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The New Middle East: Women at the Center of a Startup Ecosystem, Pt. 4

Pando Daily

It’s pretty hard to think of a great consumer facing platform that isn’t, by its nature, social. Should it be surprising, then, that coming off of the Arab Spring uprisings, so often coordinated and communicated through Facebook and Twitter, women entrepreneurs in the Middle East look at consumer-facing platforms and social networking from a unique perspective?

Yasmin Elayat certainly does. Born and raised in Silicon Valley and the daughter of a successful tech entrepreneur, she visited Egypt throughout her childhood each year for three months at a time. In 1997, when her grandfather in Cairo passed away, she and her family decided to move to Egypt. In 2001, studying computer engineering at Santa Clara University at the time, she transferred to the American University of Cairo. Her passions of marrying computer technology with storytelling and interactive design took her later to NYU for a Master’s degree. But the protests in Tahrir squared convinced her to return to Egypt for good.

“In February 2011, I took a huge leap of faith,” says Elayat. ”[I] quit a great job in New York, and moved to Cairo to live off my savings and work full-time on what was essentially an art project that I really believed in.”

“Millions of Egyptians were capturing moments of the uprisings on their mobile devices and social networks in real-time, allowing the world to witness the frontlines of history-in-the-making. We believed a collaborative storytelling platform to create the first crowd sourced Web documentary would be the best way to capture it all. We could empower the source as the storyteller – essentially having a country write its own history.”

Their site 18 Days in Egypt offered an innovative, visual technology platform for collaborative storytelling. A grant from the Tribeca Film Institute’s New Media Fund, the Ford Foundation, and a successful KickStarter campaign all helped her and her co-founders to document changes in Egypt in remarkable and unique ways. People posted their stories, photos, Tweets, and videos by the thousands.

The experience inspired Elayat and her team to think about broader ramifications of collaboration from these experiences, and what the platform powering 18 Days might become.

“We all create millions of media fragments of important moments and experiences in our lives on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and other services,” Yasmin told me.  “However, today those important moments from our lives are fragmented and scattered across different social media services, out of context, and buried under the avalanche of always-newer events.”

Path, Instagram and other social platforms capture daily experiences as one narrative. But she argues, we all have many different shared experiences each day. There are no easy solutions to take all our important moments, curate them, and create a visual story to share with our friends or the public at large.

“Storify, Storination, Kaptur and others are exploring this,” she notes. “But what we learned form 18DaysinEgypt is that the best stories are those that are told together. Our next iteration is a mobile-first, Web-second storytelling experience for groups to easily tell stories of small, personal events (like road trips, weddings) or [about] large public events (like the campaign trail, Olympics, conferences) in an easy, visual way.”

These are the earliest days of crowd-sourced storytelling, according to Perihan Abou Zeid, whose new multi-media start-up Qabila TV took top awards at this year’s MIT Business Competition in the Middle East.

Like Yasmine Elayat, Abou Zeid graduated from the American University of Cairo and became fascinated by both the power of social media and the performance analytics available to let content creators know what was popular and effective. But her roots as an entrepreneur started early.

“My first entrepreneurial project was in grade 8, when I designed accessories and sold them to my classmates,” says Abou Zeid. “I made a fortune for a kid in my age at the time.”  She is particularly interested in the power of marrying analytics and social media for effective advertising content.

Qabila, with over 30 engineers and curators, is a video content company that leverages crowd-sourced media to provide any organization with cost-effective content. The company helps clients engage audiences across any social network or online platform. “We guarantee that the message of our client reaches the target audience effectively,” Abou Zeid notes, sounding every inch the Google account strategist she used to be.

“By studying the audience behavior and adopting a crowdsourcing model that actively interacts and engages the audience to better understand them, we believe we are revolutionizing the media production industry in Egypt.”

The Revolution had a profound effect on the founding of Qabila. “The Arab Spring affected me greatly,” says Abou Zeid. “In fact, Qabila was inspired by the revolution in Egypt, and the very first video we shot was in Tahrir square. The Arab Spring showed us the huge gap in the media industry and the opportunity presented itself at the time.”

Qabila has since launched educational videos about civic engagement and government. According to the local media watcher Egypt Today, “Using humor, simple language and even simpler animations, their videos reached out to the youth who recently found interest in politics but were bombarded with terms they didn’t understand.” This was the model and voice that they have subsequently brought to marketers across all industries.

Sabrine Assem was researching for her Master’s degree in innovation and technology at the German University of Cairo a year ago when she discovered Innocentive. The US-based crowd-sharing platform has allowed over 200,000 experts in the sciences to post R&D questions and projects to each other. She was hooked.

“Think of all the problems in Egypt and throughout the region that could be solved through technology, through connecting with expertise around the world,” Assem told me. She decided to launch an Arabic/English version called SolverMine in her company Fekra Squared this past spring.

Born in Alexandria Egypt, Assem’s father was an IT services consultant and entrepreneur in the late 1960s, when few in Egypt knew what that was. “He always wanted to be his own employer,” Assem recalls. “So he always encouraged me to start my own projects.”

Through a combination of watching her sister, who is active in her use of social tools in youth empowerment initiatives, and inspired by her classmates at university, Assem was an early convert to the power of crowd-sharing. Even so, launching a startup wasn’t easy. “Generally, it is very hard living alone in Cairo – hard financially, hard because some people don’t think women should live alone, let alone start a business,” says Assem. ”But I learned that the only thing that mattered was my mission.”

Assem decided to attend one of the many “startup weekends” in Egypt, a gathering of entrepreneurs to brainstorm and pitch their ideas, and remembers one meeting at a Starbucks where her companions and the event organizers were riveted by her idea. “I partnered with another woman I met there and returned to Cairo to put together a team. At first, [our team was comprised of] students and then three other co-founding women to build a platform and find if we could match in a beta some need to experts on the ground to solve it.”

The team already convinced a number of companies to try out the platform once launched. Fekra Squared is currently partnering with universities in Egypt and the Arab world to give users access to their networks of academics, students, and researchers and to invite them to solve the challenges posted on their service.

Of course the power of social in Middle East start-ups is hardly limited to Egypt. Jordanian-based Abjjad is the first Arabic/English, Goodreads-like social network, where book lovers log in, connect and share book recommendations with other readers, authors, and bloggers. Software engineer, MBA, and marketing research expert, founder Eman Hylooz and her team have built one of the largest databases of Arabic book titles. She believes this will stir audiences across the entire Arabic world to read and buy more books.

“Apparently I am a book worm,” Hylooz told me. “I wanted since forever to start a project related to books.”

Initially a marketing executive covering Jordan and Saudi Arabia for KPMG, she heard that the new Amman-based start-up incubator Oasis500 offered a six-day training class on how to start a business.

“It was a turning point in my life,” she says. “I gained the knowledge of converting my idea into a real business plan. I pitched Oasis and won a seed investment to establish my ideas. That was May of 2012, had my beta up by June 18… As of this week, we have more than 15,000 registered members and near 2,500 written book reviews by the audience.” Built solely with freelancers, Hylooz will look to raise a Series A later this year to open an office, bring on full-time employees, expand outside of Jordan, and begin to monetize through book sales and advertising.

“I have to tell you,” she says, “I am proud to be a woman entrepreneur, as usually entrepreneurship is oriented more towards men in general. Currently, however, the ratio is changing, as more women are tending to go through this journey. And maybe I am getting more opportunities from other women entrepreneurs, as they love supporting other women more.”


Originally published by Pando Daily, October 3, 2012.

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