booming right now for entrepreneurs?
AS: The energy sector definitely has a lot of potential. ‘Fin tech’, or financial technology, things like payment methods through mobile, is also growing.
PM: How would you advise people make the most out of the event?
AS: There’s an article about this on our website, but I also think it’s important that if I’m a CEO of a startup company attending RiseUp, that they divide the team, because there’s a lot happening at the same time on the agenda. So:
a) Make the most out of the event,
b) Talk to people. Networking is critical, go up to people, invite them for coffee and ask them what they do for a living. There are lots of opportunities here,
c) Come on time. People need to come early; the keynote starts at 9am, these speakers only come around every several years, and a lot of energy comes out of these talks.
PM: Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs trying to find funding for their unconventional ideas?
AS: I’d say go find a team, a team brings good fortune. Whenever I talk to an investor, they ask me about the team. And the team has to be strong, diverse and skilled. I’d say we have a very strong team: Con is the business mastermind, Mansour is the tech person, Gehad responsible for content and I coordinate. We’re all crazy.
If you haven’t bought your ticket for the Rise Up Summit yet, buy your ticket at www.riseupsummit.com
This interview has been paraphrased and condensed.