Everyone has a million dollar idea, but how do you turn it into a reality? Managing Editor Dalia Awad speaks to serial entrepreneur and start-up guru Con O'Donnell to find out more about RiseUp Summit, the massive event taking place next week...
Egypt has no shortage of start-ups and budding entrepreneurs. Every corner you turn, there’s a new store, every time you log into Facebook, there’s an invitation to join a new business’ page and every time you speak to someone, they tell you about their game-changing new idea. So it’s needless to say that we’ve got plenty of talent on our streets and in our schools, but how many of these brilliant ideas go the distance? We could probably count the start-ups that have turned into lasting, profitable businesses on one hand and the amount of organisations that are helping the bright sparks turn into burning fires on the other. However, there’s a new initiative in town and it’s planning to do just that. The RiseUp Summit is a two-day event that starts Sunday 24th November, and chock-full of talks, meet-and-greets, seminars and even an opportunity to pitch for funding from angel investors, all wrapped with a party, aiming to be Egypt’s ultimate entrepreneurship event.
“The story of RiseUp Summit is the archetype of an entrepreneur's journey. Start with a good idea and passion, build a strong team around it, find a champion and get someone close to you to put some initial capital, develop the product, leverage connections (like a MoFo), bootstrap everything, create strategic partnerships, sell sell sell, launch. This is exactly how it happened,” explains self-proclaimed ‘serial entrepreneur’ Con O’Donnell, the man behind Sarmady (which is basically half the internet in Egypt, now sold off to Vodafone) and one of the investors in RiseUp Summit, among a plethora of start-ups in the country. “A young guy, Abdelhameed Sharara, came and pitched an idea to me. I'd known him for his superb work in the Injaz entrepreneurship program last year and knew he was a doer, not a talker. He was getting all fired up about a summit to coincide with the anniversary of Talaat Harb, Egypt's first real venture vapitalist. I loved the idea immediately, and knew he was the right guy at the right time and he could make it happen, but only if it was a truly collaborative and inclusive event where everyone working in the ecosystem, rather than an EGOsystem, took a part of it and made it theirs,” he adds.
And that’s exactly what RiseUp Summit turned into. O’Donnell and Sharara knew they wanted it to be a downtown event, reflective of the centre of Egypt and something that mirrored the character of the legendary Talaat Harb, just a stone’s throw away from the monument erected in his honour. “I knew that Ahmed ElAlfie had been planning a new tech/entrepreneurship hub in the old Greek Campus at AUC and this had to be the place for this event. One phone call later we had the location, and a commitment from Alfie to get it ready for us in time. That was a decisive first move,” says O’Donnell. Sharara quickly put together a team of volunteers and together with O’Donnell they tapped into their extensive networks of graphic designers, social media experts, stage designers, event planners and more. “Sharara also got a quick and decisive YES from Dina El Mofty at Injaz (a initiative that aims to empower Arab youth with education and entrepreneurial skills, as well as funding for start-ups) to give full support. I got some great support and initial funding pledged from Steven Haley at MC Egypt, and, more importantly, dedicated support time from the MC Egypt team, especially @TripleM. A few phone calls later we had the buy-in of Hossam Allam at the Cairo Angels, Fares Ghandour at Wamda, Hala Fadel at MiT Pan-Arab Forum, Heba Gamal from Endeavor Egypt and Ramez Mohamed at Flat6Labs. With that core support on-board, bringing everyone else on-board was easy.”
But what has turned into a massive event, featuring over 30 start-ups at the trade fair, tens of established speakers and tones of workshops, can’t have been that easy. For starters, how did they choose who will inspire the legions of young go-getters? “We chose people on what they have to offer. Either they have a compelling personal story that can inspire or inform the audience or they have tremendous experience and value to add to a panel or workshop or mentorship event. It's been tough, actually, because we have a wealth of stories that need to be told and a very rich vein to tap into for experience, especially the overcoming challenges against all odds,” explains O’Donnell of the roster of big names that range from illustrious novelist Essam Youssef to founder of Digital Republic, Karim Khalifa, and every skill set and success story in between. As for O’Donnell himself, he’s most looking forward to hearing Hala Fadel, the Chair of the MIT Enterprise Forum for the Pan Arab Region, speak as he’s always inspired by her talks. “Of those I have never heard before I'm looking forward to Heather Henyon, who just started an angel fund in the region to invest in women entrepreneurs. I think Mercy Corps' global CEO, Neal Keny-Guyer, will rock the space. There are some cool global Endeavor high-impact entrepreneurs who are coming in via live streaming, and Chris Schroeder, who has a very macro view of our region. Some of the personal stories will definitely be eye-openers for anyone attending. And I'm very curious to hear the doctor-turned-chef Wesam Masoud (Matbakh 101). I love listening to Karim El Shafie (Ismailia Holdings and the guy behind Asli in Maadi). There are so many, and I have my own shit to do, that I doubt I'll get to all the good stuff!”
But for those of you who have nothing but time to learn from the pros, there’ll be plenty of good stuff and we reckon it’ll do wonders in inspiring your next big idea. To make the most of the two-day event, O’Donnell suggests that “the entrepreneur should focus on the stage they are at and select the relevant events to attend and engage in… pitching, scaling, team building... what investors are looking for... how to pivot a business... how to set up an e-commerce business, how to get advertisers interested in your product/service, logistics... really there is no end to what you can take away from RiseUp.” Though online, digital and tech are the buzz words of our generation, if you’re business idea or your experience doesn’t lend itself to these fields, fret not. “RiseUp will be heavy on tech but “tech” is not a field anymore, except maybe hardware, and this is not a hardware summit! Tech is part of life today, and a key enabler of every other field. That being said, we have a whole track (including a pitch event) for agriculture entrepreneurs. We have another track specific to food and beverages. We also have a big emphasis on businesses that create positive social impact (health, education, energy resilience and job creation). It needs repeating. Tech is an enabler for every industry. We're walking around with computers, connected to the whole world, in our pockets (or more accurately, in our hands). The next disruption in education will come from a tech-based solution. Health, tourism, agriculture, transportation, energy... technology is at the heart of the innovation in those industries and fields. Entrepreneurs are not techies…they invent, innovate, disrupt and scale. The ones that make it, of course!”
RiseUp Summit will run from 24th- 25th November at the AUC’s downtown GrEEK Campus (get it?!), starting at 8AM both days. Tickets are 90 LE and are available at Vodafone stores and online. For registration and more information, including schedules, go to RiseUpSummit.com