When Ayman Ismail became a professor at the American University in Cairo and the academic advisor for the university’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation program in 2011, the field was still in its infancy. But Egypt’s modern history already had a vibrant entrepreneurial culture. Alexandria, for example, was home to the largest commodity exchange in the world in the late nineteenth century. Egypt saw visionary enterprise ranging from economist Talaat Harb’s founding of Banque Misr in 1920 to the establishment of EgyptAir in 1932 as one of the first ten air carriers in history (Harb was notably passionate about the creation of local industries founded by his countrymen).
It was not until the development of tech startups in the 2010s that there was a notable shift in entrepreneurial interest, and it is in this momentum that Ismail found himself drawn back to his homeland. He had previously cofounded a management consulting company with his brother, as well as a social enterprise incubator called Nahdet El Mahrousa with a group of close friends. After finishing his PhD in international economic development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2009, Ismail arrived at a particularly flexible moment in his career and toyed with the idea of moving back to Egypt—and then came the Egyptian uprising. Gripped by the movement around him, he received an offer from AUC and, as he puts it, “the rest is history.”
Ismail’s work with the Entrepreneurship and Innovation program revolved around creating a space for ideas and growth and raising overall awareness, what he refers to as “seeding the ecosystem”—which resulted in forty partnerships and the training of six thousand youth. Now, as the Jameel Chair of Entrepreneurship and founding director of the university’s Venture Lab, Ismail is involved in everything from the lab’s leadership to personal mentoring. However, he remains best known for helping many navigate the risky world of entrepreneurship.
The Venture Lab is a startup accelerator program at AUC’s New Cairo campus. Since 2013, the program has devoted over 2,200 mentoring and training hours to building the capacity of more than 150 startups, resulting in the creation of over eight thousand jobs and 450 million Egyptian pounds (or $28 million) in revenue. This includes the development of some of Ismail’s favorite companies such as Rology, an AI-assisted, on-demand teleradiology platform. Given a global shortage of radiologists, Ismail says that Rology fills a crucial space in urgent care, where “a minute can be the difference between life and death.” Another is the popular transportation service Swvl, a low-cost bus transportation network that is currently the fastest-growing company in Egypt. Along for the ride since their beginning, Ismail fondly recalls when Swvl’s founders told him they had received their first offer from an angel investor. “These are the kinds of moments that you really enjoy and cherish,” Ismail said.
The unique advantage of the Venture Lab is simple: presence on a university campus. Ismail explained, “universities are not about teaching, they’re about knowledge— knowledge, innovation, dissemination.” By connecting policymakers to program designers, entrepreneurs to engineers, the university is facilitating interactions capable of producing tangible results for the Egyptian market.
Programs like the Venture Lab offer a model for the rest of the country, and even the region, of opportunities for accelerators and incubators. Several years ago, governments tended to overlook entrepreneurship in favor of small and medium-sized enterprises, and only recently became aware of its importance and potential. Ismail was optimistic about this shift in view, saying, “That’s a major change over the long term. That’s how we bring cultural change.” He is currently advising the Egyptian Ministry of Planning on incorporating entrepreneurship into Egypt’s sustainable development strategy.
The entrepreneurial scene is currently skyrocketing. “I think it’s probably an inflection point, and the quality [of work] … in the next three years is going to be different, because more people and different people are getting into that space.” Young and mid-career professionals are choosing careers in entrepreneurship, enticed by wealth creation, independence, and serious career options. However, he predicted that when the market cycles downward, those who view entrepreneurship as a short-term opportunity will filter out, ushering in another, more serious wave.
That said, Ismail believes in the ability of younger people to pursue business ambitions. His advice to young entrepreneurs is, “Invest in yourself, before you get into anything.” He is an advocate for informed experience and explained that this does not have to mean building general work experience for a decade, but requires at least having been inside the industry: “Just understand what’s happening in that space. And then start whatever you want.”
The best example of how a consistent, intentional learner can succeed is Ismail himself. In a field where the latest information and resources are rapidly developing, he never assumes that he knows more than his students, despite his extensive experience. As they ask him questions throughout his classes, covering entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial finance, he does not give out answers immediately, but asks questions in return. As he stressed, “The smartest person in the room is the person who is asking questions, not the person who has all the answers. So that’s what I do.”
Alexandra Hall is a reporter-researcher at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs.
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