“It’s now that entrepreneurship comes to rescue the Arab world.” These are the prophetic words of Joelle Yazbeck, manager of the MIT Enterprise Forum of the Pan-Arab Region, a Beirut-based organization working to cultivate a positive climate for entrepreneurship in Arab countries.
As the realities of unemployment and economic uncertainty loom large on Arab horizons, an interview with Yazbeck sheds light on how programs fostering entrepreneurship stand to make an enormous impact on Arab communities.
"This [the Arab Spring] means that people are now taking their lives into their own hands," Yazbeck says, pointing out the mobilizing power of the Arab Spring for youth to take charge. "The Arab youths have decided to revolt against their countries’ governments ... they are becoming more proactive and insisting on shaping their future and entrepreneurship is a part of it ... there are a lot of opportunities to be sought in the region in light of the recent incidents."
Not only is the potential for entrepreneurship great in the Arab region, the potential for entrepreneurs to make a lasting impact on their communities is equally as great. Yazbeck writes that “entrepreneurship, in its broader sense, is about identifying a problem in one’s society, coming up with a solution, and translating that solution into a real business directed toward changing or improving one’s community.”
Yazbeck identifies the region’s major challenges in fostering entrepreneurship as: low perception of self-employment, poor access to mentors, and lack of funding.
“To please your mom, dad and neighbors, it’s much easier to be a government employee, be a lawyer, or work at a bank. Entrepreneurship/self-employment is still a new notion. Plus the cost of failure is relatively high in the Middle East.”
For aspiring entrepreneurs in the Arab region, the stakes are high. The MIT Enterprise Forum works to assist entrepreneurs in overcoming these obstacles by launching workshops, building networks, and initiating mentorships between experienced and novice entrepreneurs.
Its most notable program, the Arab Business Plan Competition, tackles these challenges and kick-starts some of the region’s most promising entrepreneurial projects. Teams submit their concepts and complete business plans in hopes of being the winner of the $50,000 grand prize. Even unsuccessful bidders profit from the experience of competing because the contest “provides a platform that connects entrepreneurs with investors, either through the networking events that we hold each year in a different Arab country or through our pool of judges ... that have access to deal flow.”
According to Yazbeck, the MIT Enterprise Forum aims to expand the Arab Business Plan Competition into an annual meeting that draws all entrepreneurs from across the region. In doing so, the Enterprise Forum hopes to build a space for people to network, learn, exchange ideas, and motivate each other. It also hopes to promote and further the success of regional firms in leading industries and highlight the significance of innovation.
“Most importantly,” Yazbeck says, “we focus on changing mentalities of young Arabs to embrace more daringness, initiation, creativity, and teamwork.”
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