In this CairoScene exclusive, we speak to the inspirational team behind the region's most innovative entrepreneurial event, #RiseUp15, this year set to take place on the 12th and 13th December at The Greek Campus.
They poured their heart and soul into it, slept on mattresses on campus, invested all their savings, and networked across borders - all in service of a vision that would see Egypt’s startup ecosystem crystallise in two marathonic days. The result, the RiseUp Summit, turned out a cornerstone that surpassed each of the co-founders’ expectations, at a moment when roads were blocked by army tanks and all eyes were focused on the post-revolutionary turmoil.
It was the summer of 2012 and the heat was fading away. The socio-political climate, however, showed no signs of cooling down; but Abdelhameed Sharara had a vision that kept him restless. “I had graduated from an Injaz CEO competition that changed my life. But the company we had created had 30 co-founders, and I knew that isn't how business works,” says the 28-year-old lawyer.
While attending an entrepreneurship event, Sharara’s outspoken vision and clear-cut ideas drew the attention of his soon-to-be-partner Muhammed Mansour, who didn’t hesitate, turned around, and introduced himself. Mansour was working at Mercy Corps together with Con O’Donnell, an angel investor and serial entrepreneur whose startup Sarmady – a media giant that comprises filgoal.com, filfan.com, filbalad.com, among others — is one of Egypt’s most resounding success stories, which he sold to Vodafone in 2008.
“We were allocating funds for entrepreneurship and gender equality, but our programme was unrealistic. What the ecosystem really needed at the time was to kickstart collaborations, get people together in the same room and find where the gaps were. We weren’t in a position to change government policy, but we could give expertise to the angel investors, impart knowledge and get experts from abroad,” says O’Donnell.
While leading a TEDx talk at the American University in Cairo, he was enticed by Sharara’s persistence. Sharara recalls, “I remember approaching him and thinking ‘I am going to meet this guy and do the best pitch ever.’ I wanted to create an online platform called Lamba aimed at connecting the whole ecosystem together, while they actually didn’t know each other!”
O’Donnell was enthusiastic, but knew it was too early to go online. “The whole scene was disconnected, so instead of building something from scratch, we started contacting entities to come together and partner with them,” he explains. “So I suggested we hold a networking event on November 25th, connecting two dates: the birthday of the Egypt’s most inspirational entrepreneur, Talaat Harb, and the Global Entrepreneurship Week,” says Sharara, who came out of the meeting with a confirmation and $10,000 in sponsorship from Mercy Corps.
“You are crazy, and I like it”
“I needed to build momentum really quickly because the date was really close, so I started making phone calls straight away,” says O’Donnell, who first approached Egypt’s veteran investor Ahmed Alfi. A visionary promoter of the entrepreneurial hub and the man behind one of Cairo’s most sizzling accelerators, Flat6Labs, El Alfi was also preparing the launch of one of his most promising projects: The Greek Campus, an innovation and technology hub that would aim to be the Silicon Valley of the Middle East. It was a perfect chance to launch both. But it would mean running against the clock.
“The venue had been closed for three years, so we actually did not have confirmation until a week before the event,” O'Donnell reminisces. “Alfi provided great guidance,” adds Sharara, “I remember when I told him about the Rise Up idea, he said: 'you are crazy. And I like that.'"
One of the first supporters was Hala Fadel, from the MIT competition. “She had a network of 5,000 people applying to the competition and an impressive team of volunteers. She put all her resources on the ground behind us,” says Sharara. Then came Injaz’s mother-figure Dina Mofty, who provided a full team of volunteers and contacted sponsors herself to support the event. “We got amazing support from Heba Gamal, Cairo Angels’ Hossam Allam, Dr. Sherif Kamel from the AUC, Tarek Ali, Fares Ghandour from Wamda, and Endeavour,” adds the 28-year-old entrepreneur, who insists on acknowledging every single person who helped shape this mammoth event. “Even Am Mahmud who was heading the cleaning team, and the head of security at the Greek Campus, Rizk; they did as much as everyone else,” he adds.
A spark in a complicated moment
The day came with an unexpected stream of energy unperceived amid the country’s political chaos. “Last minute, we realised we had chosen the worst moment ever: it was Al Sisi’s birthday, the 100-day anniversary of the Raba’a massacre, and the commemoration of the clashes with protesters in Mohamed Mahmoud Street; plus, the World Cup match Egypt versus Ghana. All in the same week!” says Sharara. “The whole country was shut down; it was a disaster. On the day of the event, the army came with tanks and closed Tahrir square along with all roads leading to the Greek Campus."
"But there were other co-founders who had built a movement: Moataz Kotb, Karim Diaa, Abdelrahman Zohairy, Ayman Makkawy, and Omar Mekky,” Sharara continues. These young entrepreneurs had moved to campus, where they slept on mattresses for days until the event was finalised. When the rest of team arrived early that morning, they were taken aback by the amount of young changemakers standing on the doorsteps, waiting for the event to begin despite the intimidating army tanks deployed around the area.
“At this point, the energy had reached a tipping point and was much stronger than anything else; and suddenly we saw 2,000 people coming in. There was a man from Minya that paid a bus to bring entrepreneurs from Upper Egypt and spent his whole salary on their stay. There were young entrepreneurs from Tanta, Mansoura, and even from abroad, from Jordan,” says Mansour.
Before they knew it, the event’s inclusiveness and its independence from the political landscape had built a powerful momentum, which condensed both a vigorous desire to build something new and the will for collective action: it was the entrepreneurial ecosystem in a box.
“Essentially, that’s what RiseUp means,” O’Donnell points out. “It means realising that people on their own can’t do much but, connected, they can push everything very far,” he adds as he traces back the inception of the company’s name. “We were also somehow defined by the Christopher Schroeder’s book about the region: Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East and the uprisings that were happening in the region. It underlines the concept that when the tide is rising, it brings everyone else up.”
But the crystallisation of this game-changing momentum went unnoticed in foreign and local media, whose eyes were all set on the political unrest swaying across the Arab world. Except for one female journalist who put RiseUp on the map: Gehad Hussein.
“At the press conference, there were all these big names, and I saw this guy who was really young and was actually responsible for bringing them all together. But no one was putting the spotlight on him; so I did,” says Hussein. After her article The Silent Spark Behind Riseup was published, she not only put the summit on the map, but also joined the team of sparkers, who turned the initiative into a startup itself.
A meeting of giants
“We wanted for this to grow and become sustainable, so we created an engine and until now we continue to hold weekly breakfasts where we gather influential people as well as networking activities,” says Mansour. “The most interesting part of RiseUp is the platform,” adds O’Donnell. “Corporates haven’t really understood the value of entrepreneurs and see it as a CSR thing. They are only now realising the value of being hooked to them in terms of innovation, acquisitions, and interactions,” he adds, as he points to the industry giants who are turning the scene around and joining the summit this year, such as Microsoft, Google, and Soundcloud.
“People are very interested in what is happening here. It’s just a matter on how you tell them what you are saying. If you go abroad and say there are investment opportunities, it’s not a good pitch. You have to sell this as a movement that is changing everything, because this is what really is happening; we have a 50% young population who are enabling themselves. This is much more powerful. People are trying to create their own systems,” says Sharara.
Focusing on three main tacks - global trends, entrepreneurship know-how, and industries from health care to tourism - the summit will feature innovative events such as the MENA pitch and ride, where an entrepreneur will be invited into a stretch-limo for a private discussion with an investor and the chance to pitch their business.
“The ecosystem has grown to an extent where it is attracting ecosystems from other Arab countries, so it is time to make it into a wider ecosystem. The reality now is that capital is coming from everywhere, and startups are moving to get other markets. And we are getting interest from outside the region now like Silicon Valley, New York, Berlin, and Vienna, with acquisitions which we would have never dreamed of two years ago. The capital may be in the gulf, but the talent is here,” says O’Donnell as he pinpoints the Greek Campus, where 120 tech companies open their doors every morning to revolutionise business in the Arab world.
Photos produced exclusively for CairoScene by MO4Network's #MO4Productions
Styling: Gehad Abdallah
Art Direction: Ahmad Abi
Photography: Ahmed Najeeb