After seeing Banque Misr founder Talaat Harb in his dream giving a speech to entrepreneurs, Abdelhameed Sharara woke up with the idea for RiseUp, a business that brought together investors, leaders and startups. He launched the first RiseUp Summit on 25 November 2013, the day of Harb’s birthday.
What was initially a small gathering of entrepreneurs and investors in Cairo’s Greek Campus, has now grown to become the Middle East’s largest startup event, counting some 5000 attendees at the last summit.
Sharara had initially trained to become a lawyer, before embarking on his entrepreneurial journey. He completed the Injaz mentorship programme and later worked at Injaz as an incubation manager.
Why did you become an entrepreneur?
My personal passion is imagining something and making it happen. I think that gives me the most joy, especially if it is something that has societal impact at its core.
It was the Injaz programme where I realised instead of working as a lawyer or a judge, there is an opportunity to realise that passion and energy that I had. I realised there is a more grassroots way of impact through working with people.
How did the idea for RiseUp come about?
There was a gap between those who wanted to start their business and investors and support organisations and media so the idea of RiseUp was to bring everyone together.
Back in 2013, the ecosystem was very nascent, no success stories, very little exits, and the culture of entrepreneurship was not a big thing in the region, but we always knew there was a drive. All these entrepreneurs needed access to resources, talent, know-how, marketplace, tools, services, mentorship, investors and all sorts of support. There was no platform to bring together that entire ecosystem and thus the idea of RiseUp started. Initially, it was an online platform and then we pivoted to an offline platform where we do events, hackathons and, meetups across the past six years.
You recently acquired online publication MenaBytes, what prompted that decision?
The vision of RiseUp is to build that access to a community platform and so we are a very collaborative entity and we work with anyone who supports entrepreneurs. If you want to do this alone, it will not work. So you need to have the physical side as in spaces, the events side and the digital side and through this pyramid or triangle, it then creates continuous access for those companies. So the upcoming acquisitions are going to be in both the physical and events side. We also have our own digital platform that we are launching as well that will be integrated with MenaBytes and TrackMena.
What are your challenges now at RiseUp?
Scaling. How do you take what you do and scale it to other cities? It is management. I am not a trained manager at all so I'm learning how to be a good manager through mentors, my team and through mistakes. I am trying as much as I can to listen and to realise that I really don't know anything and I'm going into a new phase. I have to be really grounded to be able to understand how things happen. I don't have to work everything my way. So managing growth is my biggest challenge.
What are the main lessons you’ve learned?
There is a risk that you take. Anything can just fall apart at some point. Perseverance isn't just about being hit and you continue. It is about thinking differently, changing strategies and tactics and mitigating things.
One thing I really learned is that I have to challenge advice from experts. For example, one expert told me the best format of leadership is Level 5 Leadership [by Jim Collins] and I read that book. It is a great concept but it does not work here, you need to do a lot of work to be able to reach that. I didn't do that work so I jumped into this one day and everything collapsed. So I needed to challenge the thought. I am still distant from management but you learn strengths and weaknesses and you basically focus on the strength points and delegate the weaknesses. Another thing I learned is people and culture come first.
What’s next for RiseUp?
There will be more expansion across the region. We started in Upper Egypt and we are going to have constant presence there. We will start out with Saudi this year and we are looking at UAE, morocco, Jordan, Tunisia then Africa and Asia. We will have satellite summits that lead to the big summit happening here in Egypt.