Founder and CEO of RiseUp, Abdelhameed Sharara is happy to live and breathe entrepreneurship. He talks to Law Today about what four years of leading the region’s biggest entrepreneurship summit has taught him and some of his plans for even bigger things to come.
LT: RiseUp has grown in no time to become a landmark event on the entrepreneurship map, attracting participants at the local, regional and global levels. How did that growth take place? What do you feel have been the core components of your success?
AS: The urge to start something was always in me. As an undergraduate I studied law and I always had a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship. After graduating, I worked for businesses that had a training and development component to their work and I worked for Injaz, having actually graduated from one of the Injaz programs.
It was at this point, working for Injaz, that I met Con (O’Donnell), who was already a very well-accomplished entrepreneur in Egypt and a champion of the sector. I had the idea of building a platform for entrepreneurship, a website that would connect start-ups with the resources available to help them. In fact this didn’t work properly at the beginning, because in order to connect digitally, you really need to first make an offline connection. We had planned to launch the website at a big event that would take place on the birthday of Talaat Harb because I have always been passionate about Talaat Harb and his story. I had a clear vision of doing something technically interesting, such as having a hologram of him talking to a group of entrepreneurs.
Con recognised that it was the event that was most badly needed in the ecosystem at that time. He and I established a partnership and Mercy Corps were the first sponsors of the first edition of RiseUp. At that time, many of the entities that have come to be the main enablers of the start-up ecosystem – Injaz, Flat6Labs, the GrEEK Campus – were still in the making; so they and others – Sawari Ventures, Cairo Angels, WAMDA, MiT Enterprise Forum, AUC – all jumped on board. They offered the time and input of their teams, as well as organising content for the first RiseUp Summit.
It was Con who introduced me to Ahmed El Alfi, who told me “I can see you’re going to hold this event no matter what. You’re crazy. I love crazy people”. So one month prior to the first edition of RiseUp, I literally moved into the GrEEK Campus to work on everything.
Suddenly it all came to life. We achieved unexpected levels of success with that first edition of the Summit, with 2000 people in attendance and the Wall Street Journal writing an article about it. It just became a movement.
This was followed by another planning and reflection phase, where we asked ourselves how we could sustain this momentum. We formally established the RiseUp company, in which both Con and I invested money, and we started recruiting people.
The second edition of the Summit in 2014 had nearly 3000 people in attendance. It was a slightly better event but we still felt that the potential for doing something really big was greater than what we had at the time achieved. We invested more in the company and we started visiting other start-up ecosystems – as many as 30 or 40 in one year – trying to build connections and relationships.
Con came up with the catchphrase “the world is coming to Cairo” and in 2015 that became the reality: the world came to Cairo. 5000 people attended that year, including Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and the biggest players in the start-up scene in Egypt and the region. It was really something special.
In 2016 we built on that success still further, with between 5000 and 6000 people attending and the Summit content itself being more focused on different industries.
Now we have reached a point where we can say we have a recognised brand and we have given a significant push to the start-up culture and community in the Middle East. Every edition, we invite around 500 journalists to cover RiseUp, and of course this is helpful in generating interest. Conceptually, we have become known and started operating as a go-to entity for entrepreneurship, so now typically investors, incubators, NGOs and universities wanting to support the space will ask us for direction or guidance.
We continue to work hard on ecosystem development. So, for example, we have started flying entrepreneurs to attend other conferences overseas and facilitating meet-ups and connections. We are trying to push things forward, but we still have only one product, and that is the RiseUp Summit.
Now finally we have reached the point where we are ready to build the online platform, which is a very important milestone in terms of the future. Its main value proposition is that it will connect each start-up with the main services and perks that it needs as an entity.
I would attribute our success to several different factors. The first was that we are constantly working to build the team and to build the institution. We’re still a new entity and we have been lucky to have amazing people of different backgrounds learning from and contributing to our growth.
Secondly – and although this is not within our control, it is a core factor of success for any business – this is the right time for this kind of movement. We saw the opportunity early and were able to capitalise upon it quickly.
Our culture and the values of collaboration that we have always insisted on have, I think, helped to change the broader environment to be more focused on partnership. We always try to be friendly and inclusive. We are a platform, so we want to work with a lot of people.
We have always taken big risks and of course this has resulted in big returns. An inevitable corollary of risk taking is making mistakes, but that in itself brings profound learning opportunities.
Finally, I think the integrity and good will we have always exhibited is a key factor in our success. We want to make money but we are first and foremost purpose driven; this translates into our work and has yielded good results.
LT: What have been the most surprising learnings for you, in the last four years?
AS: There are some very interesting misconceptions about business and entrepreneurship. The idea that the hardest thing is to start a business is a complete fallacy; in my experience management is the hardest thing. How can you sustain your operations, replicate, scale, manage and retain talent? How do you maintain a steady stream of funding, how do you ensure successful market penetration?
At the beginning, I thought that once we were established and growing I would be able to rest. Now I realise this is not the case at all. Even though we have a great team of approximately 30 committed members, I still find I have to remain deeply involved in things one way or another.
Experience doesn’t matter in the way that you think it does before you begin. Talent can override experience if you are motivated at the beginning but once you are established you find that experience matters a lot. So at the beginning I made great inroads because I have a very outgoing personality and I had a vision and enthusiasm. Now I feel there are other skills I really need to learn. I thought I was a great manager; now I recognise that I am a great leader and entrepreneur but there are plenty of things I need to develop further when it comes to day-to-day management, as well as focusing on our overarching vision and strategy.
I have learned to think bigger than I ever would have imagined at the beginning. The first edition of the Summit was called RiseUp Egypt and the focus was on Egypt. I was subsequently invited to attend and speak at conferences in Austria and Russia. At these conferences, I asked myself why I couldn’t build a global company and model for start-ups, from Egypt to the world. So the Summit moved from being local to “glocal”, from being RiseUp Egypt to RiseUp. This was a key shift for me in terms of learning and vision.
LT: Your work sets a premium on showcasing local and regional and global innovation. Is it fair to say that you see the process of building an entrepreneurship community as being an integral part of stimulating innovation as a whole? Why?
AS: Of course. I believe in organic growth and creation – and in order for this to take place, there needs to be the following:
1) Networking and connections between people: this is key for a robust system.
2) Disseminating information: for the last two years, we have produced a newsletter every two weeks with aggregated news about the ecosystem in Egypt. We have about 12,000 readers and last year we expanded to the broader Middle East.
3) Pushing positive changes and developments in the culture and mindset, especially through media: we have always encouraged initiatives such as Lamis El Hadidi’s TV show and we will continue to do this. Because we have an independent and neutral role, we have been able to sit with different entities on many occasions, to discuss the development of the ecosystem.
One of the things we learned through travelling (and here by “we”, I include the entrepreneurs that we have supported to visit Sweden, the US, London, Germany) is that if there is an opportunity, you simply go after it without second guessing yourself and you have the right skills, you have good odds of succeeding. Travel has helped to break the entrenched idea that the Western world is better. This idea of the world coming to Cairo is very powerful. For an Egyptian entrepreneur to see that Cairo can be an entrepreneurship hub has an impact on ideation, planning and envisioning the future.
LT: Have you noticed particular sectoral trends when it comes to the flourishing of entrepreneurial initiatives?
AS: Speaking generally, anything that is platform based and linked to the sharing economy, anything that adds efficiency, works in Egypt at the moment. A lot of people seek to be the Uber of their sectors because Uber was able to crack the payment system and really demonstrate how well an app can work in Egypt.
Then speaking more specifically, the following sectors are booming:
E-commerce, because of the overall interest in accessing markets.
Fintech, because the old regulations and challenges with payments are simply not applicable to our current digital system. There need to be solutions, particularly given the high penetration of smart phones and the internet.
The creative industries; we are seeing such interesting initiatives from designers and artists at the moment. Though the challenge has always been that they are not businesspeople, they are starting to learn and prioritise developing their business acumen.
Renewables and energy in general, because we simply need energy.
Other sectors are growing rapidly and, for example, I think that food and beverage will be increasingly big in the upcoming period.
LT: What does the sector need in order to keep growing?
AS: Any positive action in the regulatory framework to keep attracting local and international investors and VCs and to enable the founders of start-ups to be comfortable with their own legal structures, would be significant and beneficial.
I used to say that the culture needed to change, but now I see so many people who are on board with the idea of entrepreneurship. Of course that makes me the happiest person in the world but we are a big country and we still have a long way to go. I don’t want 100 million entrepreneurs, but I do want 100 million people who believe in entrepreneurship and who will foster the growth of an entrepreneurial environment.
We definitely need a stronger business infrastructure, whether that means easier access to office space, faster internet, hardware, factories or the high-tech provision of hardware/mobile labs.
There must be a broad reform of the education system and I believe that the addition of management education to life in Egypt is very much needed.
LT: Back to you for one final question. Why after studying did you not choose to practice law?
AS: I loved studying law and my legal studies gave me an advantage over other businesspeople in terms of understanding frameworks, and why things are happening. Before doing anything, I will always ask myself what my reasons are for doing it. That kind of thinking literally comes from studying law, because the study of law involves the study of why laws are needed, why they are happening and what they are meant to serve. So studying law changes the way a person approaches things.
So I loved the studies but I think the best thing for me would have been to have my major in economics and minor in law, instead of doing the reverse as I did.
The academic discipline of studying law in Egypt needs a lot of reform. It is very lecture based and doesn’t really enable you to sharpen your practical skills. It also, in my opinion, needs to offer more opportunities for specialisation. In my case, it was very beneficial because it formed me as a generalist, but people need to understand what kind of law they will be focusing on – whether commercial, constitutional or any other.
For me personally, I would not have been suited to a job that is primarily a desk job. I need to combine my interest in economics, development, entrepreneurship, law – and to be mingling with different people all the time. Luckily, I have managed to do this.