By Christopher M. Schroeder  “I am certain we will see Middle Eastern entrepreneurship continue to accelerate over the coming 5 years. I fully believe an Egyptian entrepreneur will ring the NASDAQ bell before 2020!” – Wael Amin
This is not your typical news from Egypt.
Egypt’s premier venture capital firm, Sawari Ventures, recently landed Wael Amin as a partner. Not known too much in the West, Amin comes with a wealth of experience. At the age of 18, he co-founded ITWorx and led its growth over a period of 20 years from startup to one of the largest and most influential IT companies in the Middle East. He has become something of a legend among startups in the region – ITWorx alone kicked out over 200 startups and he has mentored probably thousands of young people in Egypt and beyond.
It’s a bit like a top Silicon Valley firm landing, say, Aneel Bhusri.
Ahmed El Alfi, the Chairman and co-founder of Sawari Ventures, could not be more thrilled. He told me, “Wael is one of the brightest people I know. He is a fantastic addition to Sawari Ventures and brings valuable insights and breadth to our team. His experience in building one of the most successful MENA technology companies will be instrumental in helping our portfolio companies build value.” Beyond Sawari Ventures, Alfi also launched Flat6Labs – among the leading incubators in Egypt, Saudi and UAE – and is building the largest shared work space in the Arab world in the old American University of Cairo facilities, known now as the GrEEK campus. So his point of view holds a lot of weight.
Why did Amin decide to take on this role?
What gives, I asked Amin? Why Egypt, and why now? Why leave a thriving and growing enterprise for this?
“There are a lot of reasons to be excited about the venture capital opportunity, and Egypt, but I am not just joining an Egyptian VC,” he told me. “This team has built an entire entrepreneurship microcosm that extends well beyond Egypt and VC. Flat6Labs is already accelerating young startups in Cairo, Jeddah and Abu Dhabi. Zoomal (a Sawari portfolio company) is quickly becoming the Kickstarter of the Middle East. The GrEEK campus in Tahrir Square has become a beacon for innovation and entrepreneurship and a role model for tech parks in the region. During the past 36 months we have made 70+ investments in over 150 entrepreneurs, worked with almost 200 mentors, and filed 19 U.S. patents – a quarter of ALL Egyptian patents filed during that period.”
Stepping back and seeing the vibrant, regional, creative and very differentiated ecosystem, he knew there would be significant opportunity to take his 20 years of operational and domain expertise to have a multiplier impact beyond a single company like ITWorx.
How Amin became an entrepreneur
Amin’s journey is purely entrepreneurial – with all the struggles and euphoria that come with that. When his parents brought home a Commodore 64 computer when he turned five years old, two things became apparent to him. The first was that computing was a magical force that has the power to transform everything around it, and the second was that his parent’s generation had little understanding how great this transformation would be. He studied computing mostly at home and entered the computer science program at The American University of Cairo – at age 14. By senior year, he had co-founded his first tech startup with two friends, which, while failing, laid the ground work for ITWorx. He remembers, “It was clear at the time, as it continues to be clear now that there was huge untapped potential to leverage information technology to greatly improve quality of life, whether it relates to public services (health, education), society (citizen engagement, participation) or the enterprise (CRM, customer care, billing).”
From 1994 to 1999, he and co-founder Youssri Helmy (who went on to found tech companies in Silicon Valley, and co-founded TechWadi – a connection network between the Valley and the Middle East) grew despite a near non-existent ecosystem for tech startups. But in 1999 he caught the eye of Hany Al Sonbaty, whose PE firm at the time invested. Shortly thereafter other investments and government initiatives were launched to support the fledgling ecosystem.
The Arab uprisings were, in Amin’s words, “a coming of age of a Millennial generation that is ambitious, risk taking, tech savvy and ready to take matters in its own hands. The ensuing three years of political struggles have been painful but this generation is here to stay and is gradually assuming the driver seat in moving the region forward.” Some stabilizing in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan has improved investor confidence, increased manufacturing output and exports for the first time.
He adds, “The drop in oil prices has created a golden opportunity for importers to restructure subsidies, freeing up funds for infrastructure investments, while pushing oil exporters to further diversify their economies by investing in entrepreneurship and knowledge based industries. These factors, combined with the young and growing population, the insatiable consumer appetite, and the ecosystem pieces of the puzzle are falling into place and make me extremely optimistic about the region’s outlook in 2015 and beyond.”
The opportunities for young entrepreneurs in the Middle East – as in most emerging growth markets – in education, healthcare, energy, transportation, media in Arabic, consumer software and beyond are enormous. The Middle East has a larger per capita GDP than India or China, and technology is becoming ubiquitous around the region, most countries having at least 50% smart phone penetration and much of the Gulf near 80%. Middle classes are rising, consumer purchasing power leading the global economy. Have we all appropriately noticed that Dubai airport surpassed London’s Heathrow in passenger traffic in 2014?
Most of us in the West are surprised by the scale and ambition of local young talent that wants to rewrite its role and narrative of the region, creating, innovating and producing new solutions at home, in the region and globally.
It will be exciting to see what they can do with experienced hands like Sawiri and many growing venture funds like them supporting their dreams.
This post was originally published on LinkedIn.