Zeenat Rahman
Special Adviser to the Secretary for Global Youth Issues
Washington, DC
April 4, 2013

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Zeenat Rahman: Good morning everybody, thank you for joining this Google+ Hangout on the theme of youth entrepreneurship and innovation. My name is Zeenat Rahman. I am the Special Adviser to the Secretary on Global Youth Issues and I’m joined today with three young entrepreneurs from around the world. I have Sarah Green from the United States, Edward Amartey-Tagoe from Ghana, and Ramez Mohamed from Egypt. So I will introduce you guys fully in a minute but I just wanted to say that I’m very excited to have all three of you here because I get to not talk and get to ask you guys questions that will hopefully help young people who are listening to this who want to know how you do it, how you get started and have an idea, and maybe want to run with it but might not know how. And so in the position of Global Youth Issues adviser, I get to travel around the world and what I see is that young people are bursting with energy and talent and I have the lucky job of figuring how to tap into that talent; how the State Department can help young people advance in their dreams and aspirations, and particularly with regard to economic opportunities, and what that means as all of you navigate this very complicated world. Part of the focus of my office is to institute meaningful ways to engage the natural talents of young people, as well as addressing the economic challenges of the world that this youth bulge brings.

And so for me, you know, this is – whether you all think it or realize it, or not – the three guests that I have on with me, you are role models. And I think that, more than anything, I would like to showcase the talents of young leaders. You are young entrepreneurs and have been young leaders in what you do. I have had the pleasure of meeting Edward and the pleasure of meeting Sarah, and hearing your stories. Hearing how through your story of the project that what you are doing, you show leadership. And so those tag points are something that I’d like to focus on a little as we start the conversation. And with an eye to how can we, as you're kind of telling your story -- and Edward I remember hearing your story in Uganda and being really inspired by it. So if we have a young listener who wants to learn something from this and hear from your experience, that’s really what I would like to focus on.

So quickly will you just say what you all do. Ramez is the CEO of Flat 6 labs, which is a start-up accelerator in Cairo and it was launched by Sawari Ventures in connection with the American University of Cairo which provides seed funding, support, and mentorship for early stage start-ups. Edward is a tech entrepreneur who co-founded, which is an award-winning Internet start-up in Ghana, so hopefully Edward you’ll talk a little about what you do. Edward is also an executive member of blogging Ghana, Ghana’s biggest association of bloggers and social enthusiasts. Sarah Green is a partner and chief operating officer of Empact. Empact’s work focuses on facilitating a culture of entrepreneurship in communities across the world through exposure, celebration, and early stage start-up support. And Sarah, I know we started to do that a little in Dubai when we were together in December, and I see this as a continuation of the conversation.

So I’d like to start with a question to each of you, which is, as you thought about what you wanted to do on this Google chat and what you were going to say, how do you think of constructing your story and who you are and bring that to the work that you do? Maybe we can start with you Edward.

Edward Amartey-Tagoe: Good afternoon, it is the afternoon here in Accra, Ghana and I am very privileged especially to be a part of this Google Hangout. I guess I started in Kampala, Uganda and I like to share my stories. I think that’s something that African entrepreneurs aren’t really doing. We aren’t sharing our successes and so not many people see their role models in us. So many people that have met us would want to think that we are not doing big jobs because they do not see the light in entrepreneurship and that’s basically what inspired me to be a part of this and for me to share my success stories anyway I can including this platform.

Zeenat Rahman: Great. Ramez, would you like to share with us how you present yourself as an entrepreneur? How you tell that story of everything you have done?

Ramez Mohamed: Sure definitely. First of all, thank you very much for inviting us to this Google Hangout. I am managing a start-up accelerator out here in Cairo, at Flat 6 Labs. Flat 6 Labs is a start-up accelerator started about a year and a half ago. Since then we have invested in about 50 companies. We give them seed funding, office space, and mentorship and all the support they need to start their businesses. We created more than 200 jobs through our companies that we created in Egypt. I will think of myself as an entrepreneur. Flat 6 labs is backed by a venture capital firm here in Egypt called Sawari Investments that provides the operations and investment funds for Flat 6 Labs. But we started Flat 6 Labs from scratch. We started the first [of its] kind of accelerator in Egypt. The idea of investors investing in the seed stage, it was a bit new to the community here, and to the investment community in Egypt. And so yeah, since then, things are going great. Many of our companies got another round of funding. (inaudible) They have good businesses and are generating revenue. They are creating jobs and it’s going well.

Zeenat Rahman: Fantastic, Sarah?

Sarah Green: Great, well first of all, thanks so much for hosting us Zeenat. And I think you really hit the nail on the head when you talked about the idea of role models. I think that, especially from my story, we think of entrepreneurs as being in the Silicon Valley, or all technology entrepreneurs, or you have to have this crazy amazing idea -- when the fact is being an entrepreneur is really following what you’re passionate about and applying a business model to that. And so I think how my story factors into that, plays into that -- similar to Ramez -- a sort of a nontraditional route of what you think of when you think of entrepreneurship. I think it’s really important to spread those differing stories of how people become entrepreneurs because there is no one pathway to becoming an entrepreneur.

Zeenat Rahman: Good, I think about that fact -- that we are speaking across continents today -- and you all share something in common. You are problem-solvers, innovators, and in a way, challenging the status quo. I mean you look at a place like Egypt, where youth unemployment is the highest in the world and the role of the young people is still yet to be determined in many ways. So how do you break through that stigma and be motivated to do what you do? And I’ll ask you that Ramez.

Ramez Mohamed: Actually when we started, we thought it be challenging to find good ideas and good people in Egypt because you don’t go around and see many entrepreneurs. But actually we were very surprised by the quality of talent we have found in Egypt through our start-ups and tech companies and what they want to do and what they want to achieve. It has been incredible since we started. The amount of support they are getting from many sectors in Egypt -- from the corporate sector, from us, and other angels investors. And a last thing -- the whole legal system of entrepreneurship in Egypt lets you canvas around an accelerator. So like we are developing the whole legal system as we move and as we go in Egypt. And not only in Egypt, actually over the next few months, we are starting to replicate the model of Flat 6 Labs across the Minah region to have more Flat 6 labs regionally and in other countries as well, not only Egypt.

Zeenat Rahman: That’s fantastic. You know I think about Edward, where you are, and right, we are having a conversation with your peers in the United States and in Egypt. I wonder, as you look at the local challenges you face as an entrepreneur, what are the positive advantages of connecting with your peers around the world that can help as you look at your Nadimobile kind of locally and what you are doing on a day-to-day basis? How can you build with the fact that you are connected to young entrepreneurs from all over the world, or that you can be?

Edward Amartey-Tagoe: For me, or for my team, and like a few other young entrepreneurs here in Ghana, we want to build a product that can scale internationally. Not just a product that can solve problems in Ghana; but one that can be replicated in the sub-African region or even in Europe or in the Americas. So connecting with a group of entrepreneurs, one needs to understand whether or not these environments are similar and what kind of tweaks or applications are needed for solutions to work there. In the past, we have formed relationships with East Africans, people in Kenya and Uganda, and what we are going to do is also form strong entrepreneurs in the U.K. and Europe. Once we have proven our solution in Ghana, we can easily find a way to make it accessible to people who need our solution in the U.S. So I think networking with other entrepreneurs is really helpful, at least in my situation, and I’m sure it will help many other entrepreneurs as well.

Zeenat Rahman: Good, so Sarah, both Edward and Ramez mentioned the kind of regional connection they have with their peers in the different regions they are in. And I know your focus is sometimes global, connecting American entrepreneurs overseas. Do you want to add to that at all?

Sarah Green: Yeah, so we get together with thousands of young entrepreneurs every year, many from the U.S., but from all over the world. And I think the amount of innovation that comes into some of that brainstorming from different backgrounds; cultural phenomena comes into play and things you never would have thought of otherwise. So the ability to come in at different angles based on different backgrounds, I think, is incredibly important.

That’s a great point and actually takes me to a question we got on Twitter which is asking about these cultural norms in some society, what about the community? If parents won’t let kids, especially girls, go to school, will they support them in getting a job? Would one of you like to respond to that?

Sarah Green: So I think one thing when we are talking about entrepreneurship development and entrepreneurship education is that we’re not just tackling one issue. It’s really the whole ecosystem supporting entrepreneurship. And one of those roles is with education. And so, as we’re spearheading, and trying to push forward the idea of the entrepreneurial mindset, and for young people to be more innovative, we also have to be tackling issues with access to education, access to technology, human rights issues. It all really falls under that same umbrella.

Zeenat Rahman: Great, so I want to ask another question that came, which is, looking at first-time entrepreneurs and you all have had successful ventures. What are some of the challenges that each of you face when you started your first venture? Whether it was cultural stigma or otherwise? Remaz, would you like to answer that?

Ramez Mohamed: Yeah sure. I would speak for our entrepreneurs at Flat 6 Labs and what kind of challenges they face. Most of it is from the funding part, like how they can get another round of funding to start to scale up their business or hire more people. I think that’s a real challenge in Egypt, and especially in the Middle East to find the right investor, to find someone who believes in your idea and finance it so that it can grow. That is probably one of the main challenges here for sure, as well – not from the culture side. The cultural side is changing. We have seen so many young people at universities wanting to start their businesses. Like we had at least four or five start-up events here in Egypt in the past two years, with like more than 300 participants at each event. So there is huge potential in Egypt our people can achieve here. It’s more about how people can grow and how they can scale their business, and so on.

Zeenat Rahman: And Edward, what about you?

Edward Amartey-Tagoe: For me, my business, Nandimobile, was started in an accelerator or incubator which is currently the biggest technology committee in Ghana: Meltwater. And what has helped us is, we have groups of young tech entrepreneurs. Now there are about 11 different tech businesses here. And what we do is rub off each other, and so it is transferred from one part to another. So whenever our team feels down, we get motivated by someone else’s success. A higher purpose is something that lacks outside the modern incubator. There aren’t too many entrepreneurs that are involved in tech entrepreneurship, either because the risks involved are too high or they know how (inaudible). So in Ghana, although it doesn’t really seem like it, there is a very small community of Web and mobile developers, or technology entrepreneurs. Most of the entrepreneurs would rather want to buy and sell or want to go into the traditional entrepreneurship, where they are sure of their revenues or income, but we want to venture into new, trendsetters tech entrepreneurship. Either because the bandwith is low, or just are very expensive, or they don’t really have access to mentorship. And this (inaudible) seeks to resolve, however I cannot do that in the large scale. I can only admit a few entrepreneurs at a time. So if there were strategies to scale this up, to bring in more entrepreneurs so that they will have more access to state resources, that will be wonderful yea, in Ghana or in Africa.

Zeenat Rahman: That’s a great point. Thank you. Sarah?

Sarah Green: So through our program called the Empact Showcase we have the largest showcase of young entrepreneurs in the U.S. that are age 30 and under and making at least $100,000 in revenue. And last year we did a survey asking them how much money they needed to actually start up, and over 50% started their companies with less than $5,000. So we’ve really found that a lot of people think that they just don’t have the money to start up, but a lot of times that’s not the case unless you have a really capital-intensive company, where you have to build a really big tech platform or something, you can get started right away with minimal funds. I think the bigger issue is having the courage to put yourself out there when you know that there is a big possibility that you could fail. So I think one thing that we need to encourage is rewarding a culture of people that are risk-takers and of people that are more courageous in their ways of thinking and stepping forward.

Zeenat Rahman: So, Sarah, I think you alluded to this before. In terms of talking about some of the stereotypes that people think about entrepreneurship. What you just said is one, earlier we talked about that we think American entrepreneurs are all Mark Zuckerbergs from the West coast. Can you all just talk a little about the stereotypes you face and how you’re changing that? Which goes back to my first point about stories and how are we telling these stories of success frankly. Sarah, maybe start with you?

Sarah Green: Sure. I guess I’ll start by telling a little more about my story and background. So when I was growing up I thought being an entrepreneur was just like you said -- you had to be somebody like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. You had to have a multibillion dollar company and it was all technology-focused, and I didn’t know anything about computer programming. So, I had immediately written off entrepreneurship in my mind. It wasn’t even really an option for me. But then I started doing entrepreneurial things -- starting programs and conferences -- and all of a sudden started being nominated for awards for entrepreneurship. I was very confused because this didn’t fit into my definition of what an entrepreneur was. So I think one challenge that we’re trying to overcome is sort of shifting what that definition of being an entrepreneur is, and how do you apply some of those same tools and learning lessons that make entrepreneurs successful and apply that to your life in general?

Zeenat Rahman: That’s great. Ramez?

Ramez Mohamed: Actually yeah, this has been something that we have been facing since we started Flat 6 Labs. They think of role models like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg or other popular figures, but what we have done is we try to show them that there are so many other different role models. Like for sure Steve Jobs is a great story, and so is Mark Zuckerberg, but for sure there are many good Egyptian ones, many Arab ones, that you can take as role models yourself. So we started connecting through our mentors. We built a network of mentors where they can exchange that knowledge and transfer the knowledge to these young entrepreneurs so they can take them as their own role models. They share the same culture. They share the same challenges and so on. So we try to take them through having a wide mentor network over the Mideast with each other as well.

Zeenat Rahman: Edward?

Edward Amartey-Tagoe: I basically agree with Sarah and Ramez. There is this stereotype here amongst the tech community folks and for me, my best tech blog is TechCrunch -- and I really don’t waste every day on Mashable. Maybe you read these Web sites and you hear about positions or how many millions these entrepreneurs are making. So all of a sudden you get that engrained in your mind that tech entrepreneurship is about making millions and billions, or solving high-tech problems. However, tech entrepreneurship can also mean solving very local problems that are close to you. And that is how we started. We started with very simple technologies like SMS -- how can we let a consumer communicate with their business through very simple technologies like 160 characters. And that is what can scale into becoming a very big community. And because we still have the Steve Jobs and the Mark Zuckerbergs in our minds, and we don’t have African-centered, or location-centered mentors, people still look up to those icons and I don’t know how we can change that. But we need to share our African stories, realize that we can have African mentors to look up to, European mentors to look up to, American mentors to look up to. That way we will still not have the Mark Zuckerberg icon in our minds.

Zeenat Rahman: Yeah that’s a great point and I’ll share with you from the State Department point of view. We look at the issue of global youth unemployment and the fact that we need 75 million jobs across the world to just maintain the numbers of young people in the population, and many times people will question whether entrepreneurship can be a solution to that. I think the reason why through the office we think entrepreneurship is something to put front and central is because it’s being led by young people and because it changes the face of addressing this problem and it’s not then for us, an “Oh, we have to solve this problem for young people but rather we’re doing it with young people." Frankly, I think that’s what needs to happen. That’s what helps shift and change the perception of what success looks like for a lot of young people struggling with what they can do. They have the talent. They have the energy. A lot of times they have the education, but the cultural norm right now is not one that’s easy on people full of that talent. And they are the key -- kind of agents of change -- in solving this problem which is really what we believe.

As our foreign policy and our economic policy go hand in hand, I hope that we can continue to do things like this which are pushing forward a different narrative and a different vision of young people and their relationship with governments, their relationships to big business, and to each other around the world. I think we have time for one last question so I’m going to ask you to communicate your one piece of advice for a young person, whether they’re in India or Honduras or wherever they’re watching from -- what’s the one thing you would say to them? And then if you have something you can suggest for follow-up, to point them to something, feel free to do that as well. Edward I’ll start with you.

Edward Amartey-Tagoe: For me, I would say entrepreneurship is not an easy road. That is a problem with communication that entrepreneurs fail to carry across. We only mostly present the flowery side, we don’t present the risks involved with entrepreneurship. If there is anyone out there who thinks entrepreneurship is an easy road, then they (inaudible). Entrepreneurship is hard and tough and if you pursue and work hard enough to the end it will finally pay off. Probably not pay off to the Facebook point or to the Steve Jobs points, but pay off to the point where you can get to a successful point and get enough revenues to employ your folks or get even some sales or some cash to do some projects in your vicinity or community.

Zeenat Rahman: Yeah, no, true. Ramez?

Ramez Mohamed: My only advice is just to start. If you have a good idea and you have a team and you see the market, just start. In the economy of Egypt like it is now, we need entrepreneurs. We need entrepreneurs to start working on offering more opportunities for people, solving their problems through innovation, and finding great solutions for their daily problems. So just start. We really need as many entrepreneurs--just start now.

Zeenat Rahman: Ramez, can you maybe mention one or two of the companies Flat 6 Labs is supporting just to give us a flavor of the breadth of things that young entrepreneurs are tackling in Egypt?

Ramez Mohamed: Sure, definitely. Actually one of our companies is called Ogra. Ogra is a taxi-calling service. One of the main problems we face with Egypt’s transportation is finding a taxi in Egypt, especially in the distant areas. So it’s a very innovative idea, and we are giving all of the taxi drivers around town, many of them wired phones, so you can track the nearest taxi to you and call them so they can arrive to your home, door, or your office and it’s very easy to find a taxi this way. Another cool idea is called Laugh Hunt. It’s like an online academy for Egypt -- like meeting the Egyptian curriculum in Egyptian schools. So week by week they offer very short videos, like five to ten minute videos, for all Egyptian schools and they have now more than 3,000 videos on the Website in Arabic. Very easy to understand and to watch, and they have like so many thousands of students now are watching Laugh Hunt’s videos online. So these two ideas, they are trying to solve the education and transportation problem.

Zeenat Rahman: That’s fantastic. Can I go back to Edward just so you can say really quickly what Nandimobile does?

Edward Amartey-Tagoe: What we do is we use very simple technologies like SMS and mobile applications to connect consumers with businesses in Ghana. In Ghana customer service is not really the best and usually the customer doesn’t have much say. What we want to do is we want to change that by putting power onto the mobile device of the consumer. So whenever he walks into a premise or a bank, he can communicate with the business by sending a simple text message which is received by the bank so that they can understand the consumer more -- about what they think about their business. That’s basically what we do.

Zeenat Rahman: Fantastic. And then Sarah I’m just going to end with you and if you can give us examples of young entrepreneurs in the Empact network and then kind of your closing advice? You might be on mute. Are you on mute? Start over.

Sarah Green: So we work with entrepreneurs in all different industries. The number one industry is actually marketing and advertising all the way down through tech. A lot of lifestyle companies. We have entrepreneurs that have started youth camps called Extreme Youth Sports. We’ve got entrepreneurs that are really revolutionizing the marketing scene. Aero Advertising is doing things with sign spinning, which has also now turned into an extreme sport. And then we’ve got entrepreneurs who do SEO analytics, and then entrepreneurs that own restaurants. There’s one that started out of a food truck out in Los Angeles and now is this booming restaurant, so it really spans all different industries and it just goes to show there are many faces of entrepreneurship and many different role models. Really you can find basically any role model that you’re looking for because there are entrepreneurs in each of these different industries.

So my piece of advice, sort of tying together Ramez and Edward, is exactly like Edward said, sometimes we sort of romanticize entrepreneurship and don’t talk a lot about some of the challenges and how hard it is every single day. So you really want to make sure that whatever you do, you’re extremely passionate about and you’re dedicated to seeing through to the end.

To Ramez’s point about just starting now -- one of the exercises I really encourage people to do is take one piece of paper, split it down the middle. On one side write everything that you’re really passionate about. Everything you that love to do that really gets you excited when you wake up in the morning. On the other side identify different problems that you see within your community and then try and see if there is any overlap, so that you can apply something that you’re passionate about to an existing problem that you see in your community because if you’re passionate about solving it, then you’re willing to go through a lot of those ups and downs as an entrepreneur be able to actually solve that problem.

Zeenat Rahman: That’s a wonderful way to put it and I think as I look across the three of you, I think you’ve all done that. Where you’ve looked at something that’s locally a challenge and just gone after it and tackled it, and so I hope that this is encouraging to people who are watching this. That you can just do it. I think from my perspective -- the fact that you all have challenges that are unique to where you are, but you share so much of your vision. And the way you talk about this and what you’re doing across borders, and that I think can be a real asset. And I hope that the State Department and through our office we can help facilitate those connections. And so, I would just say, that if we want to continue the conversation -- I know this is a very short amount of time -- we can do it through Twitter using the hashtag #GlobalYouth. All four of us tweet, so if you go to #GlobalYouth you’ll see all of our Twitter handles. And then if you have other questions that come up later, through our Facebook page at GlobalYouth@State we’d be happy to take your questions and direct them to any one of these amazing people. So, I’d like to thank the three of you for being here with us today and I appreciate your time. And thank everybody for watching and tuning in and I look forward to hearing the next big adventures from everybody. Thank you.

Sarah Green: Thank you. Bye everyone.

Edward Amartey-Tagoe: Thank you.

Ramez Mohamed: Bye.