Growing economies by planting startup culture seeds

Social Enterprise

Growing economies by planting startup culture seeds

Participants in Gaza's Startup Weekend take businesses from idea to reality. Photo: Mercy Corps.

Startup cultures are beginning to bloom in unstable markets, where business innovation--instead of charity--is rebuilding the economy.

The story is a familiar one in the age of the Arab Spring. In countries where people have overthrown strongman political leaders, government is no longer is overlord of service provision or champion of state-run business monopolies. Those economies discouraged innovation in lieu of consolidation of power among the rich and powerful. But as the old ways fall, their replacements allow for young, hip startups to grow in the rubble.

“Before the revolution, those who wanted to change things channeled their energy into the [non-governmental organization] scene,” says Muhammed Radwan, community manager for icecairo in Egypt, a startup incubator.

“Now, people are starting to look at the private sector. Entrepreneurs are trying to fix the same problems in a different way.”

Employment among the youth of countries like Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia is in crisis. So new tech-savvy, entrepreneurial college graduates are creating their own jobs and ecosystems in which startups flourish. There are startup incubators, like icecairo, that provide training and space for new entrepreneurs, and startup competitions like the StartUp Cup in Cairo and Benghazi (and 46 other cities worldwide), and even Startup Weekend in Tunisia and Gaza, where new entrepreneurs can come with an idea on Friday and leave with a business plan 54 hours later. Mercy Corps has partnered with Startup Weekend in Gaza and Portland, and is in the process of expanding the partnership to other global cities. 

Nader Mehdawi, co-founder of Think Creative, an organization designed to build Libya’s economy by promoting of creative thinking, believes that even security concerns can’t stop the forward momentum from young entrepreneurs excited about the future of his country.

"We understand the implications of the security situation, but life doesn't stop, and those things don't mean that we should stop building our country."

Here are five groups supporting startups:

  • icecairo, part of the icehubs network, is a co-working space and community hub for green tech innovation in Egypt, with both a physical space and an online space for collaboration. icecairo was founded in 2012.
  • Startup Cup is a business innovation competition model and social enterprise that holds Startup Cup competitions in more than 50 cities worldwide, moving startups from idea to sustainable business in only a few short months. Startup Cup was founded in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2007.
  • Startup Weekend is a network of entrepreneurs and leaders who come together to churn out startups in just one weekend. Events have been held in over 400 cities in 100 countries worldwide. Startup Weekend was founded in Boulder, Colorado in 2007, and is currently based in Seattle, Washington. 
  • Think Creative is the new organization that owns the Benghazi Startup Cup, and is an organization aiming to have an impact on the economy through supporting entrepreneurship instead of letting young would-be startup founders become dependent on the government.
  • Gaza Sky Geeks, founded by Mercy Corps and launched this fall, provides ambitious and creative founders start-ups with logistical support, technical training, expert mentorship, and promotional services to the founders and developer of each start-up team. Members of Gaza Sky Geeks are given an opportunity to test their ideas in the real world--to share and refine ideas with leading experts in the field and brainstorm with diverse audiences and competitors. Listen to their story on NPR's All Things Considered, aired October 15. 
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