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Egypt's Young Entrepreneurs

Youth entrepreneurship emerges as a key recommendation in post-revolution Egypt.
Jonathan Ortmans | 04.09.2011
Last June, the United Nations Development Program released its Human Development Report for Egypt, which noted that 90 percent of the country’s unemployed, estimated to be 8 million, were younger than 30. Not surprisingly, time and again at post-revolution gatherings of political leaders and civil sector organizations set on creating a clear roadmap for the country’s political and economic development, youth entrepreneurship emerges as a key recommendation.

President Obama identified this himself during his last speech on the Middle East. One of the four pillars in aid to the region will be economic modernization, including establishing Egyptian-American Enterprise Funds to stimulate private sector investment, as well as building networks of entrepreneurs and fostering cooperation in science and technology. The hope of his $1 billion debt relief strategy is that Egyptian partners will invest resources to foster growth and entrepreneurship. “Entrepreneurs are brimming with ideas, but corruption leaves them unable to profit from those ideas,” he said.

Fortunately, leadership is developing by the day to support entrepreneurship, and startup activities that offer young people opportunities to build networks and launch their ideas are plentiful (e.g. Startup Weekend Cairo). In short there are intense efforts underway to build an Egyptian entrepreneurial ecosystem that will allow youth entrepreneurship to flourish as a solution to the country’s socio-economic woes. For example, Mohamed Anis at the Middle East Council for Small Business and Entrepreneurship is developing a renewed and scaled-up Global Entrepreneurship Week campaign in Egypt. Amr El Abd the co-founder and chairperson of a youth-led NGO in Egypt, the Entrepreneurs Business Forum (EBF), is keeping the focus on high impact entrepreneurship. And then there is Mike Ducker, Entrepreneur-In-Residence at the Global Entrepreneurship Program in Egypt, who was selected by the US government to lead its investment in entrepreneurship in the country following President Obama’s announced commitment to help during a speech in Cairo in 2009. You can follow Mike´s work on Twitter at @gepEGmike.

While many other leaders are busy fixing Egypt’s economic fundamentals, these actors are preparing the culture. In the past, working in the government was highly prized. When choosing entrepreneurship as a career path, young Egyptians have usually been opting for lower-risk traditional businesses. It will be interesting to see if post-“Arab Spring” youth are less hesitant of venturing on their own. Of course, overcoming cultural barriers to entrepreneurship will be closely related to public policy. For example, going bankrupt is still a crime that can potentially lead to imprisonment of the business owner. And, as President Obama pointed out in May during his speech on the Middle East, in a global economy based on knowledge and innovation, people cannot reach their potential when you cannot start a business without paying a bribe.

Egypt is the Arab world's largest nation and the greatest untapped resource in terms of a talented people. The energy of those who crowded Tahrir Square needs to be channeled through opportunity to take ideas to the market. If this is not a result, the struggles on the street will not solidify into accomplishments of economic freedom. Those of us practitioners committed to the role of startups in expanding economies should help. We should offer our best ideas, best research and best programs. I encourage you to share your ideas.
About the author: Jonathan Ortmans