Next crop of MENA teen entrepreneurs cite Apple, extracurricular activities as key to their ambition
Egypt's Aly Mohamed pictured at a European Union-sponsored contest for young scientists.
The old guard had better beware: these entrepreneurs are young, smart, and determined to make their mark on the world.
No older than 20, this trio have all overcome hurdles, schoolwork not least among them, to chase their dreams and build a business they believe in.
Brought up and influenced by the prevalence of tech in a world where Apple, and the late Steve Jobs, inspired and awed in equal measure, what is most striking is that these three are not just impatient for success; they are impatient to change the world for the better.
And whether balancing midterm exams with courting investors in Silicon Valley, or risking the wrath of their parents in pursuit of their goals, they are not going to let the small matter of age get in the way.
Zaid Rahman, 19, Dubai, cofounder of Pilot Labs
As someone who had been “dying to find a problem” to fix, it’s no surprise that the seed for Zaid Rahman’s education business was planted by his experiences at school.
As a result of his success on the school debate team, which regularly toured the Middle East and beyond for competitions, Rahman found himself struggling with class attendance, and the subsequent knowledge gaps.
But whereas others might have simply complained about it, Rahman cofounded Pilot Labs, an interactive learning platform that he claims offers a major step forward in how students are taught.
The digital platform aims to give deeper insights to teachers on how individual students are learning in real time, enabling them to understand if a student is lacking understanding in a certain topic, by analyzing the answers they give to questions.
Rahman has always had an interest in how things work, but, as is the case with so many young entrepreneurs, Steve Jobs played a role in encouraging him to delve deeper. The 2007 launch of the iPhone inspired him, at the tender age of 12, to build things “to a new level.”
From then on, he embraced the world of tech, first launching an online publication in which he predicted Apple’s recent move into online payments, before going on to create his own digital agency, named whimzig.al, with a friend.
The whiz kid cites debate as having provided him with the tools necessary to start a business. “Debating gave me my first true experience of hustling and improvising as an entrepreneur. It was my first exercise in critical thinking.”
Despite his online magazine and digital agency, Rahman still wanted more. So, two days after his final exam at high school in March, he quietly launched Pilot Labs.
Now, just half a year later, with what he describes as a “rock & roll” team of six, he says the business is unique in offering “insights, not data” in a way that will help teachers learn the strengths and weaknesses of their students, and respond accordingly.
But though the company has sparked interest from major international education companies, the entrepreneur is determined to take things slowly as he improves the system.
He has, he says, already developed a five-year plan; a steady approach to what he calls the “enormous problem” of improving education.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that since then he was named a finalist for the Thiel Fellowship. Launched by PayPal founder Peter Thiel, the fellowship recognizes young talent across the globe, and has helped Rahman develop a number of useful contacts. But while appreciative of the plaudits, Rahman remains focused on solving the problems that matter.
“I’m truly passionate about creating things, and wanted to make something that was a service to people while solving a significant problem. I didn’t want to build something meaningless,” he adds.
Jihad Kawas, 17, Lebanon, cofounder of Saily
When talking about his childhood swimming career, one can sense the entrepreneur in 17-year-old Jihad Kawas was straining to get out even then.
“I won medals at butterfly but I just kept wondering what the real return on my time investment of my time was,” he says.
In the three years since he stepped out of the pool and focused all of his talents on becoming a ‘creator’, Kawas has seen his efforts rewarded.
Picking up programming quickly, he soon launched a business creating websites and apps including the likes of game Little Spartan Adventures, and has gone on to win a string of business awards for his efforts.
But Kawas, who can often been seen sporting a t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase ‘CEO and toilet sweeper’, soon realized that real business growth required focus beyond his app-a-week mentality.
“I wanted to build a product that people could use. I realized that I wanted to build something long-term.”
And so Saily was born. Inspired by his own efforts to sell his Playstation 3, which involved him having to meet a buyer in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city, Saily was initially developed in two days at a Startup Weekend competition (which it won). The final app, launched in September, is an online marketplace aiming to make selling goods as quick and easy as possible for the public.
Kawas compares it to an online garage sale, with a focus on local ads. The initial aim is to build up the site’s use in the MENA region, but Kawas has his eyes Stateside and is firmly of the belief that the concept itself can go global.
The early signs are good. The business came in first runner-up as the MIT Social Enterprise Forum Arab Startup competition in the spring of this year, and since launching in September Saily has attracted around 4,000 registered users, crashing the servers more than once.
His decision to focus on this one project was also endorsed by no less than Apple CEO Tim Cook. Not the shy and retiring type, Kawas recently got a selfie with Cook after approaching him at the Worldwide Developer’s Conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, and who gave him the thumbs up for his idea with the advice “to just keep working on it.”
Clearly still walking on air after meeting his idol, he calls the experience “the best thing that could happen to me.”
Now, frustrated with what he deems to be the overly cautious and profit-focused nature of investment in the region, he has been networking and seeking mentorship in Silicon Valley – receiving interest from well-known billionaire VCs.
Kawas, who has caught the attention of Wamda before, is quick to praise the supportive role of his parents, whom he says have supported him all the way, even when his entrepreneurship has meant putting school on the back burner.
“I’ll send business emails from the back of the class, and if I’m not allowed I’ll say I need to go to the bathroom and do it there,” he says, grinning.
Aly Mohamed, 20, Egypt, founder of Vound (pictured above)
“Honestly, I never imagined I was going to try and start a company. It all started as a science fair project.”
In a few years, many people might be glad that Cairo-based inventor Aly Mohamed did take his idea beyond the science fair.
The tech was sound – a new wearable aid that uses augmented reality to help deaf people communicate – but Mohamed had to figure out the business side of things as he went along.
Still in the patenting process, Mohamed is tight lipped about specifics for the product he has called Vound. Intriguingly, however, he explains that text will be only one of a number of ways in which the device will help the hearing impaired.
The concept may sound fantastical, but the plaudits are real. Mohamed and a small team (which includes his 13-year-old brother) have won a number of awards for the design across the globe including I-SWEEEP (the International Sustainable World [Energy, Engineering, and Environment] Project) in the US. Still, some concerned parties have been less than delighted with his chosen path.
Mohamed’s decision to take a year out after school to pursue the project was initially met with consternation by his father, who hoped the 20-year-old would eventually join him in the family business. One school recruiter even called him “crazy” for not going straight to college.
But Mohamed, who initially envisaged the invention as being not only for the deaf but also to help him overcome occasional difficulties communicating with people due to the speed of his speech, will not be put off that easily.
Having put his year out to good use, getting the prototype tested by groups from across Cairo and meeting a range of investors, he is now also home-schooling.
Burning the candle at both ends to balance business with studies, his efforts have culminated in a hectic week in Silicon Valley this month, where he is set to finish a week-long tech competition, only to sit SAT exams the next day.
But it is not just Mohamed’s business acumen that is developing; his self-confidence is growing too. “Before launching Vound I was shy, and didn’t have many friends. Now I’m making connections with people I never would have met before.”