Why MENA Needs Startup Weekend: A Look at SW Sharjah

The Startup Weekend bug continues to expand throughout the UAE. With two events in Dubai and one in Abu Dhabi, Sharjah Startup Weekend this past weekend brought 7 judges, 25 mentors and over 150 participants together for the third SW event in the Emirates in less than a year, building on national momentum.

What set Startup Weekend Sharjah apart from many in the region was the fact that the top two winners were not web or mobile startups, perhaps a first in the region. The organizers- Tatweer Forum and a very energetic team of volunteers lead by AUS senior Muhanned El Tinai- also capped the competing teams to 20 ideas from an initial 60 that were pitched on Thursday evening.

Most of the ideas pitched focused on education, healthcare and retail, in addition to an events-focused startup led by a 9 year old CEO and a gamification API that would be the first in the region. 

First place went to Dr. Oil, a startup that provides mechanic services, mainly oil changes, to car users that are on the go – saving drivers the hassle of having to go to a garage or rushing to their aid if they get stranded.

Second place was awarded to Inliten (@Inliten), a startup that will help high school students choose a major and university that suits their needs, using psychometric tests, short externships and sample courses to determine a good fit.

In third place came Kulshi, an online portal aiming to resuscitate the days of “baqalah” (mom and pop grocery stores) by allowing customers to order groceries from local stores nearby.

Keith Armstrong, the Regional Operations Manager for Startup Weekend, who’s been present on the scene at quite a few Startup Weekends in the region lately, including those in Amman and Beirut, opened the weekend by emphasizing Startup Weekend’s philosophy: the events are first and foremost about giving an “experiential” education to attendees in a high energy, low pressure environment.  

This kind of experiential education seems particularly needed in a country where, according to a recent report by consultancy Aon Hewitt, 62% of youth under 25, and 71% of those polled overall, said their education had adequately prepared them for work, compared with 82% of expatriates. Further, almost 60% of MENA CEOs said they were unsatisfied with the education levels and modern skill sets they were seeing in applicants, according to research by PricewaterhouseCooper.

Of course, this isn’t only a regional problem. Often modern education systems on the whole “neglect developing a curriculum or a pedagogy that will prepare students with the twenty-first century skills and capacities that are essential if we are to transform our economies and communities into creative, competitive, and inclusive knowledge societies,” says The Second International Handbook of Educational Change.

One answer recommend in the Handbook might be “Knowledge society schools that [emphasize] the skills of creativity, innovation, flexibility, problem-solving, and teamwork that would fuel entrepreneurial initiative.”

If Startup Weekends are these “knowledge society schools,” in a sense, they are exactly the type of events the region needs to promote aggressively. As a mentor at the event, I witnessed attendees get outside of their comfort zone, working with strangers, thinking critically, as they were forced to grasp basic business concepts quickly and boldly speak in public as they pitched ideas.

Essentially, attendees of all ages engaged in skills and activities that their formal education ignored at best or, at worst, educated them away from (thank you, Tawjihi). 

Another critical benefit of Startup Weekends is the boost in ambition and inspiration that attendees experience. In a region where the majority of people tend to be deeply cynical about the future, even after the Arab spring, learning to dream is a very important thing.

Speaking to the judges during Kulshi’s first presentation, team leader Ahmad Abu Ghosh summed up the central idea nicely when discussing Amazon. “If people around the world are doing it,” he asked, “Why can’t we do it here?” 

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