Cultivating Entrepreneurship in the Arab Spring

Young Egyptians were literally screaming for economic opportunity and a chance to create their own futures. The time for LearnServe Egypt was NOW.
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Since early 2010, wheels were turning to launch LearnServe Egypt in Cairo in the summer of 2011, a flagship program bringing American and Egyptian university students together for a six-week "boot camp" of entrepreneurship, innovation, intercultural understanding and social impact to help promote Egyptian social and economic development. Unsurprisingly, when the revolution began on January 25th, many people asked if the program would be canceled. Our response was an unequivocal, "No way!" After all, what sign could be clearer evidence that our instincts were right? Young Egyptians were literally screaming for economic opportunity and a chance to create their own futures. The time for LearnServe Egypt was NOW.

(A bit of background: LearnServe Egypt is the brainchild of Kathy Kemper of the Institute for Education and Chris Caine of Mercator XXI, and anyone who knows them knows that when they decide to do something, they pull out all the stops. So when they asked me to join them as program director, I was eager to see where we could take it.)

In March 2011, we recruited 12 participants: six Americans from Johns Hopkins, American, Lafayette and the University of Pennsylvania, and six Egyptians from four universities around Cairo, with majors ranging from business and public policy to engineering and journalism. What united them was a desire to help rebuild the Egyptian economy in the Arab Spring through socially responsible business ventures.

The program was comprised of three two-week phases: Phase I began on June 17th when the US contingent departed for Cairo, where bilateral teams were formed and ventures were established. In Phase II, participants returned to their hometowns to conduct research and learned to navigate the challenges of working in global virtual teams. Phase III reunited the teams in Washington DC where they honed their final business plans and pitched to investors, industry experts, public officials and the media. (It's all in their personal blogs.) Six weeks to teach them the ins and outs of starting a socially responsible business. Intensive, and intense.

Deep impressions were left on us all. Seeing the pyramids of Giza and the Washington Monument for oneself is always exciting, but this was different. Participants were as in awe of visiting the Egyptian headquarters of Google (complete with foosball table, beanbag chairs and a kitchen that would have made Willy Wonka jealous,) as they were when driving through a remote and squalid neighborhood of Cairo referred to as Garbage City, where the alleys were piled 15 feet high with trash for locals to pick through in search of bits to somehow sell for money. Slightly "un-PC" comments about American society made by the Deputy Chief of Mission at the Egyptian Embassy in DC were, ironically, as refreshingly candid for American participants as they were infuriating and embarrassing for their Egyptian counterparts, no matter how arguably valid or myopic the points may have been. And two of the Egyptian women laughed at the end of the program, marveling that I had "miraculously" broken through deeply rooted Egyptian cultural norms and finally got Omar to be on time.

One key lesson we all took away was somewhat surprising in its simplicity. There were some hefty conflicts that arose within teams from time to time -- which is certainly to be expected when working under such pressure. But regardless of who the problems were between, the causes were never particularly "cultural" in nature. They were the same kinds of frustrations experienced by family members when trying to communicate with each other. And that's what they became to each other: family.

In retrospect, there are undeniable parallels between the evolution of the LearnServe Egypt program and Egypt's own current (r)evolution. The Arab Spring was marked by euphoric hope, the recognition that each person's individual effort makes a difference, and the belief that the future holds unlimited potential. This same inspiration propelled the efforts of every participant throughout our program. Now, the hope of the Arab Spring is waning into the heat of the Arab Summer, heralded by the tension of Mubarak's trials and the uncertainty of the upcoming elections that will change the face of Egypt forever. Similarly, the excitement of the program's "spring" has subsided into its own "summer" as everyone returned home to prepare for the fall semester and new jobs, with the realization that if they truly want to turn their ventures into a reality, they will have to roll up their sleeves and figure out how to answer the question, "Now what?" The same signs are clear for all: the real work has only just begun.

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