I was asked to give a commencement speech at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Doha on May 1. Below is an edited version of what I said.
I want to tell you today about something I call the ‘Power of Yalla’ and how it came to change my life. But allow me to say first how deeply honored to be with you today, particularly because I was not what you call the perfect student. In fact I was quite the troublemaker at school.
Let’s just say my teachers prefered to have me outside the class more than inside it. But today I realize this trouble making was the seed of my entrepreneurial journey.
My first foray into the startup world was at the age of 13.
I grew up in Lebanon just outside of Beirut. With a group of friends from my neighborhood, we started our first business. We loved movies and we knew our way around a computer so we decided to make and sell bootleg videos.
We set up shop at my friend Samir’s house. His bedroom was the production lab, and his bed the storage facility. I was so proud of my new business I went and told my youngest uncle, who then told my mom, who then made us close shop, and so we had to liquidate.
Lesson 1: From this first failure, came the first lesson. The Power of Yalla is about challenging the system, sometimes it means going outside of the rules, but you should always and above all remain ethical.
After I finished AUB in 2002 as a computer engineer, I went to California to pursue my graduate studies with a dream to work in the movie industry. Little did I know that it was impossible for an Arab to get a job in Hollywood after 9/11.
Meanwhile, I had a friend who studied at MIT and I used her username and password to log into the university’s discussion board. One day I found a group of researchers working on an amazing computer graphics technology that would revolutionize how movies and games are created.
I flew to Boston that same week and without hesitation joined them as a founding engineer of the newly formed startup. We raised millions of dollars, opened new offices across the country and grew to dozens of employees all in a year.
But we did it all wrong. We over-engineered the product and spent so much time perfecting the technology that we forgot to check what the customers actually wanted. One day, I came into the office and found out that our investor had taken over the board and fired everyone.
Lesson 2: From this second failure comes the second lesson. The Power of Yalla is about being scrappy and fast. Forget the master plan. You can have the best technology in the world but if no one uses it what’s the point.
Then came 2006, and with it came the war of Israel on Lebanon. It was my first time outside of Lebanon during a war. I felt frustrated and helpless. The country was in ruin.
So I decided to launch a fundraising movement to help with the relief efforts - but I was just a 26 year old geek, who would listen to me? I had to have credible backing behind me.
So I just picked up the phone and cold called the International Red Cross in Geneva. I asked them to open up a special bank account earmarked to Lebanon.
I promised them I would gather the backing of hundreds of mosques and churches and thousands of communities. I must have sounded really convincing because to my surprise they accepted.
Now I had to execute. Fundraisers all across North America had to be organized. No way I can do this on my own. So I went on online and connected with two other like minded Lebanese, one in Minnesota and the other in Seattle.
We joined hands and officially launched Relief Lebanon. The effort spread like wildfire, and in two months we had raised $2 million in individual donations. We even discovered later that we won an award from the United Nations, but because the movement was anonymous they didn’t know who to invite.
Lesson 3: Perhaps this is one of strongest traits of Power of Yalla. If something you care about is broken, don’t just say something, do something. Don’t ask for permission, just act.
During that 2006 war, my whole family was in Lebanon. I was so anxious. I needed to continuously check on them. Phones were not reliable so I had to follow the news on the web.
But I didn’t have an Arabic keyboard so I couldn’t search for news.
Meanwhile, I was chatting with my friends back home in Arabic, but using English letters and numbers. So it hit me, why not allow people to type real Arabic words using phonetic English.
This is how the idea of Yamli, the Arabic search and typing technology, was born.
To develop such technology I needed a strong cofounder. Imad Jureidini was one of the smartest people I knew at the time, and he also was my only other Arab partner from the first computer graphics startup.
By that time, Imad had his own startup. So he needed convincing. I tracked him down at his Boston gym for a month, I took the elliptical machine next to him until I convinced him.
We started working on the technology and I had to go back to the same Arabic books I used to avoid as a kid. In a few months we launched Yamli and it took off very quickly, we got amazing press coverage, lots of awards and a lot of users. At some point, even Google and Microsoft copied our product, but their products were far less accurate than ours.
Everything was going great, well almost everything, there was one big problem.
We just couldn’t monetize it. We had raised some money from investors but we weren’t making enough money to keep going. We tried an advertising model but back then very few Arab advertisers wanted to spend money online.
So I did what I had to do to survive. I sold all of my furniture, and kept only my bed. I remember one night vividly, I went online to check my bank account. All I had left was a few hundred dollars, and all my credit cards were in the red. While the outside world was touting us as the innovators of the Arab world, I was broke and terrified.
That same night I decided this can’t be it. There has to be a way. So I stayed up all night, browsing companies that could be our clients. I sent so many emails that night and went to bed.
To my surprise, by the time I woke up I had a reply back from a company that had been looking for a technology like ours for years. In a couple of weeks we had a deal signed, our bank accounts replenished, and a new business model to focus on. A year later, we signed a major partnership with Yahoo.
Today Yamli is still going strong and it has allowed millions of users type more than 10 billion Arabic words, that’s the equivalent of 120,000 books.
Lesson 4: This rollercoaster of a ride taught me a lot. And so here is the fourth Power of Yalla lesson: do not get fooled by awards and press coverage. Stay focused on the goal but be ready to adapt. Maintain persistent flexibility.
As I was building Yamli, I was splitting my time between Boston and the Arab world.
I built strong friendships with Arab entrepreneurs, and I was so impressed with their amazing energy and resilience. I noticed however that they were getting minimal support from their ecosystem compared to what I had in Boston
So in 2011, and after we did our deal with Yahoo, I decided it was time to move back to the Middle East. With my mentor Fadi Ghandour we started Wamda to build one of the largest platforms to support and invest in MENA entrepreneurship. Over the past five years we supported thousands of entrepreneurs, covering their stories, mentoring them and investing in their startups.
In a region where youth unemployment is one of the highest, entrepreneurship is presenting itself not only as a job creator but also as a tool for optimism and positive change.
These entrepreneurs serve as regional role models - not the Steve Jobs or the Bill Gates but the regional Arab entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs like Hind Hobeika, inventor of wearable swimming device Instabeat, or Jihad Kawas, the 17 year old high school dropout now building a social commerce startup competing with Ebay. Or Alaa’ Sala, the entrepreneur who emerged from one of the most underserved communities in the outskirts of Amman to build what today is the largest online arabic bookstore.
Lesson 5: Those entrepreneurs are the true embodiment of the power of Yalla. And the final lesson is the following: we all have an amazing energy within us, we are not born with entrepreneurship skillsets, we nurture them, we all have this Power of Yalla and if we harness it well we can do create huge impact.
As you embark on your new journey you are faced with a tough and highly unpredictable environment. The future is not fixed, it is there to be imagined and created. You don’t need to be an entrepreneur, to be part of this future, but you do need entrepreneurial skillsets.
Hang your degrees on your walls if you want, but do not cherish them. Cherish the moments, the connections. The truth is, degrees do not define you. What you do with them does. Never stop learning and never get comfortable, ever. Comfort zones are the black holes of evolution.
The moment you realize that you can rearrange all what is around you, that you can challenge the conventional wisdom and improve things, you can never just be an observer of life anymore.
So, do not wait for change to happen, do not ask for change to happen. Create change. Imagine a better future and create it. This is the Power of Yalla. Go out there and create change.
For the full speech, watch the video below.