“Countries from all around the world look up to Silicon Valley as if it were the heart of innovation; they’re all getting their inspiration from there, and trying to create their own startup ecosystem,” asserts Kenza Lahlou.
Everywhere, that is, but Morocco, she adds. In 2012, Morocco’s startup ecosystem was woefully underdeveloped. Amine Azaris, co-founder of Greendizer, a rare Moroccan startup to have raised money at the time, recalls that there were almost no events and the key players barely know each other.
It was time for change.
Lahlou moved back to Morocco from San Francisco and started organizing monthly coffee meetings, then dinners, with Azaris to help entrepreneurs meet and exchange. Each participant was encouraged to bring along a like-minded friend or acquaintance, and the community quickly started to take shape.
Their resulting organization, StartupYourLife, was created with one simple objective: “to gather the key players of the ecosystem to get them to work together, and become more powerful and visible, to put Morocco on the map, both regionally and internationally,” says Lahlou.
Giving Moroccan startups international visibility
“International investors are interested in Moroccan startups,” she says, “but they don’t know where to look.” Creating a door at which international investors can knock has therefore become a priority.
In the Moroccan startup scene, one clearly feels this international ambition: English is the official language of the community, which include many Moroccans who were born or have worked abroad. Members have had experience in France, the United Kingdom, Spain, the United States (New York and Silicon Valley), Canada, Japan, and Singapore.
Helping them grow
But getting international players to look their way means nothing without having strong startups to showcase. “We’re enabling entrepreneurs to share experience, and giving them access to everything that’s happening locally” in order to develop their companies and products, explains Lahlou.
StartupYourLife is putting together an increasing number of events, open to anyone. Their Open Cafés series is designed to welcome potential new members and the curious, in a casual atmosphere. Monthly thematic workshops were launched last September to improve competence (see the lesson map below drafted during the first workshop). June marked the beginning of another major type of event: networking evenings that gather 80 entrepreneurs, mentors, and investors in an informal setting.
SYL has also wrangled partnerships with major organizations like CEED, an international organization supporting entrepreneurship, to get its members invitations to attend the best local events, including, of course, Wamda’s Mix N’ Mentor event that took place in Casablanca last June.
A selective community
The events are open to anyone but select partnerships are only for members. For membership, startup players need to go through a selection process, a necessary evil to preserve the network’s quality and members’ engagement, argues Lahlou.
The members need to be a bit out of the ordinary, she explains: they need to have something different, to be innovative, to have a startup mindset, and to want to change the world. They can be entrepreneurs, designers, consultants, investors, or evangelists.
Today, the community is 80 members strong, many of whom have been covered by Wamda:
- Kamal Reggad who raised $1.6 million USD on a plane for Hmizate
- Mohamed Attahiri from Greendizer, Morocco’s oldest startup
- Kenza Bennani from MySportner, an app to be launched straight into the U.S.
- Youssef Hassar from MesCadeaux.ma, the anti-Lean Methodology e-commerce website
- Hicham Oudghiri, the 2013 New York TechCrunch Disrupt winner with Enigma
- Jonny Miller from Maptia, the British startup based in a Moroccan surfer village
- Dan Driscoll from the Anou, the platform that enables artisans to sell on Etsy and eBay
- Youssef El Hammal from Stagiaires.ma, the recruitment expert
Many of the ecosystem’s supporters are also involved with SYL, for instance Fatim Biaz who opened co-working space New Work Lab, Youness Quassimi who co-founded Synergie Media, the Nexties, and the Moroccan Web Awards, Taher Alami, who created consulting agency AbWeb or Youssef Es-skouri, the brain behind the Geek Ftour. Many of these established entrepreneurs won awards at the first annual Karim Jazouani Prize for Entrepreneurship in Morocco that Wamda organized in August.
StartupYourLife is not involved in social media: “for the time being, we prefer focusing on communicating internally, we’re not looking to get coverage just yet, we’d rather work on quality activities that will get people talking about the community.” Still, soon StartupYourLife’s website will list all the events going on in Morocco, both their own and those organized by other organizations. In the meantime, you can follow StartupYourLife’s events on the Wamda calendar.