Tunisian Entrepreneurs get a Boost from the Diaspora and U.S.

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As a half-American half-Tunisian, I moved back to Tunisia recently because I see the potential in Tunisian entrepreneurs. I am happy to report that the U.S. seems to be following suit. Long-stifled by a dictatorship that discouraged creativity, innovation and critical thinking, Tunisia is now embracing change. Almost 11 months after the revolution that sparked the Arab Spring, the space is opening up for entrepreneurship in Tunisia with a flood of new actors, investors and entrepreneurs looking to define the new economy.  

The U.S. is also waking up to the fact that its support of the Tunisian political revolution must translate into sustained and meaningful economic partnerships, and that these may indeed be a win for U.S. investors. Beyond symbolic gestures, the U.S. government has started taking concrete steps to assure U.S. investors that Tunisia is indeed a smart bet, hosting two events this November, in both Tunis and in Washington, D.C.

“Tunisia is more ready than any other nation in the region to undertake rapid economic growth,” said Lorraine Hariton, the US Special Representative for Commercial and Business Affairs at the State Department. On the first weekend of November, she brought a group of U.S. entrepreneurs and early-stage investors to Tunisia to host the North African Partnership for Economic Opporutnity (NAPEO) Maghreb Entrepreneurship Delegation, which was sponsored by the U.S. State Department’s Partnerships for a New Beginning (PNB) program.

I sat in on the closing panel at the Microsoft Innovation Center where four successful entrepreneurs from the region were brought together to discuss their experiences. They included Shervin Pishevar, the Iranian-born Managing Director of Menlo Ventures in California, Ahmed El Alfi, the Egyptian born investor who moved from the U.S. to Egypt to open Sawari Ventures in Cairo, Ghazi ben Othman, the Tunisian-born Head of Asset Management at Malaz Capital in Saudi Arabia, and Sami Ben Romdhane, a Tunisian serial entrepreneur who worked for Apple and now works for E-bay.

The overall tone was encouraging, as these experts advised a room full of Tunisian students, entrepreneurs, business leaders and CEOs that now is the time to work hard, take a risk and take charge of their economic destiny.

Some key recommendations emerged to promote innovation in Tunisia:

1) Learn to accept failure, learn from it and move on.

2) The diaspora is re-engaging –grab their attention! Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone and ask questions, in order to find a mentor.

3) Identify and expose more local success models, rather than those who made it abroad; and finally,

4) Education is not enough. We must build the rest of the entrepreneurial infrastructure so that people can then effectively put their education to use.

For me this last point is the key takeaway – entrepreneurship does not occur in a vacuum; rather, it emerges as part of an ecosystem of actors that include policy makers, educators, mentors, investors, incubators and foreign partners that create an environment ripe for innovation.

Then, just this past week, the U.S. State Department followed the delegation trip with a larger event in Washington D.C., the Tunisia Partnerships Forum, which brought together over 200 participants, including private sector leaders, diaspora investors, and top officials from the United States and Tunisia. There the U.S. reconfirmed its commitment to promote investment and economic partnership in strategic sectors to spur job creation and economic growth. “This is a new day for Tunisia, and the opportunities for investment in the U.S.-Tunisian relationship have never been greater,” Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides affirmed.

There is still a lot of work to be done to prepare entrepreneurs for this relationship, yet this kind of publicity is remarkable for my tiny country of origin. I’ve spent my life explaining to Americans that it's neither “Tanzania” nor “Indonesia,” yet I sense that is changing as well. In Tunisia’s post-revolutionary transition, entrepreneurship is being put front and center as the engine of economic growth and job creation. And with heightened U.S. attention, Tunisian entrepreneurs are being forced to step up to the plate.

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