There is an electricity to rapid progress, an excitement to purposeful work, and an awe that surrounds the experience of drastic, yet positive change. The people of Qatar know this intensity better than most: A fishing village as capitol in the 50s, British protectorate until the 70s, and then a recent decade of natural resource wealth turned into a long-term commitment to establish top-notch universities, museums, and the many other foundations of human capital. What follows is a recap of several days working at the intersection of Qatar’s hopes to turn into the innovation, diplomacy, and culture capital of the Middle East. If you’re interested in hosting a 3 Day Startup program on your college campus, drop us an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
At 3DS, we have long fostered the notion that the university is the ideal center for an ecosystem’s entrepreneurial activity. After all, where else is there such an intense concentration of talent, intellectual capital, diversity, resources, and most importantly, time to invest in projects that are both innovative and commercially viable?
So you can imagine our pleasure when the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Qatar asked us to bring our 3 Day Startup program to Education City in Doha, Qatar. For those that aren’t familiar, Education City is a 14 square kilometer (5.5 sq. miles) development housing the Middle East campuses of Carnegie Mellon University, Texas A&M University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Georgetown University, Northwestern University, and several others. We were excited about the opportunity to help students from these campuses (and from Qatar University and the College of North-Atlantic) start real technology companies.
There’s nothing like a good joke about economic growth. “Do you know what the national bird of Qatar is?” asked Tom Emerson, one of our colleagues from Carnegie Mellon University-Qatar. Cam and I looked quizzically at each other. “It’s the crane. Look at that skyline!” Maybe it was the eighteen hour flight or the jet-lag, but it took a moment for us to realize that not only was this an impressive skyline but one that was rapidly under construction. Indeed, the population has more than tripled in the last decade, from 608,000 people in 2001 to over 1.9 million people as of 2011. With the native Qatari population at around 300,000 , this means over a million immigrants coming to the country to live, work, and of course, play.
In the first two hours of the 3DS Doha program, we were able to see precisely what the students in Qatar thought of the massive opportunities presented by hyper-growth. One of the very first pitches of Friday night was directed towards Doha but will sound familiar to anyone that has spent time in most cities in the Middle East. “I give you Qatari Maps, a landmark-based navigation system to be built on top of Google Maps. After all, what does this street sign even mean,” said one participant pointing at a picture of the rare street sign in Doha. It immediately struck a chord with the other participants and mentors–here they were tapping away on iPhones, shopping at Carrefour, and walking past Ferrari dealerships, but the primary way of giving directions was still “take a left after the third park but before the fourth roundabout.”
But the problems and solutions we heard these students identify weren’t limited to navigation. “There are 750,000 construction workers in Doha. At 55 degrees Celsius in the summer, that is a lot of hospital visits for heat exhaustion. We’ve developed a clothing technology that can keep them cool during these unbearably hot summers,” said Yousef. This clothing technology took only 3-4 off-the-shelf ingredients but combined them with purposeful attention to the physics of each material. By day three of the 3DS program, this team would perfect this technology to the point where the heat from a hair dryer pointed directly at clothing worn wouldn’t penetrate to the skin.
Designing the University Startup Ecosystem in Qatar and Beyond
Like many countries in which 3DS operates, Qatar has no shortage of traditional entrepreneurship education opportunities. For the interested student, there were opportunities to hear lectures on retail marketing, how to be a CEO, economic growth in the BRIC economies, and so much more. But activities for “actively-learned” entrepreneurship, i.e. learning by doing were harder to come by.
Experience serving students on thirty university campuses has taught us that certain disciplines–especially entrepreneurship–demand a hands-on learning approach. Lab sessions are nothing strange to chemistry students. Nor are machine shops odd to mechanical engineering students. But most universities don’t have such applied learning opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs. Our mission at 3DS is to change that–it is to create learning by putting students through the process of real companies, to combine the crucially important theoretical educational function that universities already provide with applied learning. Almost forty companies founded by our alums later, we’re still working on this model to add the “extra reps,” as it were, on turning education about startups into real technology companies.
As with past programs, our students found that passive exposure to retail marketing is quite different from actively experiencing what it means to start a company targeting retail customers. “Gift giving is a big part of Arab culture, and because we give so many gifts, it means we are always giving and receiving duplicate gifts,” explained Lina. “We want to introduce you to Tidalal, the universal gift registry that blends online and offline shopping. Over the past three days, we’ve spoken to over a hundred potential customers about their shopping habits. Over 50% have received a duplicate gift, and a little over half told us they have no problem posting their public gift registry on Facebook, or other social networks.”
Evolution in startups is perfectly natural. But evolution of problems identified and customers discovered doesn’t happen in a vacuum or a controlled environment. In other words, the very skills a technology entrepreneur must master are very difficult to teach through rote lecture, test-taking, or problem-solving during class. The opportunity for us was to use this time period of three short days to allow for the active learning that is critical for an entrepreneur to shift.
The polish of Lina’s pitch shadowed the tremendous amount her team had learned over the past three days. True to our belief in “lean startup” and learning from customers, we lit a fire under this crop of forty students and convinced them to get out of their comfort zones and into public spaces where they could talk to customers. While the first conversations had been tough, Lina and her team very quickly adapted. After two hours in one of the largest malls in the Middle East, the glee on their faces was almost gluttonous. Coy students had become fearless. For Lina, the initial idea of a gift registry had been somewhat validated but substantially changed due to the discovery that enough potential customers weren’t willing to make their gift requests public.
An International Team of Mentors
The zeal of the students was matched by the encouragement of the mentors that Tom Emerson and his team at CMU lined up. We were privileged to work with seasoned entrepreneurs like George White, Peter Moore, Maher Hakim, Khalifa Al-Misnad, and many others. While several of our mentors were professors, our 3DS program gave them the opportunity to teach students in a way that was impossible in their classes. They told us that at 3DS the feedback loop was tighter–guidance given at 5pm could be implemented by 7pm and receive additional feedback just a few minutes later. Two of our mentors, Dave Mawhinney and Milton Coffield, literally flew in from Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh for the weekend. These two warriors of entrepreneurship education landed the night before and left the morning after. But they fit right in!
Empowering Women through Entrepreneurship
“Baytk Baytk will be a marketplace to connect these women who work at home with Qataris that need meals prepared and crafts made,” proclaimed Aisha, one of our younger participants. She was flanked by Omar and Mohamed, two of her team members on their journey to provide basic internet marketing services to the tens of thousands of women in Qatar who tried to make a living working from home. That this was a mixed-gender team trying to help female entrepreneurs was not lost on us, the panelists, or our guest of honor, Ambassador Susan Ziadeh, the U.S. Ambassador to Qatar.
We were not at all surprised to see female students at 3DS Doha leading teams. This happens at 3DS programs all around the world. However, we were a little awe struck by the sheer number of female participants. As anyone who has ever been to a technology entrepreneurship event knows, men typically outnumber women by a long shot. Indeed, the need to improve access to entrepreneurship opportunities for women has been long discussed. (Some of our friends run groups like Women in Wireless to specifically address the problem.) But our program in Doha was a happy exception to this general rule. The number of women was almost the same (or slightly greater) than the number of men. That these female students not only felt empowered to start companies but expected opportunities like 3DS was a delight. And not only did they seize the opportunity within the confines of Education City, but they were equally bold when it came to interviewing complete strangers to test the assumptions of their startup ideas.
Our Heartfelt Thanks
We learn from every event. But rarely is what we learn so important as how to appropriately express our heartfelt thanks. For that, there is no replacement for the heartfelt words from mentor and CMU-Qatar Professor George White:
However, I want to add my own special thanks to Cam, Ruchit, Eleanore and Tom. Cam for energy, organizational initiative and sensitivity; Ruchit for his megaphone voice, coaching skills, and general enthusiasm; Eleanore for amazingly thorough attendance to detail and overall organizational talent; and finally Tom for taking care of everybody and everything, and especially the graceful introduction to the Ambassador during the closing ceremony.
We can all be proud of the outcome. The ideas generated were unusually good; presentations were more polished and appropriate than I could’ve imagined for a weekend course, and I think indeed, there may be some real businesses started because of this weekend event.
To George’s words, we must add a special thanks to Erica Chiusano from the State Department, whose herculean efforts made this program come into existence. We also should not forget to express our deep gratitude to United States Ambassador Susan Ziadeh for her strong support of 3DS and other programs that help create entrepreneurial communities in the Middle East. Madame Ambassador, we greatly appreciated your kind words and our students were thrilled that you took the time to attend their final pitches. As their companies blossom, they will always have the U.S. Embassy in Qatar to thank for being strong facilitators and supporters of students in Qatar.
Additional thanks are due to our mentors–Maher, Dave, Milton, Khalifa, Peter, and so many others who gave many of their hours to help these students start companies. Your dedication is an inspiration to us. Finally, many thanks to our participants. You showed that Qatar is ready to lead the Middle East in entrepreneurial efforts. We look forward to seeing where you go with your startup ideas. We have high hopes for you and can’t wait to help you along the way. We can’t wait to brag about you as successful alumni to motivate the students for our next 3DS Doha.