Wanted: UAE entrepreneurs for social impact

Social impact-led companies could play a critical role in tackling the Middle East’s swelling youth unemployment rate

The UAE chapter of global business accelerator Endeavor plans to expand its portfolio of entrepreneurs from 10 to 15 by the year-end as it seeks to support job creation in the Middle East.

The non-profit, whose mentors offer support to budding entrepreneurs and small-and-medium-sized businesses, believes social impact-led companies could play a critical role in tackling the Middle East’s swelling youth unemployment rate.

“Seventy-two per cent of the population in the region is under 30,” said Noor Sweid, managing partner of venture capital firm Leap Ventures, who sits on the board of Endeavor UAE. “It’s good to see the impact these entrepreneurs have, whether it’s [through] employment or an ecosystem impact. For everyone that does well there are hundreds more that are inspired to do what they believe in.”

Endeavor claims to have aided 1,000 entrepreneurs and created 400,000 jobs worldwide between its launch in 1997 and 2013. The UAE chapter was established in 2013, as part of a regional network that includes offices in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Turkey.

“It’s good to feel that you’re giving some of your expertise,” said Alejandro Carbon, executive director, Majid Al Futtaim Finance and an Endeavor mentor. “We are in a part of the world where youth unemployment is quite high and we know from statistics that a lot of employment is generated by SMEs.”

According to the organisation’s global figures, Endeavor entrepreneurs grow their businesses twice as fast and create jobs five times faster than entrepreneurs without the benefit of the network.

Endeavor entrepreneurs worldwide generated some $6.8bn in revenue in 2013. The accelerator urges both mentors and entrepreneurs to give back and boost the local startup landscape.

The UAE chapter’s 13 board members each invest cash to run the country office, as well as gifting their expertise. The board includes the heads of corporates such as Aramex, Crescent Enterprises, Mazrui Holdings and the Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group.

“To give back is a personal choice. But it’s also more than that, it’s a responsibility we all carry,” said Souheil Hajjar, CEO, Majid Al Futtaim Trust and Endeavor UAE board member. “We are all taught that the reality of business is all about revenues and profit. However, one important aspect is how do you get there? Everyone one of us has had teachers, mentors, someone who helped you along the way. All we’re doing is our part in society.”

For their part, entrepreneurs aided by the network are expected to provide social impact, whether through job creation, their supply chain, or by acting as a role model.

“We expect them to have the CSR (corporate social responsibility) aspect in their personality,” said Sweid.

Entrepreneurs are also encouraged to make voluntary contributions to Endeavor itself, whether contributing funding to the country office, mentoring others or becoming a board member. Around half of Endeavor’s board members in Argentina, where the network first launched, are former Endeavor entrepreneurs.

Endeavor UAE currently supports 10 entrepreneurs from six companies, including property site Propertyfinder.ae and e-commerce business, MENA360. Candidates must have annual revenues of more than $2.5m, around 40 employees and four years of operation, and face a six-month selection process.

Operating a global network, Endeavor links entrepreneurs up with three business mentors, provides access to courses at Stanford and Harvard universities, and partners with consultancies such as Ernst & Young and Bain & Company to provide support. The network does not offer funding, but can help connect SMEs to potential investors.

“Economic success is at the core of harmony, of everything you do. In a region rife with a lot of challenges, if Endeavor can do its bit it will start to help,” said Avi Bhojani, Endeavor board member and chairman of International Management Ventures. “If we can help that company [in Yemen]… we’re not going to solve all their problems, but maybe we can alleviate the problems for a few hundred families.”