After years of political strife and a cultural revolution, Cairo has emerged as one of the major centers of entrepreneurship in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Perhaps the best marker of this shift is the RiseUp Summit recently held in Cairo. The gathering, which was the first of its kind in Egypt, brought together thought leaders from across the Middle East and beyond to explore the future of MENA’s startup ecosystem and how to overcome perceived barriers. RiseUp took place at the GrEEK Campus in downtown Cairo, close the Tahrir Square, which served as the epicenter of the Arab Spring.
The GrEEK Campus- A Center for Entrepreneurship in Cairo
The GrEEK Campus was founded by Egyptian-American entrepreneur Ahmed Alfi, who returned to Cairo after two decades of startup investment success to establish Sawari Ventures, the first Egyptian venture capital fund. The campus currently includes five expansive buildings filled with classrooms and offices, as well as a library. The courtyard in the middle of the buildings inspired innovators with its intriguing modern art, such as a sculpture of a dinosaur making a meal out of an old keyboard and classic Egyptian motifs.
What makes the campus so special is the wide range of people who make themselves at home there. Individuals will encounter both undergraduate and graduate students with ideas that they are eager to launch, as well as seasoned entrepreneurs who have founded and developed multiple companies. The ping-pong table at the center of the courtyard provides these individuals with the opportunity for friendly competition while they forge new partnerships that can help them carry their ideas far. In many ways, the GrEEK Campus serves as an equivalent to AstroLabs in Dubai by providing a space for entrepreneurs to meet, partner, and collaborate on projects to strengthen the local ecosystem.
People who interact at the GrEEK Campus provide a perfect cross-section of the Egyptian startup scene. Not all individuals at the campus are interested in making money. Some are motivated by social entrepreneurship and view the growing startup culture as a way to address and correct problems with food, health care, education, energy, and water. One person who falls into this category is Sally Halawa, the founder of Kemet, which has offices in one of the buildings at the GrEEK Campus. Kemet seeks to expand the concept of hands-on, experiential learning in Egypt while driving creativity by introducing people to the rich history of design in the country. By teaching design principles combined with business basic, Kemet hopes to empower Egyptians to generate an income and become financially independent.
Flat6Labs- Targeted Guidance and Support for Egyptian Startups
On the other side of Cairo from the GrEEK Campus is Flat6Labs, also founded by Mr. Alfi. Flat6Labs plays an essentially different role in the lives of Egyptian entrepreneurs. People with a well-defined plan can submit an application to the accelerator, which receives at least 400 online applications for each quarter. Of these 400 applications, the accelerator will interview about 60 applicants, and eventually 10 startups will receive admission. Once accepted, startups can obtain four months of intensive training and support from the Flat6Labs staff. In addition, entrepreneurs receive office space, computers, reliable Internet access, and, most importantly, seed funding. The organization’s coaches provide assistance with all aspects of business creation and development, ranging from legal concerns to tax planning. One of the major goals of Flat6Labs is to create a strong alumni network that can continue to support new recruits.
Flat6Labs works with entrepreneurs from all walks of life. One of the most interesting graduates of the program is Dana Khater, who joined at the age of 19. Through the accelerator, she launched Coterique, a fashion company that has already received attention from customers in Los Angeles and New York. Since launching the company, she has sold fashions to a popular Hollywood actress, the head designer of a leading apparel brand, and the wife of a Real Madrid player. She is currently involved in a financing round to raise $1.5 million to hire new talent and grow the business in both the Middle East and Asia.
Expanding Options for Egyptian Entrepreneurs
The availability of resource like the GrEEK Campus and Flat6Labs has spurred the growth of other opportunities for entrepreneurs. For example, a woman named Hanan Abdel Meguid who is associated with the GrEEK Campus founded Kamelizer, an angel investment fund that focuses on the tech sector. An experienced businesswoman, she understands the value of supporting companies in their earliest stages and understands how to guide them to make business decisions about development and market potential. Kamelizer aims to provide the resources necessary for companies to move from the seed-capital stages to early institutional financing rounds, at which point the companies can generate their own support. The organization has a talented team of motivated and skilled individuals who collaborate with early-stage startups to identify challenges and create a solid plan for overcoming them.