By Tamara Pupic
Mai Medhat, co-founder and CEO of Eventtus, and Jihad Kawas, founder of Saily, reveal why the region is a fertile ground for those eager to learn, question and solve
In recent years, the main focus of MENA policymakers has been helping the region’s youth population get proper education and fruitful employment or start up sustainable businesses. The region has been striving to turn its currently biggest concern – MENA has the world’s highest youth unemployment rate currently standing at 27.2 percent according to the World Economic Forum – into its ultimate competitive advantage.
The international recognition of Mai Medhat, co-founder of Cairo-based Eventtus, an all-in-one events platform and networking app, and Jihad Kawas, co-founder of Beirut-based Saily, the first location-based online marketplace for secondhand goods, proves that the efforts of decision-makers, educators, and private sector executives have begun to bear fruit, slowly but surely.
At 29, Medhat employs more than 20 people in her native Cairo.
Medhat recently made headlines when she joined a five-member high profile panel discussion on entrepreneurship at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit 2016 at Stanford University, California. She was sitting alongside fellow entrepreneurs from Rwanda and Peru as well as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and US President Barack Obama. “I have received a lot of support after the panel. I do not feel the new attention as a pressure, but I do feel responsible because of it,” she says. “There are many start-ups in the region and many people are working very hard here to support us. That was our chance to show to the world that we can build something very useful. It is not about me and Eventtus, but about our region.”
Jihad Kawas, a 19-year-old Lebanese, has five people on the company’s payroll.
He 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.
Kawas and his co-founder Dany Arnaout set up Saily in Beirut, but their goal from the beginning was to focus on the US market. Despite the scepticism of their peers claiming that the plan was too ambitious and hardly achievable, the co-founders launched the app in the US in 2015. “I want to advise them [young entrepreneurs] something because I still remember that phase when I was just starting,” Kawas says about the 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 [he laughs]. When people build things, it is about what they build and how they do that, and not about where they come from.”
Kawas comes from a strong entrepreneurial background. He is a son of small business owners from Saïda, a town 40km south of Beirut. His father owns a bakery while his mother runs a make-up studio. “They taught me about leadership in many different ways,” says Kawas. “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.”
When Kawas was 12, he was hardly able to fix his iPhone or download an app without the help of his friends. A year later, he started learning HTML, followed by Java Script, CSS, and other programming languages. “That is not something structured,” he says. “I would just go and learn things while building projects. A big part of coding, which is something people do not know, is that it includes a lot of Googling. But it is not Googling ‘how to learn Java’ but Googling specific problems.
“You cannot separate learning how to code from applying a code. I used to learn whatever I needed. If I did not need something, I was not interested in learning it.”
Kawas describes himself as an average programmer, crediting his co-founder Arnaout for mastering the skill. However, his desire to learn has played a major role in the development of his skills, leading him to the decision to pursue start-up life instead of enrolling in college after finishing Houssam Eddine Hariri High School in Saïda.
It came as a surprise to few since Kawas had already been outspoken in his criticism of the current education system and its failure to satiate his curiosity. “It is not about going to school or not going to school. It is about pursuing education wherever that thing is,” he says. “Whenever I talk to people, they always try to make a rule out of what I am trying to say, but actually it really depends from one person to another. This is my path and I am not saying that everybody should do it. “The problem with the educational system and the way people think of it is an expectation that you put a kid in it and what you get out is a kid with a job. But it really is different. It is about teaching that kid the mentality of learning.
“If someone wants to be a surgeon, I would not say to them to travel to Silicon Valley and never go to college. The mentality should be to follow education, to follow where you can actually learn and improve. That is literally it. It can be in school, it can be in Silicon Valley, or it can be both.
“I believe that what is wrong with the educational system today is the system part of it. You can box information, but you cannot box education.”
Medhat is the only entrepreneur in her family, apart from her grandfather, who owned a printing house in Cairo, Interestingly, it was her grandfather who bought her a computer when she was 13, her first.
“As a teenager, I wanted to be an engineer. When I got my first computer, I loved it, and that was it,” Medhat says. “I used to manage different groups on the Internet, such as Yahoo groups and various forums, and I used to help my friends build websites. But I learnt to code at university.”
Medhat opted for a conventional approach to acquiring knowledge, and it paid off in unexpected ways. While studying computer engineering at Ain Shams University in Cairo, Medhat worked on a graduation project with Nihal Fares, a fellow student with whom Medhat would later co-found Eventtus.
The duo presented their graduation project, a technology solution to the traffic jam problem in Cairo, at Imagine Cup, Microsoft’s annual competition for young engineers, held in Cairo in 2009. It won the top prize at the event.
“We used to work on side projects, in addition to our full time jobs,” Medhat says. ”We used to analyse start-ups, think of different problems and try to solve them. We even used to take a few days off from work to research and interview people about some ideas that we were interested in.We enjoy working together and that has always been very exciting for us.”
Their entrepreneurial spark ignited during the 2011 Egyptian revolution, leading them to attend the 2011 Startup Weekend Cairo, billed as the first of many events targeting entrepreneurship in the new Egypt. The event organisers’ struggle with logistics and planning proved to be an exercise in problem discovery for Medhat and Fares.
“Both of us applied, but she got accepted and I didn’t get the invitation,” Medhat says. “But I went anyway [she laughs]. I was not sure whether they would let me in or not, but I got in and it was a very good learning experience. It was there that we decided that we want to work on this full time.
“When we started, I actually had not organised an event in my entire life. However, we were very passionate about events, connecting people and networking. From day one we wanted to build something that can be used anywhere, such as SoundCloud [a global online audio distribution platform based in Germany]. You don’t know where the founders are from, but it is used everywhere. We wanted that.”
The Eventtus mobile app enables event organisers to consolidate event planning and execution, curate interactive event experiences, and create user-friendly tools for attendees to connect and share ideas.
The endorsement from the region’s start-up community, including collaborations with RiseUp Summit Cairo, STEP Conference, Wamda, and ArabNet, proved a turning point for their business.
“At the beginning, it was just the two of us trying to do something,” says Medhat. “It was hard because we built everything ourselves. We had a product vision from the beginning because that is something that we know, but all other aspects we had to learn.
“I think I made a lot of mistakes, such as hiring the wrong people, not firing so fast, and building features that no one will actually use. For example, at the beginning we used to target entertainment events, but after a while we decided that our main focus should be business events.
“When we started approaching customers, they did not take us seriously because we were very young, casually dressed, like many engineers. We understood that we had to learn a lot. For example, I was very shy to sell our product. I tried to do it at a few meetings and it was a disaster. But then I started to learn what I should say, what I should mention, and I just threw myself into it.”
The Eventtus solution has brought a number of industry accolades to its founders, including winning AT&T’s Most Efficient App Award at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in 2013, and taking part in Silicon Valley’s BlackBox Connect accelerator in 2014. A year later, Medhat joined Endeavor Global’s exclusive group of high-impact entrepreneurs.
Having raised seed funding of $175,000 from Vodafone Ventures and Cairo Angels in 2013, and an undisclosed amount from Middle East Venture Partners (MEVP) and Saudi Arabia’s Raed Ventures in 2016, Eventtus, which now has offices in Cairo and Dubai, has grown to work with more than 800 event organisers, managing more than 8,000 events.
Kawas and Arnaout followed a similar path. They met at the 2012 Startup Weekend Beirut. Before founding Saily in late 2013, the Lebanese duo worked together on a project that won the first prize at the Beirut Social Innovation Camp of MIT Enterprise Forum of the Pan Arab Region.
Saily, available on both iOS and Android devices, allows users to buy and sell secondhand products by showcasing the pictures of the products in a live newsfeed and connecting buyers and sellers through chat. The app uses GPS to connect people in the same area, making it the first location-based based online marketplace of that kind.
However, it was not an easy ride for Kawas and Arnaout. Failing to attract customers in the US, they were on the verge of closing the company when a man in Texas downloaded and shared their app within his community.
Since then Saily has grown to 300,000 registered US-based users, adding 2,000 new customers per day. It is supported by Will Bunker, founder of match.com, Philippe Dagher, CEO of Cash United, Middle East Venture Partners (MEVP), and a few angel funds.
In his case, the transition from a high school student to a CEO has also required sustained sacrifice and continuous learning. “When running a company, you literally do not have a typical day. First of all, days do not start and do not end. Really, they just don’t end. Sometimes you do so well with something which you did not expect to be easy, and sometimes you completely destroy something and then need to try to fix it.It cannot be structured because we are growing by hundreds of percent and that influences our daily routine.”
Implementing growth strategies is on Medhat’s radar as well, including opening their first European branch in 2017 and deepening cooperation with large corporations. “I think that people have started to understand that to support start-ups, you need to use their business, and you need to download the app,” she says. ”That is the kind of support that we need, and not only sharing on Facebook or something similar.”
Medhat states that corporations are more interested in cooperating with Eventtus following her participation in the 2016 GES.
With all that in mind, we had to ask what happened backstage. “We first met Mark Zuckerberg who asked us about the connectivity and the ecosystem support in our countries,” says Medhat. “Then we met President Obama. He is a very friendly, very down-to-earth person. He asked us about our businesses, but he actually knew a lot about it. For example, he asked me: ‘I believe you do ticketing as well, it is not just mobile app for events, right?’ He actually knew what we do.”
Obama announced the launch of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit initiative during his historic visit to Cairo in 2009.
Seven years later his chat with Medhat must have convinced him that entrepreneurialism is both deeply rooted in the MENA region’s history and part of its future.