Investors and entrepreneurs preach startups to Palestinian university students

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It may be hard to believe, but now is the perfect time to start a business in Palestine.

“There wasn’t enough [funding] in the pipeline before, but now new funds are starting to become very active,” said general manager of Pallease Huda Eljack. “The ecosystem is better now, where as before it was a timing issue.”

Left to right: Mashvisor CEO Peter Abualzolof, BareedEE CTO Ahmad Abu Omar, Pinchpoint CEO Khaled Abu Al Kheir, Fadfid COO Mays Attari, Birzeit University business and economics professor Omar Omran, Arabreneur accelerator manager Hanan Khaldi, Leaders director Shadi Atshan, Pallease general manager Huda Eljack. (Images via Christina Ganim)

Eljack was speaking at a discussion that brought together investors and entrepreneurs at Birzeit University outside of Ramallah on Thursday.

Titled 'Entrepreneurial Tours', the event was the first in a series about entrepreneurship targeted at West Bank university students.

“Entrepreneurship is not easily replaceable with other jobs,” Eljack said. “If you try and be an entrepreneur and it’s not in your DNA then you’re going to have a terrible experience.”

Although more investment funds are available, Leaders director Shadi Atshan said Palestine's entrepreneurs lack of experience can lead to weak founding teams.

Raising funds

Investors’ doors in Palestine are open, Eljack said. She encouraged students to shop around for funds if they have ideas.

“Negotiate with us, see if it’s the right fund for you. The team on the fund is very important and with this team we can make the idea a lot bigger, so shop around.”

"Investor money is very expensive money; when you are ready to take expensive money go to an investor and move quickly.”

For Eljack, it’s not about the idea, its about the team.  

“We don’t invest in single founders, we don’t believe in investing in one star.”

Entrepreneurs’ fears tossed aside

Khaled Abu Al Kheir, CEO of PinchPoint, tried to combat students' fears of starting their own businesses, telling them not to be scared or embarrassed about their ideas because investors are looking for opportunities.

“There are a lot of investors here and there is a lot of money and they’re willing to help. If you go to Silicon Valley you are lucky if you get five seconds with someone. It’s all about courage, don’t wait for someone to knock on your door, it will never happen.”

Mashvisor CEO Peter Abualzolof added that “building a product is an amazing experience, definitely not the easiest, it consumes your entire life, but once you see progress its definitely worth it in the end, it’s a rewarding experience.”

ICT as the emergent sector in Palestine

Palestine’s ICT sector has great potential for entrepreneurs and investors, but it isn’t without its frustrations.

A number of investors remarked that Palestine’s ICT sector is where the money is for securing investments in Palestine and the MENA region, in particular. If investors can show there's a success story in ICT then they can attract more flexible money.

“It’s the fastest growing and strongest [sector],” Abu Al Kheir said. “If there’s someone who thinks ICT can’t grow, this is a problem.”

Abu Al Kheir noted that even if a startup is technical, people from other disciplines are still needed to materialize the idea but it can be challenging to convince them to join the ICT sector.

“Whether we like it or not the investments are coming in the ICT sector,” he said.

Abualzolof believes that entrepreneurship can address some of the day-to-day challenges of daily life in Palestine.

“Entrepreneurs come across challenges and find ways around them,” he said. “In Palestine we have walls around us, literally, but with entrepreneurship we can find ways around them.”

Hanan Khaldi, accelerator manager at Arabreneur, said as investors they’re trying to change the culture little by little using funds and accelerators, saying it was their responsibility for cultural change.

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