The Middle East Startup Ecosystem Suffers from Lack of Mentorship

One of the key determiners of success in business is access to excellent mentors, who can connect new entrepreneurs to excellent resources, especially financial ones, while giving advice based on their experience and expertise. Recently, Wamda Research Lab conducted a study with support from Endeavor Insight about the role of mentorship in the growth of entrepreneurial ecosystems in the Middle East and North Africa. The researchers founded a large mentorship gap in four of the region’s startup hubs: Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. Mentoring is not nearly as common in the region as it is in other entrepreneurial ecosystems, according to Wamda, which has many negative effects, including limited access to capital.

In addition, the entrepreneurs surveyed in the study cited four other major issues that could be addressed by strong professional mentoring relationships. These problems include:

Difficulties in talent acquisition

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Image courtesy Brian Ujiie | Flickr

Entrepreneurs around the world struggle to find valuable team members, but the issue is especially pronounced in the Middle East. Many of the most qualified employees in the region do not feel comfortable working for a startup because entrepreneurship has still not entered the mainstream business culture. Greater rates of mentorship could help connect these employees to startup opportunities that they feel especially confident in, which would drive the cultural change needed to support entrepreneurship for years to come.

Limited marketing and sales skills

The best ideas can fail if they are not brought to the market in a compelling way. Novice entrepreneurs often repeat the same marketing and sales mistakes that can be avoided with the help of an experienced mentor. Since mentors have a better understanding of the market, they can ensure that their mentees are on a path to overcome the normal business hurdles in that particular country.

No dialogue with investors

The rate of investment in Middle Eastern entrepreneurship continues to increase, but communication between investors and entrepreneurs is not necessarily also increasing. For a healthy funding environment, the dialogue needs to be completely open between these two parties, so that they each understand the needs of the other. Mentors can play a key role in fostering such communication and connecting individuals to the investors most likely to support their particular projects.

Lack of regional market partners

Many of the countries in the Middle East have relatively small populations, which means that scaling a company often involves expanding across national lines. Mentors who have also dealt with this sort of expansion can help navigate the legal, cultural, and linguistic idiosyncrasies that often make such expansions difficult.

While encouraging mentorship is clearly important, not all mentors are created equal. As the number of accelerators and incubators grows throughout the region, individuals have more opportunities for connecting with experienced entrepreneurs and business leaders in their communities. However, an incompatible mentor can be detrimental to a young entrepreneur’s business, so it is important that individuals think about what they need in a mentor and seek out someone whose goals and values are in alignment with their own, but who will also challenge them. Below are some of the key considerations to keep in mind when searching for the ideal mentor.

Think about long-term needs

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Image courtesy Brian Ujiie | Flickr

Entrepreneurs who primarily have one pressing problem might benefit more from hiring a consultant for a one-time engagement. Mentorships, on the other hand, are long-term relationships that provide a consistent sounding board for testing new ideas and growing a career. Over time, the best mentor relationships evolve so that both parties are on equal footing and can provide each other with advice, feedback, and solutions to pressing problems.

Personality fit is important

When searching for a mentor, individuals need to take account of their personal leadership styles. If they have more aggressive, type-A personalities, then they need the same from a mentor. These individuals will likely become annoyed with a mentor who prefers to meditate on problems for a few days. At the same time, a mentor who is exactly the same as the mentee may not add anything new to the conversation. Entrepreneurs need to look for mentors with personalities that complement their own.

Mentorship often happens organically

Few experienced entrepreneurs are actively seeking out mentees. In fact, these individuals may not even consider themselves mentors, and if a new entrepreneur approaches them out of the blue, it may create expectations that cannot be met. Instead, new entrepreneurs should identify a good candidate for a mentor and then try to forge a friendly business relationship that slowly grows into a mentorship. The initial approach should be causal, such as asking the prospective mentor to lunch for a chance to pick his or her brain about a particular issue.

The relationship is a two-way street

Mentors are not philanthropists, or an unlimited source of free advice. Ideally, the mentee will have something to teach their more experienced mentor, such as how to implement new technologies or how to modernize outdated processes. Mentors often share their knowledge openly and freely, but over time, they may come to feel used if they receive nothing in return. New entrepreneurs need to think about what they have to offer, as well as what they want to obtain, as they search for a mentor.

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