Arabnet Riyadh, the kingdom's largest technology event, is expected to attract over 6,000 attendees, 150-plus investors and 300-plus exhibiting start-ups. Ahead of the event on December 10-11 at the Riyadh International Convention and Exhibition Center, we speak to the CEO of Arabnet, Omar Christidis
What inspires you?
I’m a techno-optimist. I believe that technology has the power to enhance human lives. I’m not blind to the potential of the negative impacts technology has. However, at the end of the day, technology has the power to eliminate poverty and hunger and create free and infinite energy and do incredible things like cure diseases, take us to planets and explore the solar system.
What's one thing most people don't know about you?
I used to be a semi-professional singer. When I attended Yale, I was part of the Yale Whiffenpoofs - a collegiate a cappella singing group, which is the oldest group of its kind in the USA, established in 1909.
We did an 11-week world tour over the summer, which crossed from China, Japan, Thailand, India, South Africa, Russia, etc. I was also in a cover band called the Funk Masters of the Apocalypse, and part of a 16th-Century choral group called State street singers.
Quote to live your life by?
"A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it" - Herbert A. Simon
The most interesting thing about this quote is it is from 1969, before the introduction of the internet. I think it’s more relevant today than ever, and should shape how companies and governments think about communication and messaging in the increasingly crowded echo chambers of the internet.
What's the main aim of Arabnet Riyadh?
Arabnet’s vision has always been to catalyse growth in the tech industry by being a platform for knowledge and connections - bringing together government policymakers, corporate leaders, and start-ups and investors to unlock emerging opportunities in the sector.
Arabnet Riyadh is the largest and most influential event for digital business and innovation in the kingdom will bring together thousands of decision makers and innovators to connect and learn.
With the increasing importance of Saudi Arabia as an entrepreneurial hub, and with start-ups around the region flocking to expand into the kingdom, Arabnet Riyadh is the ideal platform to engage with the region’s largest and fastest growing digital market. It will be the perfect platform to understand what it takes to enter the Saudi market, find the right partners or investors, and connect with potential customers.
Can you give us some insights into the start-up sector in Riyadh?
Saudi Arabia has been witnessing a boom in start-up investments in the past few years. This has partially been driven by Vision 2030, which is shifting the kingdom away from economic dependency on oil and towards entrepreneurship and innovation as drivers of economic growth - by fostering and investing in start-ups. Raising the current contribution of SMEs to GDP from 20 percent to 35 percent by 2030 is a top priority for the kingdom.
In 2019, we witnessed a number of big ticket investments including an $8.6m investment in Noon Academy co-led by Raed Ventures and Saudi Technology Ventures, marking the largest ever funding round raised by a MENA based EdTech start-up. NaNa Direct, an online grocery platform raised $6.6m led by Middle East Venture Partners (MEVP) and Impact46.
AI and supercomputing startup UnitX, a spin-out company from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), secured $2m from the KAUST Innovation Fund and Saudi Aramco’s Wa’ed fund. And this comes on the heels of big investments in 2018, including Telfaz’s $9m investment round and Unifonic’s whopping $21m growth funding.
Monshaat, Saudi's General Authority for Small and Medium Enterprises, is among the key entities to develop and nurture the SME sector. One of the key steps taken by Monshaat is having established Saudi Venture Capital Company (SVC) in 2018, with funding worth $1.33b, to match investments or invest in funds.
Also in 2018, the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) started granting investor licenses in an accelerated process, and launched Venture by Invest Saudi, an initiative to attract international VCs. At the end of 2018 SAGIA also launched a subsidized entrepreneur license to attract start-ups to the kingdom.
The Saudi entrepreneurship scene is proliferating at a rapid pace and has become the heart of the entrepreneurship scene in the region.
What topics and issues will be highlighted? Any speakers you can name?
The event will bring together 250+ experts and speakers from around the world, with programming covering a range of topics across five forums:
The Inspire Saudi track will focus on start-ups and investing in tech companies, featuring top global investors from Silicon Valley, the United Kingdom, Singapore, Hong Kong, France, Austria, Mexico, and around the MENA region. Inspire Saudi will also feature inspirational Saudi leaders including HRH Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, President of the Saudi Arabian Federation for Electronic and Intellectual Sports (SAFEIS) and the Arab eSports Federation.
The Ad/Edge track will delve into digital media and advertising, with top speakers from MBC Group, Snap, Facebook, TikTok, Choueiri Group, Vice Media, Chalhoub Group, OMD, DMS, Starzplay, and others.
The Finverse track will tackle digital banking and fintech, with confirmed speakers including Rayan AlFayez, CEO and MD of Saudi Fransi Bank; Sami AlRuwiethy, Chief Digital Officer of SAMBA, Stephen Monaghan EVP - Digital Banking at Riyad Bank, and Andreas Skopal, Group Chief Digital Officer at Gulf International Bank.
Finally, the CIO Forum will dive into best practices for digital transformation across government and enterprise, and will feature top CTOs and CIOs from the National Water Company, Alamar Foods, Arab National Bank, as well as experts from IBM, Mastercard and others.
What do you enjoy the most about working at your company?
My biggest joy about Arabnet is when we hear people talk about how Arabnet has impacted them. All our alumni who pitched at Arabnet have gone on to employ over 650 people. Over 285 entrepreneurs have graduated from Arabnet’s Startup Battle, who have raised over $85M, and their overall valuation today is $275m.
We have so many inspirational stories to tell. Careem co-founder Dr. Abdulla Elyas met his Co-founder Mudassir and Magnus at Arabnet Dubai in 2013. Hunger Station pitched at the first Arabnet event in Riyadh as a small start-up and has grown to become the market leader in food delivery in Saudi Arabia. There are many more examples on our impact to start-ups.
What advice would you give to someone going into a leadership position for the first time?
First, perception is more important than intention. The more you’re in a leadership, the less natural you can be. Whatever you do - what you say, how you behave - it matters less what you intend, and more how people (staff, suppliers, etc) will read into it.
Also, the information you receive is always skewed - always carries the bias of the person presenting it to you, and often will focus on what they want you to hear or see. It’s difficult to get a really clear picture of what’s going on, but it’s important that you gather many perspectives to understand what’s going on - from the most junior person to your direct reports.
As a leader with a strong, empowered team, most of the decisions should be made by your team - only the most complex decisions with trade-offs (or two bad choices) will come to you; you constantly have to be thinking about making compromises for the bigger picture.
Arabnet Riyadh takes place on December 10-11 at the Riyadh International Convention and Exhibition Center
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