On Jan. 25, the “Day of Rage” that sparked the Egyptian revolution and the demise of President Hosni Mubarak, Omar Abdel-Maksoud, a mechanical engineering student at the British University in Cairo, received a Facebook invitation to “join the revolution” in Tahrir Square.
Clicking “maybe,” he called a friend who had already joined the tens of thousands of protestors thronging the square. Hearing that not much yet was actually happening, Abdel-Maksoud told the friend he would call back later. He had to get ready for a trip to Turkey in any case.
Like many young Egyptians, Abdel-Maksoud expected the protests, a recurring facet of life in Cairo, to die away. During the week he was away, the protests did the opposite: they escalated. He watched the fighting in the streets unfold on Al Jazeera. People were being brutalized for trying to assert their rights. Abdel-Maksoud knew then that nothing could make them go back.
On Feb. 11, the “Day of Departure” when Mubarak’s resignation was announced, Abdel-Maksoud witnessed history in the making. “It was like a party,” he said, describing the atmosphere in Cairo’s central square. “Egypt focuses on the heart. We’re a very emotional country.”
Nearly six months after the revolution, Abdel-Maksoud was sharing his firsthand account at a July 20 dinner and discussion hosted by John Hamre, president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The dinner was for the 12 participants — six Egyptian students and six from American universities — of the LearnServe Egypt (LSE) exchange program.
LSE was conceived by Chris Caine, president and CEO of Mercator XXI, an international consulting company based in Washington, D.C., together with “coach” Kathy Kemper of the Institute for Education, as a way to foster innovation, entrepreneurship, leadership and teamwork among young people. Though the program originated several months prior to the Arab Spring, it could not have come at a more opportune time, focused on a lynchpin country in the Arab world on the cusp of historic change.
And it got to the heart of the very issues propelling that change: a young generation looking for opportunity and a voice. Given that the Arab Spring was largely a reaction to a rigid, patriarchal economic order that stifled innovation and failed to create jobs for masses of unemployed youth, LSE’s focus on entrepreneurship took on a whole new relevance and urgency. Experts agree that any new political system that emerges in Egypt must be buttressed by a robust private sector, if it is to develop as a liberal democracy. As the Economist put it in a June 25 briefing: “If the economy improves, that should help consolidate democracy; if it falters, so will political reform.”
Egypt’s X Factor
Five weeks into LSE’s six-week inaugural session, the group of 19- to 23-year-old students and recent graduates were seeking wisdom on how entrepreneurship could benefit the Arab Spring’s young, still fragile aspirations for democracy.
At the CSIS dinner, Hamre opened by citing an econometric study done by the World Bank on the origins of national wealth in 190 countries. According to the report, while both the natural resources and human-created infrastructure were significant determiners of a country’s prosperity, a third, more nebulous “x factor” proved to be of overwhelming importance: “a residual factor, having to do with the quality of the workforce, a sense of shared purpose, the quality of the government to protect intellectual property,” as Hamre described it. “It’s the intangible product of good government — where government is effective, society prospers.”
While the question of what form Egypt’s post-revolution government will take remains open, programs such as LSE had the potential, Hamre said, to help Egypt find its way, establishing a harmonious, mutually beneficial relationship between the public and the private sector. The future of this keystone country of the Arab world will very much be determined by the successful cultivation of the entrepreneurial spirit exhibited by the LSE participants — the embodiment of the young protesters who first took to the streets clamoring for change.
The meeting with Hamre — “an experience that was once in a lifetime and one I will never forget,” as one LSE participant described it — inspired confidence that this generation could be the crucial “x-factor” in Egypt’s future. It was time, Abdel-Maksoud said, for his emotional country to focus on entrepreneurism.
Despite talk of the “Twitter and Facebook revolution” as the main driver of the Arab Spring, more traditional economic and political grievances fueled the unrest. Nonetheless, social media played a key, facilitating role in the Egyptian protests, and it continues to unite the tech-savvy, well-educated youth — including the LSE participants.
So it was that Abdelrahman Khalifa, a junior majoring in business administration at the American University in Cairo (AUC), learned of LearnServe Egypt on the business school’s Facebook page. Attracted by the program’s concept of developing a socially responsible business plan in three cross-cultural teams comprised of Egyptian and U.S. students, he decided to apply.
After his interview with Hesham Wahby, the Cairo-based representative of Mercator XXI, Khalifa did not think he would be admitted. “Yet I got accepted and suddenly I found myself working on the U.S. visa procedures and preparing to join Phase I back there at AUC dorms,” he wrote on the LSE blog (www.ifeegypt.org).
In Phase I, five American and one Chinese participant from U.S. institutions including Johns Hopkins University, American University, Lafayette College and the University of Pennsylvania traveled to Cairo for two weeks in late June to meet their Egyptian counterparts and brainstorm ideas for possible business solutions to social problems. They received instruction and guidance from a bevy of speakers including marketing professors from AUC, entrepreneurs and CEOs of technology start-ups, and other business leaders, including Wael Fakharany, country manager of Google Egypt.
During this initial phase, participants narrowed dozens of business ideas down to just three through repeated pitching. On the final day in Cairo, they stood before a pitch-judging panel of senior business leaders — an exercise that would be repeated at the program’s culmination four weeks later in Washington, D.C.
Among the goals of LSE was to give participants the chance to practice presenting before investors in a real-world setting, according to Dr. Laura Sicola, a Philadelphia-based linguist and cross-cultural communication expert affiliated with Mercator XXI who worked with Caine and Kemper to direct the program.
The second part of the program embraced the very social media tools that are redefining modern communication, whether on the street or in a boardroom. After working together for two weeks in Cairo, the Americans returned home and participants confronted “the modern reality of working in virtual teams,” as Sicola described Phase II.
As the three teams of four, each balanced between Egyptian and American participants, emailed, Skyped, and tweeted one another, they worked on many other aspects of their business plans: conducting financial studies, market research, investigating funding sources and regulatory obstacles, and starting to write company proposals. They were also confronted with a strategic decision point, of whether to continue or redirect their initial plan.
Despite being thousands of miles apart, the use of modern communications technology encouraged participants to learn about cultural differences — and similarities — and for American participants to reflect on their time in Egypt.
“There is a lot of momentum in Egypt to implement real change and take control of the country,” wrote Cornelius Queen, a recent international studies graduate of Johns Hopkins University, in a July 11 blog post. “I feel that I am so fortunate to have been there at such a historic time.”
Working in virtual teams also made him realize how important technology has been in fomenting change. Though improving physical infrastructure takes time, “technology has been a key catalyst in mobilizing Egypt’s citizenry” to leapfrog to the future, Queen said.
“Technology has allowed people to circumvent previous impediments due to a lack of infrastructure. The Egyptians I’ve met, especially Reem [Shalaby] from my team, are so tech-savvy and know everything going on with Google Plus, Java, Twitter. It’s a real advantage because social networking technology has created a platform where information can be exchanged at the tap of a mouse,” Queen wrote. “Hamdulillah [thank God] for this wonderful innovation!”
Plans for the Future
Modern technology also figured prominently in the three business plans developed by LSE participants, each geared toward socially responsible ventures. Team “Istiklal,” Arabic for “independence,” created a plan for an NGO that would train Egyptians with disabilities in computer literacy and provide job training and counseling services for people who often live in the shadows. The endeavor would tackle an under-recognized issue in the Arab world, where being disabled often carries a deep social stigma and many governments have yet to develop widespread policies to address the problem.
Ratum Technologies takes aim at an issue that affects all Egyptians — and much of the world for that matter: energy and resource scarcity. Ratum’s goal is to “become [Egypt’s] most reliable and cost-effective supplier of solar water heaters,” helping the country overcome the economically ruinous policy of fuel subsidies and transition to a greener energy future using a more affordable version of solar power based on proven water technology.
Team Zaina’s (meaning “beautiful” in Arabic) plan for preserving rural communities, though less technology oriented, would market high-quality handicraft fashion accessories made from widely available palm leaves. The project would capitalize on the popular fair trade movement that has helped local, indigenous artisans from around the world sell their crafts in lucrative, faraway markets such as the United States.
Formulating these plans through iterative stages of research, pitching and refining, participants began to see LSE as “not just a learning experience.” According to Skyla Lilly, a rising junior at American University who worked on the Zaina project: “Once we started getting feedback, we realized it’s something viable, something we really could do.” Added her colleague from American University, Jordan D’Eri: “None of us really think that when these two weeks are over, that’s it. Each of our teams reached a point when we stopped thinking of the deadline as an end to the project, and realized this is something we’re really going to do.”
‘Go Straight to the Cloud’
In Phase III of the program, the participants met up again in the United States to pitch their final business models to panels of investors and members of the business, government and media community. The Egyptian participants joined their U.S. counterparts in D.C. on July 18 and were greeted with a welcome reception hosted by Egyptian Ambassador Sameh Shoukry. Over the next two weeks, the teams pitched their ideas, attended business classes, worked with mentors and visited businesses similar to their ventures, splitting their time between Washington, Philadelphia, and Easton, Pennsylvania — home of Caine’s alma mater, Lafayette College.
On the sultry afternoon of July 19, The Diplomat caught up with the LSE group as they met with former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, now a corporate adviser and professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, in a Rosslyn, Va., office tower overlooking D.C.
Again, the subject of modern technology was integral to the advice given to the LSE teams.
Williams tapped leadership lessons from his time in office to answer participants’ questions about how to influence politics in a time of unpredictability. The former mayor said that to shape the future, it was essential to build trust in the present by creating a long-term vision while highlighting short-term wins along the way. In addition, it was important to communicate and share information with people in a streamlined manner, using the latest technologies available.
These universal rules, he said, apply to Egypt today. “A country like Egypt should go straight to the cloud,” he said. Using technology in the right way, government and citizens can build trust, keeping each other honest through incremental steps.
The Next Phase
In describing LearnServe Egypt at the CSIS dinner, Sicola focused on the program’s intensity, both in the quantity and quality of experience it packed into a brief time span. Rather than being a “touchy-feely” educational exchange, she said participants had been surprised “both at how intensive and intense” it had been thus far. This, she said, “really elevates the level of dignity to it.”
The Washington Diplomat, having attended not only the CSIS dinner, but also several other components during Phase III (including a session on July 21 at the Beacon Hotel in D.C., where LSE participants pitched their business plans to this newspaper) can corroborate this. What consistently stood out was the passion among both organizers and participants — for Egypt’s future, for their business ventures, for each other, and for the experience.
Though passion alone will not be enough to solve Egypt’s deep-seated social and economic woes, without the vital ingredient of entrepreneurship — and the related willingness to take risks — the country will not be able to develop a successful democracy. Wahby of Mercator XXI’s Cairo office put it best: “Actually, the revolution is another business venture,” he said, making the connection between the recent uprising and yearning for economic opportunity. “It’s the people who want better business opportunities who were leading the revolution,” he said. “The revolution was just that next step of removing barriers.”
At the conclusion of the program on July 29, following a final, polished pitch of their business plans to investors at Mercator XXI’s headquarters in downtown Washington, LSE participants faced emotional goodbyes. In an age of social media, however, they will not be quite so far apart as in the past. And LearnServe’s vision of fostering 12 next generation leaders is just beginning.
“LearnServe Egypt 2011 program was six weeks only, but I felt like it was a whole year program in terms of the experience and knowledge gained. It’s an opportunity that happens once in your lifetime,” Reem Shalaby, a software engineer and LSE participant, wrote. “For me, LearnServe Egypt 2011 isn’t the end of a phase of my life. It’s the start of another one.”
About the Author
Jacob Comenetz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.