On August 4th, a disastrous explosion rocked the beautiful city of Beirut, causing at least 204 fatalities, 6500 injuries, leaving over 300,000 people homeless, and $15 billion in damages. This unfortunate explosion alongside the COVID-19 pandemic and the already ailing economy created an apocalyptic scene for the Lebanese people.
No matter how bleak the situation may appear, we believe that Lebanon will rise again like it always did and the strong-willed resilient Lebanese will shake off the dust and carry on.
We had the pleasure to to discuss the future of the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Lebanon and its role in rebuilding its economy with Najwa Sahmarani, the co-founder and Vice President of Tripoli Entrepreneurs Club.
You’re currently the VP and co-founder of one of the leading entrepreneurship clubs in Lebanon, the Tripoli Entrepreneurs Club. But what a lot may not know that you were an entrepreneur yourself. How did you start paving your career in the competitive entrepreneurship field?
Since my teenage years, before becoming familiarized with the notion of entrepreneurship, I have been curious to experiment with different ways of making an income while building things I enjoy working on. This curiosity led me to challenge conventional ways early on in my career. I explored various mini entrepreneurial projects such as building an online store for handmade accessories, thematic travel and tours business, and Hijabi Fashion e-commerce - among others. My first more ‘serious’ entrepreneurial venture started while I was still pursuing my studies in Mechanical Engineering. I joined a team of colleagues to co-found a biomedical technology startup. In three years, we created a solid business plan that we pitched to venture capital funds and startup competitions locally and regionally – until we received a seed investment that could help launch us into operations. A long journey of iterations and lessons learned that also introduced me to the growing entrepreneurship ecosystem and the opportunities available to young people building innovative products and solutions. Being among the few young people from my hometown Tripoli who benefited from such opportunities, I was keen to not be among the last and this is when I started building Tripoli Entrepreneurs Club along with a group of dreamers and doers who believed in the potential of the city to become an active and productive innovation hub.
It’s no secret that entrepreneurs in Lebanon have been facing various challenges and hurdles long before the 17th October revolution. On a personal level, what were the challenges that you faced when you decided to establish your own venture? And why did you decide to kill some of the projects you’ve initiated?
Entrepreneurs in Lebanon deal with all the common challenges for anyone building their own business– be it the access to investment, finding the right team, educating the market, building the right partnerships, etc. But of course, Lebanese entrepreneurs face additional hurdles on top of those specific to the country. One of the main challenges that I personally faced is the necessity to spend a great deal of time and energy innovating to compensate for infrastructure problems rather than focusing on the product or solution I am building. That was especially frustrating while building Alkindy – a social and cultural hub that I co-founded in 2015. Although we had to close the space in 2017, I still carry the mission of Alkindy of inspiring and empowering the youth to become change agents and human-centered social innovators.
Another major challenge in my opinion is the synergy with your co-founders or core team; the difference in vision, aspirations, style of work, and core values can be very critical and challenging to maneuver.
"To fully rise again, at this point it is a personal resolution to make - they need first to reconnect with the belief that they can build ventures here despite continuously fearing instability and a possible next destructive wave." - Najwa Sahmarani
It might have been one of the toughest years for the global economy in general, and for the Lebanese economy in specific if we want to take into account the corrupt system, the pandemic, and last but not least, the devastating blast. As an expert in the entrepreneurship scheme, how have these dire factors been affecting the mentality and productivity of the Lebanese entrepreneurs? And at this stage, what kind of help and support do they need to rise again?
It has been one of the toughest years in the past decade for Lebanese people in general and entrepreneurs in particular. Like their fellow citizens, a lot of entrepreneurs are facing ‘’existential questions’’ – ranging from wondering about the market need and the relevance of their value proposition to the security and quality of life they can build here for themselves, their families, and their team. It is still too early to judge how things will evolve but currently responses vary between those who on one hand are considering relocating to different countries – which is completely understandable - and others who are keen on staying. A big part of the latter group is looking at the new emerging challenges as possible opportunities to build a better economy. We have witnessed in a short time a swift push towards local production for substitutes of imported products that have become unaffordable and inaccessible, as well as dedicated efforts for digital transformation and thus the need for new digital products and services.
However, even those who are still building are most likely still feeling hesitant and hardly motivated.
To fully rise again, at this point it is a personal resolution to make - they need first to reconnect with the belief that they can build ventures here despite continuously fearing instability and a possible next destructive wave. And that should be accompanied with the support of an ecosystem that is solid but also agile and able to stay relevant in terms of support provided. In my opinion, the ecosystem at the moment should focus on building strategic partnerships and strong market linkages regionally and globally to ensure that promising ventures have access to the investment and channels they need to access new markets and sustain or ideally grow their operations.
With the number of local venture capital funds falling gradually, news such as the recent investment in the Lebanese startup Synkers who received 1.8 million dollars from regional funds can raise the morale of Lebanese entrepreneurs and remind them that it will pay off to focus on building a strong value proposition and quality products and services.
Beirut has always reigned supreme, locally, regionally, and globally as Lebanon's economic pulse. While it tends to its wounds, will other Lebanese cities rise up to the challenge and become an alternative option for the sake of Lebanon's economic stability and prosperity?
Lebanon's economy has been suffering way before Beirut’s blast. And for that, the need to look at how different Lebanese regions and cities can contribute to the economy was already imminent. Thus, it is not about creating alternative options for Beirut - which will definitely not be the case. It is about having a much-needed strategy to leverage the country’s resources and create solid economic roles for the other cities and regions.
I have no doubt that the Lebanese people will rebuild the needed grassroots initiatives, businesses, and hubs for the city to rise again. However, the ‘’resilience” of the people is continuously challenged and demotivation can be destructive and crippling amid the ongoing political turmoil.
We have no doubt that Beirut will be rebuilt for the 8th time. However, the construction process should be different this time in order for it to last. What kind of drastic changes do you believe should be made in order for Beirut to be “Switzerland of the East” once again?
While it is timely to think about building a more efficient and transparent logistics infrastructure, it is definitely not just about the construction process for drastic change to happen. I have no doubt that the Lebanese people will rebuild the needed grassroots initiatives, businesses, and hubs for the city to rise again. However, the ‘’resilience” of the people is continuously challenged and demotivation can be destructive and crippling amid the ongoing political turmoil.
Proper governance as well as political and social stability – even if it is happening slowly and progressively - is critical for Beirut and Lebanon to really rise again.
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