Student-Powered Startup Education in Egypt

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What do cupcakes, touch technology, and venture capitalists have in common?  In truth not much, unless we’re about talking startups.

There’s growing curiosity amongst Egypt’s university undergraduates about startups, so hundreds of students went to the Faculty of Computers and Information at Cairo University (CU) to attend the “Step Up Start Up” event on April 25th.  Most attendees were science majors, but with a healthy minority of arts majors too, and they listened to a number of high profile speakers discuss what it takes to become an entrepreneur.

The event was co-organised by CU’s Google Student Ambassadors and the Student Conference on Communications and Information (SCCI).  Although both groups are quite new, they have been proactive; the SCCI in particular has been providing CU’s students with a number of term-long workshops that help build up students’ soft-skills, as they realised these core skills are not developed by the standard university curriculum.  Soft skills were the focus of most of the speeches in fact.

Wael Fakharany, Google’s regional manager and the star attraction, started the event off with a long talk about the personality traits it takes to launch a start-up. Risk taking is a necssary trait of course; he said that he took his first business risk around the age of 12, and he went on from there, at one point selling “reject” garments (i.e. ones with a slight manufacturing defect) for knock-down prices (unheard of at the time, because of the “shame”). 

He pointed out that before joining Google he’d had a few businesses that failed, and a couple that had really succeeded, yet the failures spurred him on, exhibiting that other major trait of perseverance.  He was keen to point out that entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone, it’s hard work, and if consistent financial security is one’s aim then standard employment is probably a better route.  He admitted that at this point in his own life he doesn’t want to be an entrepreneur, which goes without saying, as being a Google employee is pretty risk free for the foreseeable future!

One speech that caught the audience’s attention was from the founder of Nola Cupcakes, Laila Sedky.  Her well thought-out talk, describing her experience starting up, hardly mentioned business practices at all.  She spoke of love for her country, love for her product, and creating a sharing community spirit.

Sedky was, in fact, the first to introduce a successful cupcake business to Egypt. One day she received an unsolicited call from Jihan Sadat, who told her that the quality of the Nola cupcakes proved how much Laila loves her country.  In Egypt’s current revolutionary state, that was a real crowd pleaser.  She also gave a free cupcake to everyone attending; the gesture went down well, as did the cupcakes, which were delicious!

The biggest cheer of the day however was saved for the latest winner of Nojoom El Oloom (Stars of Science), Haitham Dsouki.  His touch sensor invention brings touch technology to practically any object, and warrants (and will get) an article all by itself. If he never invents anything else in his life, he will be remembered locally, judging by the crowd’s reaction wherever he speaks.

The hall was filled with students, and most were engaged enough to not fiddle with their mobiles most of the time- that in itself is a success.  But it was also a refreshing event because the organisers brought together speakers from across the spectrum and didn’t focus, like many other events, on web and mobile.  This shows that the entrepreneurship buzz in Egypt is slowly, but surely, growing throughout society, from the bottom up.

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