DinarStandard has been highlighting and covering entrepreneurship and innovation trends across the Muslim markets for the past many years. We have hardly come across any event that has effectively discussed entrepreneurship for this market in the manner that President Obama’s Summit on Entrepreneurship did earlier this year, April 26-27th in Washington DC.
This event put into action the promise President Obama made during his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo on June 4th, 2009. I was invited to cover the event and here are some of my observations regarding the diverse mix of delegates, key messages, interesting quotes, and some tough questions asked.First, the sheer diversity of entrepreneurs that were present was impressive. There were Muslim entrepreneurs representing emerging, exciting ventures from Ghana, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Morocco and elsewhere. One delegate I met, Mr. Shaffi Mather from Cochin India, runs one of the largest private Ambulance service there. Another delegate Mr. Mohammed El-Fatatry (whom we have profiled before) from Finland, owns one of the largest online Muslim lifestyle networks – Muxlim.com
Indeed the big boys were there too. Mr. Mian Mohammad Manshah, recognized as one of richest businessman in Pakistan by Forbes magazine, was in attendance mingling amongst the delegates. Dr. Mo Ibrahim, Chairman of Celtel and famous for his philanthropic activities in Africa was an active participant during panel Q&A’s. Mr. Naguib Sawiris, CEO of Orascom (the giant Telecom player) from Egypt and Mr. Ferit Sahenk, of Dogus Holding, Turkey were also on the invite list.
Some of the star panelists of the event for me were:
- Mr. Fadi Ghandour, CEO of Aramex, an absolute rock-star with his passion and vision of entrepreneurship for the region.
- Nobel Laureate, Dr. Muhammad Yunus, sharing the success story of his now global brand – Grameen, and its taboo-breaking, women focused social impact.
- Dr. Naif Al Mutawa, CEO of The99 - a comic book series with Muslim values and a global message. President Obama even enthusiastically acknowledged The 99 comic series in his speech at the event.
- Ms. Tri Mumpuni (in picture), from Indonesia. Her community based off-grid power system supply's power to the national grid while generating revenue for the host communities. She was passionate about entrepreneurs making a difference and spoke of the struggles in balancing her family life while leading as a trailblazing entrepreneur.
- Mr. Sandiaga Uno, Chariman, Saratoga Capital, Indonesia. Profiled the struggles of being laid-off and starting a first-ever Private Equity firm taking it from 4 employees to today 15,000. One of richest Indonesians today, Mr. Uno is a big proponent and driver of fostering entrepreneurship in Indonesia.
Key actionable messages from the panel discussions were:
- The critical need of Venture Capital (early stage and even angel investing) in the region to support entrepreneurship. From investor’s side, however, more transparency and exit opportunities were identified as needs. Also, other capital raising models discussed included Sharia financing and Micro-finance.
- Need for increasing awareness and education about entrepreneurship – especially for celebrating success stories (e.g. sale of Maktoob.com to Yahoo.com). Interestingly, the word entrepreneurship doesn’t exist in common vocabulary of many major markets. What is Entrepreneurship in Arabic? Mr. Ghandour suggested “Reyada.” How about in Urdu?
- In today’s, connected, technology driven world, Entrepreneurship can thrive despite governments being slow. Mr. Ghandour gave an example of how Maktoob bought a small internet company in Yemen where the owner did not have a passport or even bank account. However, government’s critical role in helping to scale entrepreneurs was emphasized.
Some of my favorite quotes from the event:
- Mr. Mohammad Yunus: “Every Muslim should follow the Prophet PBUH and marry an entrepreneur. If you can’t find one come to us we have hundreds and thousands for you to choose from.”
- Mr. Fadi Ghandour on definition of entrepreneurs: “Builders that have long-term impact.”
- Ms. Tri Mumpuni - “Life is meaningful if you are useful to others."
- Arif Naqvi, CEO of Abraaj Capital (largest MENA Private Equity firm) - "What is social entrepreneurship? I don’t understand. Every business should be socially geared." (Note: Abraaj has launched an SME Fund recently, Riyada Enterprise Development )
Some tough Questions/ Observations:
- One Muslim delegate asked a panel the question: "Is there such a thing as Muslim Entrepreneurship or relevance of Islam to entrepreneurship?" The response from the panel was mixed. Mr. Sandiaga Uno and Ms. Tri Mumpuni from Indonesia acknowledged the positive role Prophet Mohammad’s (pbuh) life lessons and religious values played in inspiring them. Meanwhile Ms. Douja Mahmoud Gharbi from Tunisia viewed entrepreneurship as a standard set of skills world over.
- Another emotional Q&A discussion happened when a Muslim delegate from Philippines asked, “My dear Arab brothers where are you? Why don't you look at investing in the less developed Muslim communities?” To which Dr. Tarik Yousef, Dean of Dubai Gov. School, humbly acknowledged, “yes, we should and we have not been engaged as much as we can.”
- It was interesting to see that the only people comfortable referring to the collective “Muslim Majority Countries” were the US administration panelists. Most Muslim majority country delegates I spoke to didn’t seem comfortable with the concept of the “Muslim world” as a whole. Their focus was very much national in nature.
- Interestingly also, no Islamic Finance institution was represented - either as delegate or panelist. Was that a political statement or simply that there isn’t much of an entrepreneurial drive amongst Islamic Financial institutions?
- Prominent countries with entrepreneurs showcased as panelists were: Jordan, Indonesia, Egypt, UAE, and Bangladesh. Whereas, countries I thought were relatively less visible on panels: Malaysia, Turkey, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. Would that be any indication of a political US slant or again a function of lack of entrepreneurial success stories from amongst these markets?
Was the event a success?
The Summit did not address or bring Government agencies from Muslim markets to address various structural issues raised. So the impact from that point will be minimal. Obviously, no aspect of the role of Islam as a means of strength was touched upon. Also, the critical question of Venture Capital for entrepreneurs was listened to by select PE players at the event but, the absence of Islamic Financial Institutions and their possible prominent role was not tapped into.
Regardless of these and possibly other short-comings, this Summit was a big success and a great contribution to fostering entrepreneurship spirit across the Muslim markets. It has certainly helped amplify the many voices emerging in support of entrepreneurship from across the Muslim markets. The next one is going to be hosted in Turkey and President Obama has announced a number of additional initiatives to sustain this beginning of a new partnership.