SEF 2020 concludes with inspiring stories of entrepreneur heroes

from around the globe who kept the faith

The fourth annual edition of the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival (SEF) came to a powerful close on December 10 (Thursday) after five days of presentations and workshops aimed at motivating and inspiring entrepreneurs and the public to work collectively to make an impact in their communities and build a better future together.

Organised by the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center (Sheraa) and powered by Sahab Smart Solutions, this was the first fully virtual and completely free-to-attend edition of SEF. The festival’s concluding discussions continued to energise and ignite imaginations of attendees – with inspiring stories shared by high-impact entrepreneurs from Beirut who offered their communities meaningful solutions during a period of crisis – and also turned the spotlight on the experiences of first-time founders determined to succeed no matter the odds.

Socially driven startups healing Beirut

Maya Rahal, Managing Director of MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab, led a panel titled ‘Heroes of Beirut’ that featured two high-impact Lebanese startups, FabricAID and B.O.T (Bridge. Outsource. Transform), which in the aftermath of the Port Beirut tragedy, leveraged their tech-driven solutions, regional connections and humanitarian spirit to deliver essential goods and create jobs. Both startups were among those selected to receive grants Sheraa’s $100,000 equity-free fund, disbursed this September under their #UnitedForBeirut initiative to help 10 local startups bounce back and contribute to Lebanon’s recovery.نماذج ملهمة لصناع التغيير في ختام فعاليات “الشارقة لريادة الأعمال 2020”

Omar Itani, founder of FabricAID – which is a social enterprise that collects, sorts and redistributes clothes to disadvantaged communities at US$0.1 – US$0.4 per item, while reducing fabric waste – said it was difficult to build a business with a core social angle, especially in an unstable economy. “Our aim is to offer a dignified shopping experience to people who cannot afford to shop for new clothes,” he said.

Noting it was tough for social enterprises in Lebanon to get the support they needed when it comes to setting up finance, strategy, networks and infrastructure, Omar said that FabricAID was fortunate to receive it from their local community when they started out. “Now, we are expanding with the help of Sheraa into the UAE market with an e-commerce platform, into Jordan, and creating more verticals in Lebanon,” he added.

“Resilience is the key to surviving as a social enterprise,” said Marianne Bitar Karam, the panel’s second guest and Managing Director of B.O.T (Bridge. Outsource. Transform) – Lebanon’s first impact sourcing platform that uses market intelligence and technology to provide remote freelance work opportunities to unemployed youth and women from vulnerable communities.

Taxation was an issue, explained Karam. “We pay taxes like any commercial company while doing the work of a non-profit. We are trying to remedy this by lobbying for separate laws for social enterprises like in other countries,” she continued, adding that harnessing the power of communities and partnerships to continue growing in trying circumstances was key to the success of social entrepreneurship.

Technology turning individual problems into community-wide solutions

The panel discussion ‘First Time Founders Lifetime Heroes’, featured Amna Aljarwan, Co-Founder of KnackLab; Siddiq Farid, CEO and Co-Founder of SmartCrowd; Mohammed Aziz, Co-Founder of Dapi; and Mashal Waqar, Co-Founder and COO of The Tempest, speaking to moderator Heba Fisher, Co-Founder and COO of Kerning Cultures about what motivated them to create their startups and what kept them going.

Aziz developed Dapi, a banking API (Application Programming Interface), as he found sending money via apps cumbersome. “Transferring money was such a hassle with going back and forth between the app and banking platforms. It was a problem prevalent across the region, so I decided to solve it with an app that not only enables payment directly from bank accounts, but also links all accounts of the user and tracks all transactions on one platform, which makes budgeting easier too.”

A personal issue leading to a public solution was also Farid’s experience, who launched SmartCrowd, Middle East’s first regulated real estate investment platform. “I was looking to invest in real estate some years back when I realised how difficult it is. I felt there must be a way for professionals and employees to build investment portfolios that are usually only available to a privileged few. We wanted to break the barrier, starting with as low as AED 5,000, and SmartCrowd was born.”

Aljarwan launched coaching platform KnackLab in the first weeks of the lockdown in the wake of Covid-19 to help organisations develop leaders at every level. “It is generally the top rung of leaders who have the benefit of consulting coaches,” she said, adding that due to high training costs involved, “middle level and junior employees who actually make up the culture of the company and work to solve daily issues are denied this opportunity. We decided to make it affordable and scalable while offering personalised, credible and certified coaching across the board.”

Waqar said she was drawn towards The Tempest, a website with content geared towards women, because she “was passionate about their mission to provide a platform for everybody, across backgrounds and experiences.”

She explained the platform offered practical entrepreneurial advice, and was ready to call a spade a spade. “All you hear are success stories in the media, but for every Careem there are thousands of failures,” cautioned Mashal, emphasising to SEF 2020 attendees that aspiring founders needed to understand the risks and sacrifices involved before taking the plunge.

The power of self-reflection and co-creation to build a better future

Closing the five-day festival and addressing the entire SEF 2020 community, Najla Al Midfa, CEO of Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center (Sheraa), said: “Our goal this year was to help rejuvenate your spirits, and to showcase the power of everyday heroes striving to make a difference. What we found was a global community that is relentless in its determination to make real impact. A tribe that is willing to do the deep inner work that is necessary to becoming a changemaker. So, while our goal was to inspire you, please know that you in turn have inspired us.”

Al Midfa added: “To you: our tribe of heroes, speakers, and partners, we are grateful for your engagement and support – and we look forward to seeing you all in person, in Sharjah, very soon. And so brave changemakers, your journey begins. A new dawn, a new day, a new era of hope.”

Al Midfa also re-emphasized Sheraa’s continued support of current and aspiring changemakers, promising that “We’ll be right there alongside you, offering you advice, guidance, encouragement, and friendship as we co-create that brighter future… together.”

Themed #BeTheHero and held in a free-to-attend and fully virtual format, SEF 2020 featured a global community of entrepreneurs and impactful changemakers, all engaging ina dialogue on what was required to rebuild and strengthen our societies, especially in the unprecedented situation brought about by the Coronavirus pandemic.

The Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival (SEF) 2020 was held in strategic partnership with Sultan Bin Al Owais Real Estate and with the support of the 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