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Accelerators 2.0: The post-pandemic version

Accelerators 2.0: The post-pandemic version
Image courtesy of C3

Yousra Diab is the head of programmes at Dubai-based social impact accelerator C3

As the world came to a standstill with the outbreak of Covid-19, the C3 Social Impact Accelerator Programme powered by HSBC was approaching its final week by the end of March 2020.  In a nutshell, this is the flagship programme of C3 (Companies Creating Change), a social enterprise helping entrepreneurs in the Middle East North Africa and Turkey (MENAT) region unlock their growth potential and maximise their positive impact on society. C3 supports promising enterprises that contribute to at least one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, with high growth potential.  The final week of this programme is always the highlight of the year, during which we welcome to Dubai all the finalists from the eight countries covered by the programme for a full week of networking events and workshops with investors, business experts and practitioners from the social impact world, culminating with a final event comprising board meeting simulations and a pitch competition.  On this day, and after the hard work of a few months from the finalists and our team, we announce the winners of the edition and everyone is extremely excited to meet and support incredible changemakers who are using the power of business to create change in the world.   

When the world started gradually shutting down, deciding on the best course of action in such a short period of time was definitely a challenge.  After a few days of reflection and internal discussions, we decided to go fully virtual, which seemed like opening Pandora’s box.  The real challenge was to recreate the deep human connections experienced in-person and to feel the same level of excitement behind a computer screen.  The uncertainty about the commitment of the finalists, and trainers alike, was another question mark.  The process of transforming an offline accelerator to a fully virtual edition was undoubtedly a continuous learning process until the launch day; the following are some of the best practices I learned along the way:

  • Design a programme with a longer overall span of time and a shorter training/ classroom time.

  • Include additional modules covering specific topics; within each topic, leave plenty of room for interactions, quizzes, fireside chats.   

  • Interrupt the sessions every 15 to 20 minutes with a short stretching break or poll.    

  • Choose a secure and user-friendly platform that everyone is familiar with.

  • Rehearse with the trainers beforehand to avoid surprises.  

  • Ask the trainers and the speakers to have a good, well-prepared script and to avoid solely depending on the slides. 

  • Expect that the technology might and will go wrong. So, always have a backup.  

  • Engage with the different stakeholders (e.g. industry experts and investors) throughout the process through virtual networking events or power hours.  

  • Ask feedback from all participants and be ready to pivot along the way. 

Going fully virtual definitely provided many opportunities for the programme’s startups as well as for C3.  From the entrepreneurs’ perspective, they had a much more in-depth learning experience as hosting lectures and workshops online over a longer period of time provided them with increased expert accessibility and gave them a chance to better absorb critical learning material.  The online board meeting simulations allowed the investors to attend more than one meeting with a thorough opportunity to interact with the finalists across multiple weeks which was not possible in-person during a single-day event.  It also allowed the participation of overseas investors and experts which is not always available when the event is physically held in Dubai.  Additionally, in the future, it will potentially allow for increased intake and participation of startups, even at a semifinalist level, with minimal extra cost.  From an organiser’s perspective, it accelerated digital content development, which had been our plan for quite some time before it finally materialised. 

The virtual edition equally posed some challenges, yet to be resolved.  Even though the new Covid-19 world shed a big light on the importance of digital transformation, some segments still prefer in-person interactions.  This is a segment that cannot be neglected and is still hoping for the old way of conducting things.  For instance, some experts and investors did not participate in this edition as it does not offer the same networking opportunities as previous editions.  From a programme design perspective, optimising the curriculum with the correct amount of information and time is yet to be perfected.  Last but definitely not least, it creates more competition especially for the smaller local and regional accelerators.  As accelerators become virtual, the competition becomes fiercer because it is not only local but also global.  Programme designers and managers need to compare their value proposition with global overseas accelerators and make sure to bring unique value to all participants: access to overseas investors and experts becomes a necessity and no longer an option.  In addition, differentiation in the format and design of virtual events is a key success factor. This is what particularly led us to plan a final event, taking place in August 2020, with an exhibition-like setting and a very interactive experience that is closest to reality. 

In light of the new normal, the key question is about the future of accelerators.  In my opinion, this pandemic gave an opportunity to scale impact and reach as well as improve financial sustainability of accelerator programmes whose business models are quite shaky if they solely depended on sponsorships or grants.  With digital content development, this will be no longer the case.  The physical and human element are definitely indispensable for the success of such programmes, yet, the experience could be blended with a mix of in-person and virtual.  The future has to be balanced between an online element providing more in-depth and self-paced learning and physical interaction on some topics along with networking opportunities.  In hindsight, accelerators including C3’s, will not go back to the old traditional design after adapting to the new digital space.  At the end, in every challenge there definitely lies an opportunity. 

 

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