Washington — When a group of 12 U.S. entrepreneurs, investors and officials arrived in Cairo in January 2011 to connect with budding entrepreneurs, the revolution was just unfolding. “Many of those we met shut their laptops … to march through the streets throughout Egypt,” according to a blog entry by two members of the U.S. delegation, Seth Goldstein and Christopher Schroeder.
While the timing was coincidental, the purpose of the U.S. delegation — to help release the entrepreneurial energy of young Egyptian innovators — complemented the events in Tahrir Square.
A series of training and networking sessions followed, organized by the U.S. State Department’s Global Entrepreneurship Program (GEP), together with local partners. The program, launched by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2010 at President Obama’s Entrepreneurship Summit, is a public-private partnership designed to leverage U.S. expertise and resources to promote entrepreneurship around the world, with an initial focus on Muslim-majority countries. More than 120 U.S. and overseas private-sector partners — corporations, investors, universities and nongovernmental groups — are part of the GEP, including Google Inc., Stanford University, Egypt's Sawari Ventures and the Angel Capital Association.
MAKE THEM GROW LIKE WEEDS
Serial entrepreneur Steven Koltai, who developed the GEP and headed it until mid-2011, estimates that so far the program has reached out to 10,000 entrepreneurs and startup teams.
Koltai compares entrepreneurs to crab grass, a sturdy plant that grows up even through cracks in a sidewalk. To till the earth for a flower bed of startups, as Koltai puts it, GEP teams have traveled to Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Indonesia, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Turkey. Together with local partners, a delegation’s members devise an individual path for each country; it usually starts with a business-plan competition to identify the most promising local entrepreneurs. The winners not only get cash or paid-for trips to U.S. business incubators, or both, but also benefit from evaluations done by entrepreneurs and investors from Silicon Valley.
The evaluation “alone had a [positive] impact on our startup morale and fueled our will,” said Moroccan winner Yassine El Kachchani, who developed La Carte Plz, a mobile application for the restaurant industry.
Winning validates a startup, gives it free publicity and acts as a magnet for investors, partners, talented workers and distributors. “It was an amazing experience,” said Egyptian Haytham ElFadeel, who won an award for Kngine, a semantic Internet search engine. “It showed I have developed a real, concrete product.”
Many other competition participants benefit from GEP. For example, in Egypt six finalists received seed capital from members of the U.S. delegation.
The benefits are mutual. Seasoned U.S. businesspeople are exposed to new investment opportunities, and some local investors acquire a taste for risky but high-reward ventures. The GEP delegation visits have led to concrete investments. For example, Sawari Ventures launched a $50 million early-stage venture capital fund designed to invest in early-stage Egyptian technology companies. And in Jordan, Usama Fayyad of Yahoo fame launched a business incubator/seed venture fund, which by July 2011 had hosted 23 startups and trained 225 aspiring entrepreneurs.
STRIVING FOR AN ENTREPRENEURIAL ECOSYSTEM
The program’s ultimate goal is to create a robust local entrepreneurial ecosystem. Local business climates can develop to support job creation and economic growth, GEP officials believe.
In many emerging markets, evolution toward an entrepreneurial culture will start, said Shelly Porges, head of the program. “We count on motivated local entrepreneurs to make it happen with their energy and drive for innovation,” Porges said. The GEP can accelerate the process by bringing resources, spreading best practices and recognizing local role models.
The GEP has established local programs in Egypt, Indonesia and Turkey and created the position of an Entrepreneur in Residence to keep the momentum going. The first such adviser — in Egypt — was instrumental in putting together an entrepreneurship boot camp, among many other activities in 2011. During the event 38 Egyptian entrepreneurs were mentored by seasoned businesspeople in preparation for a business-plan competition. At the end six American mentors and one Danish mentor announced not only winners, but also the creation of a $125,000 venture capital fund focused on Egyptian high-tech companies.
Encouraged by its initial success, the GEP will expand its reach beyond Muslim-majority countries. It wants to connect U.S. embassies that support entrepreneurial activities to its partners and enhance related programs, such as mentor-mentee online matching services, angel networks of private investors to fund early-stage startups, and links between U.S. and local partners developing or running business incubators.
“There are young people almost everywhere that are prone to entrepreneurialism, well connected, aware of the latest technologies and prepared to take the risk,” Porges said. “We want to help them.”