If any more evidence were needed of the growing significance of youth entrepreneurship in the Middle East, it was provided in the shape of President Barack Obama at the recent Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Dubai, UAE.

In his video address to the 2000 delegates in attendance, the President linked the entrepreneurship movement – especially among young people and women – to his vision of increased peace, prosperity and cooperation between East and West:

“Let’s keep creating the next generation of dreamers, creators and builders…let’s keep doing everything we can to help that aspiring entrepreneur turn her idea into a business that could change her neighborhood, her city or her country.”

The need to grow and diversify the economies of the Middle East is clear. Youth unemployment runs at 25%. Labor force participation among young people is just 35%, compared to a global average of 52%. And with roughly two-thirds of the population of the Middle East under the age of 29, the need for new business and job creation is stark.

Start-up culture: past, present & future

The entrepreneurial spirit runs strong here in the Middle East. At the Summit, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum said, “Entrepreneurship is not new to the Arab region, where man invented the alphabet, writing, algebra, arithmetic and built the first university. From our region came pioneers in medicine, astronomy, mathematics and chemistry.”

But spirit alone is not enough, for entrepreneurs to flourish you need education programs, easy access to capital, incubators, a supportive regulatory environment and reliable distribution networks.  In addition, there is a need to turn ideas to products and services that can realize impact and meet the needs of the community. 

2012 has seen the initiation or accelerated growth of a dizzying array of institutions to build this enterprise culture. From the Global Entrepreneurship Summit to the hit TV show, The Entrepreneur; from the pioneering education efforts of the youth charity, INJAZ al-Arab, to the network opportunities created by Wamda; an organic infrastructure that binds government, private sector, academia and NGOs is emerging.

Visible success stories with great role models are emerging as well. Fadi Ghandour, who built the region’s leading transportation and logistics firm, Aramex. Samih Toukan, whose Maktoob business was sold to Yahoo! for $164m, and Jabbar whose Internet group is now a globally-renowned consumer eCommerce conglomerate; and Loulou Khazen Baz, whose start-up website nabbesh.com connects businesses to freelance creative talent.
One key organization in the region that is putting entrepreneurial education and lifelong learning at the core of its mission is the School of Business at the American University in Cairo. 

The school launched its Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program (EIP) in October 2010 with a vision that entrepreneurship will change the future of Egypt capitalizing on the nation’s most precious resource, its human capital.  In a country of 85 million citizens with a growth rate of 1.9% annually, a young population with 58% under the age of 25 and 800 thousand jobs that need to be created every year, the world of small-sized enterprises and start-ups presents a unique opportunity for socioeconomic transformation.  Since its early days, EIP has been offering seminars, workshops, networking events, mentorship programs, and business boot camps to over 4500 young passionate Egyptians representing potential successful entrepreneurs and future leaders. 

In 2011, EIP launched its business plan competitions “Fekrety”; an opportunity for Egyptians across the nation’s governorates to take their innovative ideas to the next level.  Fekrety (my idea in Arabic) helps tomorrow’s leaders and entrepreneurs generate ideas for business, provide them with mentoring, training opportunities, and connect the most viable startups with venture capitalists, angel investors, and other sources of seed funding. EIP’s events and services are open to students’ at all local universities and to all potential young entrepreneurs across the nation.  This is an educational program that extends its offerings beyond the university boundaries reaching out to the different parts of Egypt with an objective to realize an impact across the different segments in society.

Entrepreneurial education will change how people think, generate ideas, perceive opportunities, promote innovation, develop alternative solutions, become impact-driven and more.  Some people claim that entrepreneurship cannot be taught; others believe that some are born gifted with entrepreneurial skills while others are not.  However, there is no doubt that everyone has a chance to contribute positively to socioeconomic development by capitalizing on his/her skills and capacities and by developing themselves through lifelong learning.

Clearly, much more than education and lifelong learning needs to be done. Access to capital is still severely restricted. The basic costs of registering a business are still prohibitively high for many; and business education is still not integrated well enough into school curricula. But the green shoots of entrepreneurship growth are there. Now is the time to let thousands of flowers bloom.  It is a 10000-piece puzzle that needs to start somewhere with a solid base, strong momentum and a clear vision.

Now is the time for an entrepreneurial uprising across the region.  An uprising driven by young passionate and innovative citizens that will help create jobs, contribute to building a robust and competitive private sector and move in the direction of a stronger economy that can transform the lives of millions of people in the region.

The American University in Cairo

Sherif Kamel is founding Dean of the school of business at the American University in Cairo and Professor of management information systems at the school’s department of management.