The reasons are plenty for Jihad Kawas, 19-year-old co-founder of Saily, the first location-based online marketplace for secondhand goods, to win our Entrepreneur of the Week accolade.
Learning to code at the age of 13, building websites and apps for friends and occasional clients all the way through high school, winning a number of start-up competitions, and being awarded for his entrepreneurial talent across the MENA region, would be naming but a few.
In late 2013 Kawas and Dany Arnaout, a fellow Lebanese whom Kawas describes as "the best coder he has ever met", co-founded Saily in Beirut, but their aim actually was to cater for customers in the United States.
The co-founders’ dreams of succeeding in Silicon Valley were subjected to scorching criticism from their peers, who argued that “they would not make it in the US market”.
Kawas and Arnaout proceeded regardless, and the Saily app was made available to American users in 2015.
For some time, however, it looked as if the sceptics were right. Failing to attract customers, Kawas and Arnaout were on the verge of closing the company when a man in Texas downloaded and shared their app within his community.
Saily, available on both iOS and Android devices, has since acquired 300,000 registered US-based users, adding 2,000 new customers per day.
“I want to advise them [young entrepreneurs] something because I still remember that phase when I was just starting,” Kawas says about those early days of his venture.
“In the Middle East young people are always taught they will not be able to make it in the US because we are Arabs, because we are of this or that religion, because our name is this or that, and because, and because, and because …I just want to say to them that that is not correct and that they should believe that anyone can do anything.
“If you think that you cannot achieve something because of where you come from, or because of how you look like, or because of your name, just remember that
a guy called Jihad is standing in front of you [laughs].
“When people build things, it is about what they build and how they do that, and not about where they come from.”
Kawas is most famous for being the first Arab, as well as the first non-European and non-American, who was selected from a pool of 2,800 applicants to become one of 19 Thiel Fellows in 2015.
The Thiel Fellowship, founded by Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley investor and entrepreneur, offers budding entrepreneurs under the age of 22 a $100,000 grant and a two-year-long mentorship to build their companies provided that they do not enrol in college during that time.
Stating that being a Thiel Fellow opens many doors, Kawas nevertheless points out: “I always say that my best investors and the people to whom I will never be able to give return on investment are my parents. They really are the main reason why I am the person I am today.
“They taught me about leadership in many different ways. My dad always used to tell me: ‘Make a decision.’ It used to irritate me sometimes because I was like: ‘I don’t want to make a decision, you do it.’ But, I guess, that is how I gained this ‘go and figure it out’ skill.
“The reason why I have a lot of issues with schools is because they do not understand that even a smallest thing will influence the way a person thinks when they grow up. Those small words matter.
“I am very thankful to my parents for the fact that they have always believed in me. I really think that parents play a big role in making or breaking a kid.
“For example, a year and a half ago I literally told them: ‘I need to go to San Francisco. I do not know why, but I need to go and talk to people there.’ I told them I wanted to skip school for three weeks. That is something crazy, you just don’t do that.
“But they actually believed in me. They allowed to me go. I came back with some money I raised for Saily, and I met many important people. Imagine if they said no.
“So my relationship with my parents is the following: I pitch something, they invest, and I deliver. The
investment is not money, it is as easy as saying yes or simply believing in me.”
The full interview with Jihad Kawas will appear in the September issue of Arabian Business StartUp magazine.
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