Thursday 1 of December, 2022
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Image #CouchConversations: Manal Hassan & Sarah Shokr

One is a serial entrepreneur, angel investor and one of the savviest businesswomen in Egypt today. The other heads up marketing at Startup MENA, where they source, incubate and push the most innovative new businesses in the region. What happens when they come together on an Image couch?

Staff Writer

Starting up a company is no easy feat; time, research, investment and a myriad of other factors come into play when you’re trying to achieve something as an entrepreneur. For the second edition of our #CouchConversations, in collaboration with Image Egypt, we brought together two women who excel at just that.

Manal Hassan has established herself as one of the savviest businesswomen in the city. Currently the Executive Director of the Arab African International Bank’s 'We Owe it to Egypt Foundation', she kicked off her career by founding her own company at the age of 18, and after gaining a fascination with development, delved into the world of startups. Now an Angel Investor, her advice is highly sought out by startups seeking to make it in a cutthroat world.

Sarah Shokr heads up the marketing department of Startup MENA. An offshoot of VentureScout, a leading international consultancy sourcing startups and innovation to corporates, Startup MENA works to help propel the startup ecosystem forward via tailored workshops for entrepreneurs and connecting them with powerhouse mentors and investors. We got these two ladies to take a break from their busy schedules, take a seat on one of the classically chic couches at Natuzzi, part of the Image family, and talk transforming the entrepreneurial sphere in the country…

Sarah: I’m the marketing manager of Startup MENA, and essentially between pitching events and running workshops, we basically do everything you can imagine to just help people, train them, give them knowledge to get an investor or to go through the incubator cycle. Basically we select the best startups from the Middle East and sort of match make with people are interested in developing the eco system.

Manal: Okay, I’ll give you a bit about my background. So, as a kid, I loved money! Eventually I came back to Egypt majored in Economics and I started my family business when I was 18 with my husband – I got married at 18.

Sarah: Wow! Chapeau.

Manal: This was normal back in the day! I mean you’d get married at 18 and 19 and 20. These modern days of people getting married at 30 are something new for me. My eldest is 25, she’s not engaged; she’s just working.

Sarah: I’m 27, not engaged and not thinking about it soon.

Manal: Exactly! There you go.

Sarah: I have to finish my masters, I have to establish myself.

Manal: For us at 27, honey, I had 3 kids! So when my husband and I decided to go into business, we decided that the best thing that would survive in Egypt is providing services to the mass, on a macro level, not on a micro level. But in 2007, after 19 years of working with him, I said we’re seeing each other way too much! So I got a master’s degree in international economics and I shifted into structural development

When I turned 40, I got a Twitter account; I decided not to have any negative energy so I tweeted jokes - maybe a few economic points, if things got serious. So I got to meet a lot of people and part of it was the startup world. So I got introduced to Ahmed El-Alfy. I was so impressed with the idea so I jumped in to help kids. One of the things that we know for sure is that kids have amazing ideas and amazing energy but they want everything very fast. I get really irritated when I meet an 18-year old and he says ‘I’m the CEO of this’.

Sarah: I hate it! You didn’t even finish your degree.

Manal: The funniest thing is that I would take any of the kids to a meeting and he’s sitting there in front of a giant player and they think they’re equal?! Oh my God! You’re not equal! That’s something that I’m always struggling with. Yes, I understand you’re a CEO and I appreciate your talent, but you need to absorb and listen to the knowledge of others.

Sarah: I always tell them: Wait. Learn. Get a real job if you want, don’t start with a startup when you’re 18, get experience, sit with people, mingle and then you can say I’m the CEO!

Manal: That’s one thing. It’s also about how you fill in gaps. That’s why you have the new trend coming up which is Social Entrepreneurship. To be a social entrepreneur is filling in the gap which is stuff that we see, like Nefham. When I took in Nefham to try to make it into a business, I came at a certain stage and I said, you know what? You can get a lot of money if you become an NGO and turn it into social entrepreneurship. There was a lot of resistance but he actually did come around. A year after my meeting with him, he followed my advice and the plans I made for him, and he actually turned it into that and now he’s doing great! He’s putting in curricula of other countries and so on.

Sarah: It’s perfect.

Manal: Because he listened. People don’t pass the first stage because they simply don’t do the proper market research so you end up seeing a lot of duplicates of things that have gone viral before. Why are you doing it now?

Sarah: That’s actually what we’re trying to tell them! We have lots of startups coming for our workshops and they’re like I have this brilliant idea! I’m going to be the next Steve Jobs! I’m going to change the blah blah blah and they have very good ideas – some of them, and some of them are delusional. However, okay you have a good idea. Now how are you going to get money? Where is your revenue coming from? I don’t know. Who’s your customer? I didn’t think of it.

Manal: Yeah, they think that if people just download the app they’re making money, that’s not true. Worldwide it’s known, in every industry, you will always have the two or three people who actually started the industry. There is only one FedEx. The other companies that came later, like DHL or Aramex, they’re just filling gaps that the market needs but, they’re not gonna be as giant as FedEx. So one giant doesn’t mean that we’re all going be giants like them, no. But we’ll make money if we know how to fill in the gaps.

Sarah: True. Like we have an investment lab to get investors to teach people how to understand what they're are looking for. At the end of the day Startup MENA’s ultimate goal in the Middle East, is to create jobs and help people find a job. So do your job; if you have a dream or an idea go for it! But your job, if you’re creating it, will need effort and a lot of time.

Manal: Very true. And you have another big problem at hand, that there is no entrepreneurial law in Egypt. How do you treat them? What if they go bankrupt? You have a problem with the bankruptcy law.

Sarah: It’s not the law of bankruptcy only, it’s from the very beginning; the kids don’t know how to register their businesses, how to have a contract. But regarding the law, what I’ve noticed is that Egypt doesn’t understand what a startup is; they see a business. They treat them as a business which is not the same. It’s very strict and very hard…

Manal: It is very strict, so maybe you guys, since you’re working in the MENA region, can bring in the model of a law that you’ve seen related to only entrepreneurs and try to advocate to have it implemented in Egypt. Raise awareness about how important it is for the government to have part of the GDP coming from entrepreneurs.

Sarah: Yeah that’s true and in this age of technology and social media lots of people are entrepreneurs who actually make money out of blogging, for instance.

Manal: Right! So if they do encourage kids to go into the system they could be a part of the GDP of the country. You are a young population – THAT is a cutting edge! You’re not an aging population; over 50% of your population are 19 and 20 and 21! That’s the peak of energy.

Sarah: I agree. That’s something that needs to be worked on. What we’re currently starting to do is move around the GCC and the MENA region in general and we’re trying to actually hear what people say and what they really need. I went to Alexandria a couple of months ago and I told them “We’re having a match making event for people who are looking for jobs,” and once I sat there and listened to the community, they have totally different ideas and mindsets. That’s why we changed everything to have it coming from of the people themselves. We try not to force our mindset as much as it’s a two-way communication; what they need and what we think they should learn. Hopefully it will work.


You can check out Startup MENA's Facebook page here or follow them on Instagram @startup_mena. 

You can follow Manal Hassan on Twitter and Instagram @lovelife_smile