Sheraa's Najla Al Midfa on how enterprising youths should be led

For Najla Al Midfa, general manager of Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre (Sheraa), Sharjah - an emirate noted for its rich history, culture, and architecture - brims with entrepreneurial energy. As Sheraa marks its one-year anniversary this month, that is the Sharjah Al Midfa wants to see: a dynamic community of enterprising youths who are empowered to aim for the stars

Najla Al Midfa, general manager of Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre (Sheraa), Sharjah.

Najla Al Midfa, general manager of Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre (Sheraa), Sharjah.

Najla Al Midfa made history when she became the first ever Emirati female to join the board of an Arab bank, when she was elected to the Board of Directors of United Arab Bank in 2012. Her determination to inspire others by pushing boundaries continued by founding Khayarat, a social enterprise that helps Emiratis to make informed career choices.

Al Midfa talks about how her mission-driven entrepreneurial career led her to the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre - Sheraa.

In your career, which included following your passions and taking different paths, do you recall your thoughts at the precise moment when you decided to set up both Khayarat and Sheraa?

I’ve been fortunate to have had more than one passion over the course of my career. While most of those ideas were seasonal in nature – my initial enthusiasm would often fade with time - the challenge I was trying to solve through Khayarat was one that constantly kept me awake at night.

Having spent over a decade working in the private sector, I was aware of all the exciting career prospects it offered, and yet, I was surprised to find Emiratis comprised less than 1 percent of the private sector in the UAE.

As I began to mentor and advise a growing pool of young and ambitious Emiratis, I realised that the issue was not a shortage of talent, but one of career guidance and job readiness. I was not only excited about the opportunity to potentially disrupt the status quo, but also felt a responsibility to bridge this divide. I eventually took the leap of faith and began working full-time on Khayarat in 2014.

In 2015, Her Excellency Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Chairperson of the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (Shurooq), and I were part of a group climbing Kilimanjaro. I recall on one of the longer treks, during our descent from the summit, we spent some time talking about her vision for empowering youth in the MENA region.

Specifically, we discussed Sharjah’s role as an education hub. Sharjah University City houses leading educational institutions, such as the American University of Sharjah, and is home to over 20,000 current students and over 25,000 alumni. Sheikha Bodour’s vision was to create a platform - Sheraa - that would harness the skills and energy of this critical mass of young talent, and enable them to build a better and more prosperous future for the region through entrepreneurship.

A couple of months later, Sheikha Bodour participated at the World Economic Forum meetings at the Dead Sea in Jordan, and was part of an important panel on the youth imperative in the Arab World. As I listened to her discuss ways to engage the youth in core issues, and instil in them a sense of hope and optimism, I knew this was a movement that was aligned to my values and one that I would be proud to be part of. In January 2016, Sheraa – the Arabic word for “Sail” – was officially launched.

What was different about this decision that has set you apart from your peers?

When it comes to Emriatisation, the current situation is a tug-of-war between private sector employers in the UAE, which claim that Emirati students do not possess the attitude or skills required to succeed in the private sector, and young Emiratis who feel they are being stereotyped and marginalised by an  expat workforce, which comprise over 80 percent of the UAE’s total population.

Various policies have been introduced, including quotas in certain sectors, such as 40 percent Emiratis in all banks, and exclusive benefits for Emiratis working in the private sector. Other measures have included career exhibitions and recruitment agencies focused on Emirati placement in the private sector, taking advantage of the market opportunity created by the quota system. These approaches have resulted in no significant changes, primarily because they don’t address the key issue at hand - career guidance and job readiness.

I believe what is disruptive about Khayarat is simply how it engages directly, and exclusively, with the Emirati youth on a human level. We work with the students and graduates as individuals, to better understand their unique ambitions, strengths, and values, in order to match them with opportunities in the private sector.

We then provide them with the support, mentorship, and skills required to enable them to take advantage of these opportunities and succeed in the private sector. It is a time consuming process, entailing hours of mentoring and conversations, but I believe, in the absence of qualified and genuinely interested career counsellors, this is the only solution.

In the case of Sheraa, what is most innovative is the fact that our beautiful facility is located in the heart of one of the region’s best universities – the American University of Sharjah (AUS) – giving us direct access to top-notch talent, on a mission to develop active job creators rather than job seekers. We work with these students, complementing what they have been taught in university, with the entrepreneurial mindset and 21st century skills required to succeed.

We take them on a journey of inspiration and learning, and provide them with a foundation on which they can build sustainable enterprises and thriving careers.

What have been the main lessons you have learnt from launching and growing such initiatives?

One of the main lessons from launching both Khayarat and Sheraa has been the importance of building partnerships. As the African proverb goes “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” The youth-related work we do is a collective responsibility, and the only way for us to have a true and lasting impact is to involve all stakeholders: academia, industry, government, civil society, parents, and, of course, the youths themselves.

At Sheraa we have endeavoured to infuse this spirit of partnership in all our work. As a non-profit, government-sponsored entity, we are proud to be based at a leading academic institution, signaling out commitment to working closely with universities and their students. We regularly partner with the private sector to set relevant, industry-specific challenges for the students to work on. These companies also provide mentorship and funding support to the student ventures. We have held youth entrepreneurship bootcamps in collaboration with community organisations such as Sajaya and Sharjah Girl Guides (SGG)

Furthermore, we recently joined a group of leading universities in the MENA region to launch Shabakah, a consortium of university-based entrepreneurship centres. This is part of our long-term commitment to foster knowledge sharing and collaborative activities, in order to support the dreams of entrepreneurs in exploring markets beyond their home territory.

How do you attract and choose the right team to make your endeavours a success?

Given that the work we are doing at Sheraa is focused on the youth, I have made a deliberate decision to build a young team that can relate to and interact seamlessly with the students we work with. In fact, if I remove myself from the equation, the average age of the team members is 25 years old. This has been a tremendous advantage in terms of building our youth community.

We mainly hire recent graduates, and I spend less time reviewing CVs and more time having conversations to better understand what drives them. I look for the right attitude, a curious mind, and a willingness to learn.

It is hard to assess this based on interviews alone, so we will often start with a short internship or project, where both sides get to know each other better, before we go ahead with the final offer.

What have you achieved to date?

We have held 50 inspirational events, hosting 100 speakers from the UAE and around the world. We also conducted 40 workshops, training over 900 aspiring entrepreneurs on a variety of skills, ranging from soft skills, such as interpersonal communication, through to technical and business skills.

We have announced the first cohort of the flagship Sheraa Accelerator programme,  aimed at students and recent graduates with entrepreneurial ambitions. This four-month programme combines twice-a-week workshops, with regular mentoring and on-the-ground learning and experience.

In this short period, these teams take their ideas from a prototype to a commercial business, building a highly marketable skillset for themselves in the process, and also creating jobs for others. We look forward to showcasing these 10 teams in February 2017.

Do you have personal advice to entrepreneurs in this regard?

Many aspiring entrepreneurs that I meet are often hesitant to share their ideas, fearing that they will be “stolen”.

Rather than viewing all interactions solely through the lens of competition, I would encourage them have the confidence to be open to partnership and sharing. I believe collaboration is a key element of the entrepreneurial mindset, and the best way for entrepreneurs to create the most value and impact.

How has your vision for Sheraa grown?

The vision to create the next generation of entrepreneurs has not changed, but our scope has widened as we have learnt more about the gaps in the ecosystem that needed to be filled. For instance, while our initial focus was on venture creation, we soon realised that there was a skills gap between what students were learning at university and the expertise required to be a successful entrepreneur.

As a result, we launched the Sheraa Academy, which is run entirely by a team of recent AUS graduates.

The team are constantly renewing and updating their skills across a variety of disciplines, primarily through massive open online courses (MOOCs), and sharing these learnings with current students. This, combined with mentorship from industry experts, is resulting in a young and high-potential talent pool of both business and tech co-founders.

We also found, after Sheraa was announced, that many existing entrepreneurs came to us requesting support.

We realised that there was a need to create a special platform for these established and growing ventures, so we launched the Manassah platform as a support network.

Members of Manassah not only have access to our co-working space, but are also able to use Sheraa to promote their business, to find interns and potential employees, and to network with like-minded entrepreneurs.

In addition, members will be offered exclusive opportunities to participate in round-table discussions that allow them to openly highlight any challenges they may face setting up and growing their businesses, and to propose possible solutions. These discussions will produce reports that get cascaded to the highest levels of authority, giving entrepreneurs an opportunity to have their voice heard and bring about positive change.

Please tell us about some of the Sheraa entrepreneurs whom you find inspiring and would like people to know more about.

As more students and alumni from Sharjah heard about Sheraa, I was amazed to see the number of young entrepreneurs coming out of the woodwork!

There were hidden gems everywhere, from current students who were running their businesses while continuing their studies, such as Mohamed Aziz who co-founded Airfilms, a company offering aerial cinematography solutions using drones, to Iba Masood and Syed Ahmed, the co-founders of TARA, an artificial intelligence platform for recruitment and project management, who had graduated from Sharjah, started their ventures here, and were now based in Silicon Valley. Each of these entrepreneurs has illustrated the sheer potential of Sharjah’s young talent pool, and has inspired us to keep doing the work we do!

Everything Sheraa does is student or entrepreneur-led - our logo was designed by a graduate of AUS, Salem Al Qasimi, founder of Fikra Design Studio; our co-working space was designed by a graduate of AUS, Pallavi Dean, founder of Pallavi Dean Studios; and the gifts we give to our Sheraa guests are designed and produced by graduates of AUS, Haneen Abbas and Arghavan Hatamabadi, who are also members of our first accelerator cohort and founders of Juxtapiece.

What do you see as key challenges for Sheraa moving forward?

From an entrepreneurship ecosystem point of view, our biggest challenge is also our biggest opportunity, that is that Sharjah’s current ecosystem for entrepreneurship is still in its infancy.

While Sheraa plays an important role in terms of building a pipeline of young, entrepreneurial talent in Sharjah, and supporting them in venture creation, other fundamental components of the ecosystem must be in place in order to have a sustainable impact.

A comprehensive approach, through collaboration and partnership, is key.

The second challenge is how Sheraa can scale up and broaden its impact, both nationally and regionally.

What are your ambitions and dreams for Sheraa?

While Sheraa will no doubt help position Sharjah as a thriving hub for entrepreneurship, I also believe that it will significantly contribute to the overall entrepreneurship ecosystem in the UAE.

Given the fact that we are one of the few entrepreneurship entities that interfaces so closely with universities, we will no doubt be seen as a unique and valuable pipeline of young, entrepreneurial talent.

Our goal is to have Sheraa be the one-stop shop for all students and recent graduates with entrepreneurial ambitions, creating a talent pool of young innovators who will help establish the UAE on the global start-up map.

Just as career centres are now a staple of all leading universities, we believe Sheraa-like entrepreneurship platforms should also be a standard offering.

Our dream is to see the Sheraa model replicated across universities in the MENA region, helping to produce a new generation of job creators.

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