SEF 2020 discussions focus on leveraging entrepreneurship for the greater good

  • Ethologist and conservationist Dr. Jane Goodall spoke to Sheikh Fahim Al Qasimi at a session on the opening day of the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival organised virtually by Sheraa
  • Session two had experts presenting their views on how to build ecosystems that can nurture entrepreneurship
  • Founders spoke about their experiences in creating world-changing startups in the third session

“Focus on the sciences that will help create the technology that will let us live in harmony with nature,” was Dr. Jane Goodall’s advice to young entrepreneurs participating in the fourth edition of Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival (SEF) being organised by the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center “Sheraa”.

Sheikh Fahim Al Qasimi, Executive Chairman of the Department of Government Relations (DGR) in Sharjah, engaged with the leading Ethologist and Conservationist yesterday (Sunday), as part of the opening discussions of the five-day festival which is being held virtually for the first time in SEF’s history.

In one of the 20 inspiring knowledge-sharing sessions that will be a part of this global festival, Sheikh Fahim Al Qasimi asked Goodall – one of most influential ethologists and conservationists today – to lend her expertise and enlighten entrepreneurs about the contributions they can make by placing the environment at the centre of their ambitions and positively impact a planet and its people suffering the aftermath of an unprecedented global health crises.

Young entrepreneurs will lead the creation of a greener economy

“I am happy to have her with us today so we can talk to the next generation of young and inspired entrepreneurs looking to make a difference to our world,” Sheikh Fahim said welcoming Dr. Goodall to SEF 2020, and laid the framework for the ensuing dialogue around three themes. He asked her, “If you were to talk to a young entrepreneur today, who is looking to change the world and be a hero in their own right, where should we be focusing in 2020?”

The founder of the Jane Goodall Institute responded asserting that entrepreneurs have important and meaningful contributions to make in leading the global march towards a sustainable future. “Young women and men should realise that if we are to create a better world and live in harmony with nature, we need to understand more about the other species that make up this amazing complex web of life. I learnt in the years I spent in the rainforests that every species – no matter how small – have an important role to play.”

Sheikh Fahim spoke about the need for renewed focus on the kind of technologies young entrepreneurs should be looking to develop to forge a better relationship with the natural and wild environments. Discussions continued with Dr. Goodall’s narrated her 50-year journey of conserving chimpanzee habitats in Africa, starting in the early 60s with the Gombe National Park in Tanzania, and simultaneously helping local communities fight poverty with environmentally friendly livelihoods with the inception of the TACARE programme in 1994. “We have introduced the use of high-tech cell phones and satellite imagery, so they [villagers] can monitor themselves and the health of their village forest preserves. This programme is now in six other African countries around chimpanzee habitats, and its ready now to scale up as it can work anywhere!”, she explained.

Responding to Sheikh Fahim’s query on how entrepreneurs and changemakers from the region who were attending this talk “could engage with their local communities and do something closer to home to help protect this great cause, Dr. Goodall opined: “It is incredibly important that young people care about their environment, even if they live in a city. It is only when they strive to protect it and restore it that we can start healing the planet.”

Her advice to entrepreneurs is to not take business school teachings to heart. “They push young people to make money and grow, grow, grow!” she said, adding that for the rebuilding of a post-pandemic world, “we need to come together to create new relationships with nature and try to save the ecosystem.

It is important that young entrepreneurs unite to create a different kind of economy that is greener and more sustainable. I see this pandemic as an opportunity to rectify our situation. If we do not seek change now, we are literally doomed to a dire future.”

Shaping the Middle East’s startup ecosystems to nurture heroes

In a session titled ‘Building Startup Ecosystems That Nurture Heroes’ led by Dina H Sherif, Executive Director, Legatum Centre for Development & Entrepreneurship at MIT, and co-founder, Ahead of the Curve, a panel of experts that included Dr Fiona Murray, Associate Dean for Innovation and Co-Director of MIT Innovation Initiative and Member of the British Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology; Efosa Ojomo, innovation consultant, researcher, speaker and co-author of The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovations Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty; and Layla Shaikley, co-founder of Wise Systems, analysed where the Middle East stood in terms of creating the right ecosystems to nurture entrepreneurship and what more needs to be done.

Dr Murray said: “The startup ecosystems in the MENA region should focus on their specialised resources and advantages they bring to the table. We will then see a pattern emerging around these aspects which will be complementary to each other and these hubs can collaborate rather than compete with each other. We must focus on innovation-driven entrepreneurship, connecting them to science and technology, and evolving new approaches to solving important problems.”

“The role of universities in creating the right ecosystems is huge. They should train the next generation in the digital economy, finance, and engineering, skilled in working across stakeholder groups to become incredibly effective changemakers. Governments should set the stage for the success of this ecosystem, encouraging entrepreneurs to innovate and enable transformation through the private sector,” she added.

Speaking about the role of innovation in prosperity, Efosa Ojomo said: “For economic development, we must concentrate on creating innovations which transform complicated and expensive products into simple and affordable ones so that more people can have access to them. There is a huge population in this region with no access to some products and services which would enhance their lives. Innovators must focus on this population and leverage technology to create products that are simple and affordable which can fulfil these needs.”

Layla Shaikley added: “Entrepreneurs in this region should learn from the successes and mistakes of the pioneers in the USA. Universities must be the enablers of this ecosystem. Entrepreneurs should leverage the global digital connect brought about by COVID-19 to link up with their peers and learn from them. Women should be allowed equal access to entrepreneurship opportunities as it has been proved time and again that companies with women in charge do better.”

Female-led startups changing the world 

Susan Graham, Co-founder and CEO, Dendra Systems; and Sandhya Sriram, CEO and Co-founder, Shiok Meats Pte. Ltd, narrated their experience in creating startups that could potentially change the world, in a session titled ‘Building World-changing Startups’ that was moderated by Heather Henyon, Founding Partner, Mindshift Capital.

“Dendra Systems was founded in 2014 driven by the loss of biodiversity, 2 billion hectares of degraded land, increasing Co2 in the atmosphere and the challenge for food security,” said Susan Graham. “We looked at it as an opportunity to restore the land to a healthy ecosystem, which would solve the other two problems. Our challenge was to enable our scale and efficiency, and find the technology and the markets to drive the change our work intended to create. What motivated me was the scale of the project, its challenges and enabling largescale change through technology. The best part is that funding for such projects has undergone a sea change in the last six years. I would advise women in STEM to not look at the past but into the future. Do a risk assessment and jump into it. These are exciting times.”

Sandhya Sriram’s company, founded in 2018, is working on technology to produce stem cell-based seafood and meat. “The prospect of growing meat and seafood without using up large tracts of land for setting up factories and farms was exciting. The ecological factor, and ethical, healthy, and cruelty-free methods to produce food really resonated in me. I would advise entrepreneurs to do due diligence on their investors before taking their money for such projects.”

She advised adding a timeline to the expected milestones. Having started off with a practical expectation to raise $1 million in 12 months, Sriram noted, “we were so lucky that we actually raised $4 million within the first six months,” and advised entrepreneurs to reassess their business ideas and expectations if they see themselves not reaching their milestones within the timelines they set.

The Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival (SEF) 2020, powered by Sahab Smart Solutions, is being held in strategic partnership with Sultan Bin Al Owais Real Estate and Sharjah FDI Office (Invest in Sharjah). Held every year since 2017, the aim of this festival is to cultivate the entrepreneurial mindset and inspire the next generation of changemakers. Over the years, SEF has seen 200+ showcasing startups, 240+ local and international speakers, and 8,000+ attendees