Houda Ghozzi, the woman behind Tunisia’s Open Startup competition, was tired of programs that taught students how to pitch but then didn’t enable them to put in the practice. “I thought about a project that would be effective for them.”
Ghozzi, a professor at the IHEC Carthage, envisioned a project to gather students from 17 universities in Tunisia. They would work for three months to build an idea that they could then test on a real market. With 35 people flying in from Columbia University, the students were exposed to some real world pressure.
The finals were on January 19, and while at 5pm most Tunisians were watching the Africa Cup football game between Algeria and Tunisia, five teams of students were pitching to a panel of Tunisians and Americans.
The winning team was Chechia, who pitched wearing Tunisian chechia hats. They invented a smart chair that would train its users to sit in a healthy posture to prevent back pain problems, and will go to New York in April to pitch their idea at the annual entrepreneurship fair of Columbia.
All of the ideas had to meet certain criteria, such as the UN goals, and most were driven by social good over profit.
“Tunisian prisoners can’t work in jail and they are often rejected by society when they go out,” said Achraf Mattar, 24, from the Phoenix team. “So we wanted to use the tools they had in the jail such as computers to make them learn a job that could help them afterwards such as developing a website or coding.”
Another team, Pnevma, used piezoelectrics and a stress ball to convert the energy produced when people get stressed into real energy.
Forcing Tunisians to hit international standards
The judges didn’t pull their punches.
“What prevents Facebook and Snapchat from killing you? They have more data scientists than you and more money.”
“What is the scalability of your project?”
“What is better in your project than the Apple Watch?”
The jury peppered the young students with questions who, despite some shyness, defended their projects to the end.
“They were very challenging with us and that is what we asked,” said Sarah Snoussi, 22.
Among the people from Columbia were a handful of students, who also helped with pitch training.
“I really liked their feedback because they believed in us while giving us constructive criticism,” Snoussi said. “What I learnt during this kind of bootcamp was that besides team building, you need to pitch your idea to so many people before you get it right.”
Calling in the Americans
For the 35 Americans who flew in the experience was about sharing knowledge.
“One year ago, we were asked what we could do about the curriculum here by the Ministry of Education, we did not want to change anything,” said Emily Ford, the director of Outreach Programs at Columbia School of Engineering. “But more to show them what we do and let them take what they think is best.”
Ahmad Al-Moussa, senior program officer at the Jordanian Columbia Global Center in the Middle East, said a missing link in Tunisia had been a lack of networking and interaction between different domains.
“They managed to resolve this issue during the program and there is a real ecosystem here that we need to support,” he said.
Ghozzi said it took time to convince both public and private universities to work together.
“In Tunisia, the public sector is very wary of the private. They consider that the private has everything already, why would we give it more? Whereas we can benefit from each other.”