Harnessing young unicorn companies in the Gulf

For every Careem there are hundreds of start-ups that still fail to even get an audience in front of regional investors



Years ago, when I was at a retail conference, I heard a young fashion designer mention that Giorgio Armani was Giorgio Armani in Italy, before he became Giorgio Armani to the world.

The frustration this young designer had stemmed from the fact that designers in the region weren’t getting an opportunity to showcase their wares with regional retailers, as they were more interested in showcasing brands from outside the region.

Similarly, Aramex founder Fadi Ghandour talks of the same frustrations at various conferences where I’ve heard him speak because when he started the courier company in 1982, he had to go outside the region to get his initial funding.

The news then of ride booking app Careem becoming the region’s latest unicorn with its $1bn valuation with most of its funding coming from within the region was refreshing.

Read: Saudi Telecom board approves $100m investment in Dubai’s Careem

But for every Careem, there are hundreds of start-ups from the region that still fail to even get an audience in front of regional investors so again turn towards the West for funding.

The Gulf is unique demographically. We have generally speaking, a very young population across most of the GCC countries, most of whom are well educated, multi-lingual and exposed to various cultures.

Many of these young people a generation ago would’ve looked for employment in the government sector but with the growth in populations across the region, the comforts of government employment are no longer guaranteed. Thus, we also have the growth of newer industries, many of which are government-backed.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen in many parts of the world, established business models being challenged by younger entrepreneurs, who have got a distinct talent in finding better ways to get a job done.

The fundamentals of how business is done haven’t changed but the solutions are evolving. While we’ve seen Careem succeed, we have to remember that the founders were working at a renowned consultancy firm and thus had with them better access to capital or investment than most younger start-ups would.

If the region is to have its own Mark Zuckerberg, who started Facebook while a student at Harvard University, or Sean Parker, who started Napster at age 15, we need to create a culture that helps young entrepreneurs flourish. Whether this is through competitions, mentorship, funding or creating legal structures that help a student entrepreneur develop, we need to see this happen more quickly.

As an entrepreneur and UAE chair of the Global Student Entrepreneurs Award (GSEA), I’ve found it extremely rewarding to engage with student entrepreneurs because I have gained a lot out of it personally.

What surprises me, is how many young students fail to realise their entrepreneurial side. Whilst the perception of a young entrepreneur was a kid with a lemonade stand, it has evolved today to the graphic designer, who supplements his pocket money by doing freelance work. This is someone who, with the right support system, could grow to become a full-fledged entrepreneur.

The UAE, for example, has been a hotbed for entrepreneurship, as the region initially flourished with traders who had their businesses in the various souqs in Deira or Bur Dubai. Many of these trading firms grew to become some of the largest retailers, mall operators, automotive distributors or construction companies in the region.

However, we need to see the next wave of entrepreneurs from the region emerge and turn into unicorns, we need to give them the platforms to develop.

If you do have an established business, speak to a local university and see if you can find ways to engage because there is just as much to learn from these emerging entrepreneurs as you can share with them.

There is some unbelievable talent tucked away on campuses across the region and remember, Giorgio Armani was Giorgi Armani in Italy, before he was Giorgio Armani to the world.

Ashish Panjabi is a governance director for the Middle East, Pakistan and Africa region for the Entrepreneurs’ Organization and the UAE chair for the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards (GSEA)