By Rohma Sadaqat Khaleej Times, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center (Sheraa) empowers young entrepreneurs to launch highly competitive sustainable ventures, and supports them by following up and developing their projects.
Ask Najla Al-Midfa about what is the hardest thing to do as an entrepreneur, and she will say that it is finding your first paying customer.
However, for the young entrepreneurs that have successfully completed Sheraa's Accelerator program, that is not going to be much of a problem. One of the many benefits of Sheraa's signature Accelerator program is that its offers aspiring startups access to markets.
This is one of the benefits that Al-Midfa, who is general manager of the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center (Sheraa), likes to highlight.
Launched in January 2016, under the patronage of Shaikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi, Sheraa empowers young entrepreneurs to launch highly competitive sustainable ventures, and supports them by following up and developing their projects.
"It's been an amazing first year," says Al-Midfa. "When we first started, we were only a three-person team. We hit the ground running, but we had a very successful launch and it set the platform for the year ahead. One of the first things that we wanted to do was inspire students and raise awareness about entrepreneurship."
Entrepreneurship, she notes, is not exactly a very common word amongst students. "Not a lot of them really understand what it means to be an entrepreneur, and what it takes to start their business. So, one of the first things that we wanted to do was bring in a lot of role models. We wanted to show that you don't need to be in Silicon Valley or even the US to begin your journey of becoming an entrepreneur."
Then, it was time to work on skill development. Al-Midfa noted that it was apparent that inspiring the students wasn't enough; they had to be taught the skills which they needed for their journey.
"We did a lot of workshops that focused on three major skills. Self-development skills, in terms of helping students understand what their strength is so that they can start ventures that they are passionate about; soft skills, such as communication and listening skills; and hard skills, such as technology skills that are required for them to build their own apps and create their own websites," she revealed. "In our first year alone, we held 45 training sessions, and we hosted over 95 speakers, with 2,400 people attending those events."
Sheraa's flagship program is its Accelerator program, which takes the top 10 teams from a number of applicants. The program runs twice a year, with the next batch due to be selected in summer this year.
"The benefits of getting into the accelerator program is that the teams are provided with a Dh35,000 grant, free office space, and mentorship. We also help them set up the business, so we provide them with a license; we collaborated with SAIF Zone in Sharjah to give them subsidised business licenses. We also give them access to markets by virtue of being a government entity.
We have a lot of connections to potential customers, so we introduce these businesses to other government and private entities that can buy from them, support them, and even invest in them. We also provide them with business and legal advice," she lists.
The team members come from various walks of life, some of them are friends who found the calling of entrepreneurship together, while others went from senior year project partners to business partners. Their ideas represent a diverse mix of industries, tapping into 'sharing economy', video gaming, Arabic content, handicraft, Food and Beverage (F&B), energy and skill development.
At the end of the four months of the Accelerator program, Sheraa organises a demo day or a showcase day. "On showcase day, we will have several leaders from the private sector, CEOs of big companies, and several investors come in, and listen to each of the winning teams pitch their idea," she reveals.
However, the support does not stop there. Sheraa's Manassah Platform for existing businesses, provides the young entrepreneurs with support ranging from learning workshops on how to grow their business to networking opportunities.
Speaking about the entrepreneur ecosystem in the UAE today, Al-Midfa notes that the entrepreneurial movement in the UAE before 2010 was "very unheard of and quite under the covers."
"After 2010, I can confidently say that I have witnessed the entrepreneurial ecosystem develop over time. And this is something that does not happen over time, and that is the reality of it. Now though, we are reaping the dividends. We have taken great strides, but there are still areas where we need to do better," she reveals.
Some areas still require more funding, she says, so there is a need for angel investors and venture capitalists. In addition, she feels that there is still a lot of bureaucracy and red tape that needs to be addressed.
"Aside from this, we need the private sector to take a lead on this topic. Sheraa might be a government entity, but we won't succeed unless the private sector comes in and helps us. It shouldn't just be an opportunity for them, but also a responsibility to help SMEs grow in the region. The government has taken the right steps and shown its intent to create a positive startup environment, and now it's time for the private sector to contribute towards it," she stressed.
Asked what advice she would give to young entrepreneurs today, Al-Midfa said: "There are no shortcuts. Your excitement about your idea waxes and wanes depending on your success; if you want to succeed, you need to persist and persevere through the lows that you will go through."
She adds: "We want to send across a message that, at the end of the day, entrepreneurship is about problem solving. Our approach is that we encourage entrepreneurs to experiment with their products, with their customers, and their approach, to see what is needed out there. Instead of taking one huge leap, take small steps."