Najla Al-Midfa is the CEO of Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre (Sheraa)
Entrepreneurship is essential to building a strong economy, particularly as technology rapidly shifts the way we live and work. Our leaders recognise that in order to be at the forefront of progress and ensure a better world for future generations, we must be willing to innovate. Entrepreneurship is a key driver, and Sharjah’s ambitious goal of becoming a world-class hub for entrepreneurs stems from a spirit rooted in decades of progressive thinking.
Sharjah’s pursuit of an entrepreneurship agenda has also been an organic outcome of its continued focus on shifting away from a reliance on natural resources, and its commitment to maintaining a diverse economy. Currently, no single sector contributes more than 20 per cent to the emirate’s GDP, and the rise of an entrepreneurial ecosystem will continue to build on that diversity.
The city’s focus on identifying the gaps and opportunities in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, harnessing the potential of the Middle East and North Africa region’s talent, and establishing an enabling environment for globally competitive, fast growing companies in high-potential sectors is what led to the launch of Sheraa in 2016. Sheraa works to provide a city-wide framework that not only support founders developing their businesses but also promotes the entrepreneurial culture in Sharjah, and works with the private and public sector to ensure the right pillars are in place for the tech ecosystem to thrive.
Pillars of a startup ecosystem
It takes a growth mindset and a society that encourages leaps into the unknown, in order to develop an environment that truly facilitates innovation.
At Sheraa, we do this through a series of inspirational events held throughout the year, including our annual Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival (SEF). The emirate continues to ensure that entrepreneurs have access to affordable resources, with a lower cost of living and doing business. For example, the city is home to a network of six free zones whose competitive licensing rates, cost-efficient services and facilities, and 100 per cent foreign ownership have enhanced the ease of doing business in the emirate. Additionally, entrepreneurship organisations such as Sharjah SME – Ruwad, and Sheraa have been established to ensure founders have the support they need in order to develop their businesses.
Also important is having the right infrastructure and regulatory freedoms. For example, entrepreneur-friendly policies such as relaxed visa regulations, ease of banking, and accessible licensing options are key features that point to a robust ecosystem.
Additionally, startups need access to funding, be it through VC funding, angel investments, or grants. Sheraa provides equity-free grants through our programmes, in addition to facilitating connections with investors wherever possible. We are also working to expand our network of VCs and angel investors, including through supporting programmes such as the Conscious Investor Fellowship, which helps educate high net worth individuals on impact investing.
However, it is not enough to simply be able to inject capital into a business, ventures also need market access in order to be integrated into corporate and government supply chains. These corporates are also increasingly seeing the value in working with these ventures and are eager to collaborate.
All ecosystems also require access to talented human capital, not only as a pool of potential founders but also as a source of skilled talent for startups to tap into. Sharjah is well-placed in this regard, with a University City that is home to over 30,000 students and has graduated over 35,000 alumni. Sheraa in fact has two hubs – one in the American University of Sharjah and another in the University of Sharjah – which allow us to connect with the university community and foster entrepreneurship among both the students and faculty.
Finally, ecosystems must provide additional business support resources – via institutional support through incubators and accelerators – to nurture young companies and help them survive.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been a steep learning curve to say the least. It has forced us to rethink work and productivity to navigate challenges the world hadn’t witnessed before. As startups pivot in this new economic reality, I believe there is an urgent need to call for relaxed laws and regulations stipulating changes that benefit a new working norm, and the UAE is already answering that call as evidenced by the recent announcement regarding the remote-working programme.
Shifting to remote working patterns almost overnight during the pandemic has proved the potential of leveraging technology as a key enabler of mobility and business continuity. More flexible and hybrid workplaces, as we have seen being implemented across sectors over the past six months, will certainly lead to increased employee motivation, improve productivity levels, reduce costs and enhance creativity.
It has shown that a flexible workforce is a reality, and I believe startups in the region must begin equipping themselves with the right resources as they revise and re-evaluate how and why they hire to survive in a rapidly evolving market. That in turn means developing regulatory frameworks that supports them, and we are definitely moving in that direction.
With the outbreak of the pandemic, remote working has become the new normal; and although it can be challenging, I believe it is here to stay. It has definitely forced us to rethink what it means for a startup to be “based” in a particular region, as well as what it means for the future of coworking hubs and the delivery of programmatic offerings. More and more, it seems that it does not in fact matter where the entrepreneur sits, provided they are able to engage with the ecosystem they are interested in. Startups will go wherever makes the most sense for them, and are no longer necessarily tied to one specific physical location. The onus is now on us as ecosystem builders and entrepreneurship support organisations to broaden our own scope and adapt to this changing landscape.
As a result the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the fluidity of global economic interdependence was brought to a staggering halt overnight. Now, more than ever, we are recognising the importance of self-sufficiency particularly in critical sectors such as food security, education and healthcare. As the nation looks inwards for local ingenuity to cover these bases, not just for long-term sustainable economic development but also social wellbeing, we aim to play a key role in producing and attracting that talent.
To understand the value Sharjah places on nurturing human capital, one need only look at University City. Not only are the educational institutions based there - such as the American University of Sharjah, Higher Colleges of Technology, and University of Sharjah - beginning to incorporate entrepreneurial learning into their curriculums, they are also placing an increasing emphasis on R&D, innovation, and commercialisation.
This interview has been edited