When the first RiseUp summit in 2013 attracted a surprising 2,000 people, its founder, Abdelhameed Sharara, could not have imagined that just six years later, the summit would be on track to bring 10,000 people together to explore the world of Middle Eastern start-ups. eniGma’s Bronwen Mehta met with this master entrepreneur to learn more about his grassroots start-up platform, which is steadily transforming not just the country, but the entire region.
As a young law graduate on his way to launch a successful legal career, Abdelhameed Sharara was not captivated by the options that lay ahead of him. Having developed important leadership skills in university during his tenure as president of the organisational committee for all Egyptian university students’ unions, and, most importantly, through his participation in the Injaz start-up simulation programme, Sharara was keen to create something for himself. “Participation in Injaz’s programme, where I took on the role of CEO of a company, caused a paradigm shift in my ambitions. It revealed to me that my real passion revolved around thinking of something, realising it and then sustaining it,” Sharara explains.
Once he had been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, Sharara was hooked.He went on to run various workshops in business strategy and soft skills, and even ended up back at Injaz to manage their start-up simulation programme. Immersing himself in the entrepreneurial field, Sharara began to realize that something was missing in the start-up scene. “While there was significant interest from young people to start their own businesses, especially post 2011, there was no platform bringing them all together. Without a platform for the start-up community, access to resources was unequal and there was a complete lack of market transparency. The lack of such a platform also meant that many processes were being replicated, with a lot of unnecessary competition developing,” Sharara explains. To address this array of problems, Sharara conjured up the ultimate solution: RiseUp.
“RiseUp seeks to democratise access to resources. We don’t provide the resources ourselves, but we curate exactly what start-ups need,” says Sharara, insisting that it was important to create a platform as opposed to an umbrella. “Platforms are grassroots networks that allow authentic and organic relationships to be cultivated; as opposed to an umbrella, which is implemented from above and has a defined ceiling. It was essential for RiseUp to be neutral, inclusive and collaborative from the start,” he adds. Sharara wanted his vision to benefit, not just entrepreneurs, but the whole of Egyptian society. “I wanted the RiseUp community to contribute to the Egyptian economy, and on a larger level, to use innovation and entrepreneurship to improve the human experience. Start-ups creating value through solving social and economic problems and benefiting the human experience, remains central to my vision,” he stresses. Challenging the stereotype of happily individualistic millennial entrepreneurs, Sharara draws attention to the importance of addressing the mental wellbeing of startup entrepreneurs, “Creating your own business is an incredibly lonely experience. Emotionally fighting the depression of entrepreneurship is a difficult thing. Having a platform like RiseUp, which cultivates this sense of community, really helps,” he adamantly states from personal experience.
What started as an idea in 2013, has grown to become the most successful start-up platform in the region today. Sharara insists that much of this success is due to the help he received along the way. “In 2013 when we started, it was a very tough time. The army had closed down many streets in Cairo and had imposed a curfew. To make sure that we got things ready on time, I moved to the Greek campus and slept there, amidst the tear gas., for ten days prior to the event. Around a hundred people came to help me, including many designers and entrepreneurs. I only knew about 10% of those people, but word of the event spread, and everyone really wanted to help out of a genuine interest to do something positive,” he recounts with a smile. The inaugural RiseUp summit, was a big hit, thanks to Sharara’s perseverance and the help he received. They had expected 800 attendees; instead, 2,000 people turned up.
RiseUp has continued to go from strength to strength. As it shifts Egyptian business culture and changes the public perception of entrepreneurship, it is also working directly at changing the start-up system itself through policy advocacy. “We created a start-up manifesto by listening to 200 stakeholders from the ecosystem and aggregating the challenges they said they faced. Thanks to our first and second hand research, we succeeded in creating a research-driven roadmap towards solutions. Although we are still building the methodology to deliver these solutions as programmes, today we are considered a reliable voice for the start-up community and are called upon to provide policy advocacy and legal advice to government figures,” Sharara explains.
Thanks largely to Sharara’s intrepid networking skills, RiseUp has also built a stellar international reputation. “Around the 2014 summit, I received many invitations to speak at conferences around the world, but the invitations usually didn’t cover flights or accommodation. I would seek out entrepreneurs in different countries, like Austria, Germany, Sweden, the US, China, Russia, and would couch surf with them! Naturally, I built strong connections with these people, and now in every single start-up city, we have a very big believer in RiseUp,” he proudly recounts.
As a result of these contacts and the borderless nature of entrepreneurial culture, Sharara has been able to spread the RiseUp spirit around the region. He has acquired MENAbytas, the region’s start-up focused media platform.“This year, we are also adding a flagship pitching competition which we called, Pitch by the Pyramids. In this regional competition, participants will feel like kings with the pyramids backdrop, drawing attention to ancient Egyptian innovation, while also attracting a lot of international attention,” Sharara excitedly explains. To carry out their regional expansion, RiseUp has been teaming up with local partners in different countries across the Middle East to facilitate the growth of start-up ecosystems that are curated to fit the needs of each individual community.
With young people increasingly looking for opportunity outside the old economy, Sharara strongly believes in the huge potential for growth in the start-up scene. “There is a very big creative workforce whose members are not feeling relevant to the old economy. Start-ups offer them the potential to exercise their creativity in every single sector,” he says.
In conclusion, it is heartwarming to observe that, through following his own passion and creating his own company, Sharara has also facilitated the realisation of the dreams of many eager budding entrepreneurs, keen to create their own paths in this increasingly technological world.