Jonathan Ortmans @jortmans
Nov 14, 2010
Like in many economies around the world, entrepreneurship is not deep-rooted in Jordanian society. However, that is changing here. Today, I report to you from Amman where I came find out how.
As one participant in a Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW) speaker series wrote in his blog, “in the early 2000’s the dominant business event was the Jordan ICT Forum. Jordan also attracted the World Economic Forum. But this new wave of entrepreneurial talk is different. It’s no longer giant corporations doing the talking ... All talk is about open source, collaboration, innovation and creating something out of nothing. Real startup people sharing their stories.”
For the second year, Jordan has hosted a GEW. In partnership with 22 other organizations, Endeavor Jordan and the Queen Rania Center for Entrepreneurship (QRCE) co-hosted activities to raise awareness and educate youth on the importance of entrepreneurship in the economy, a fact that attests to progress in building Jordan’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. I decided to focus on three events that would show me entrepreneurship education at work with school kids, university students and young professionals.
First, I spent time this weekend at a true creative class event – the Ideas Festival. From the first moment when I walked into the expo hall full of bean bags and ‘startup speak” all over the walls I knew this was not going to be dull. While open space, the hall was divided into areas that covered six themes: design, environment, science and technology, social development, business, and random. Young people from around the Middle East sat in groups with their “raw ideas” collaborating and talking to mentors. In one session I joined actor, comedian and filmmaker Ahmed Ahmed who offered advice to entrepreneurs on selling their ideas. He told me he learned many of his skills from being a waiter! Needless to say, his gift for humor made him an outstanding communicator.
A panel of judges picked some of the best which were announced last night. Official results are available on their web site but some of my favorites included the “Dancing Pillow (a pillow that vibrates to wake you up), a plumbing innovation that uses waste water from a regular sink to flush toilets (important given Jordon has such a water scarcity problem) and finally recycled art that takes all those art objects you are bored with and makes new art for you.
To see what the youngest kids were up to, I raced up the hill to the Citadel where in addition to the wonderful views of the city and its ancient amphitheatre, I joined one of the groups of young kids for an entrepreneurship treasure hunt. Called the Eco-Preneurship Hunt, 60 public and private school children aged 14-16 from all over Amman competed in teams to uncover clues and perform challenges related to issues of ecology, green business, and entrepreneurship in different parts of the city. Running from entrepreneur to entrepreneur around the Citadel, students raced to collect clues for selling their business idea and returned to manufacture it at an architectural school. At the closing ceremonies for GEW/Jordan last night, they competed to win votes from all attending and by selling their wares. My personal favorite was the kids who had made cell phone holders and other cool teen accessories from plastic water bottles –something the recycling gurus are always worried about leaving in landfills.
I then drove over to Jordan University where thanks to the work of our Global Partner, Junior Achievement’s INJAZ, student entrepreneurs who have been developing a company called Vireo for a year while at Jordan University stood confidently in front of a large crowd of student and used their experience to help others on campus do a SWOT analysis on their business ideas. I was so impressed with this group and their model. From tackling questions like “why an English company name (for which the answer was obviously their intent to do business outside the Arab world) to how they juggle classes and a running a company, their advice was solid and polished. I also found it interesting to learn that without exception, they all said their grades had improved since they took on a venture.
While these events all helped me to meet future entrepreneurs first-hand and witness the seeds of an entrepreneurial ecosphere starting in Jordan, GEW / Jordan’s closing ceremonies and panels provided additional insight into how Jordan’s emerging entrepreneurial support organizations are developing.
First and foremost, the fact that Endeavor Jordan has qualified this nation as a place with enough startup potential to open an office is an excellent litmus test for potential. GEW Host Endeavor Jordan is here and thriving under the leadership of Carmen Saad and an excellent Board. Second, we know GEW Host, the Queen Rania Center for Entrepreneurship understands the importance of startups. As Farhan Kalaldeh, QRCE Executive Director told the press “GEW activities fall under QRCE’s efforts to promote the culture of entrepreneurship among different segments of Jordanian society in order to unleash creativity and support the economy.”
But there is much more, evidenced by the new formation of a Startup Alliance composed of about a dozen leaders coordinating efforts to promote new starts. There is also Jordan’s Technology Incubator, iPark, the Amman Baccalaureate School Alumni, the Business Development Center and the Young Entrepreneurs Association - all who participate in GEW and engage in supporting entrepreneurs. There are also major companies encouraging entrepreneurship here including Aramex and IrisGuard.
Yesterday, following my formal remarks, a very distinguished panel of entrepreneurs and educators had a discussion about the state of entrepreneurship in Jordan. His Excellency Minister Marwan Juma joined us. It did not surprise me that he is a former technology entrepreneur for he clearly well understood what government in Jordan needs to do – and where it should keep out of the way. We might take a look at his progress in beginning to implement policies that encourage entrepreneurship.
With approximately 90% of the unemployed in Jordan between the ages of 15-39 the Jordanian Government understands entrepreneurship as the vital strategy in order to spur new job growth in the private sector. According to QRCE’s Kaladeh, GEW objectives and fostering a startup culture are consistent with His Majesty’s vision for an active role for youth, and Marwan Juma echoed this in his call for a focus on new and young businesses.
Kaladeh also shared with me how the Jordanian government has shown an interest in making Jordanians more prone to entrepreneurship as part of a larger effort to spur economic growth. In 2003, Jordan worked with USAID to create Alriyadi.net, a one-stop entrepreneurship portal providing practical information about how to establish a business. The Alriyadi site (meaning entrepreneur in Arabic) received an average of more than 800 hits a day in its first five months alone. The government has also focused special attention, not just on SMEs in general, but on startups with growth and high-impact potential. And improvements in intellectual property protection have been credited for spurring significant growth in the IT and pharmaceutical industries with impressive case studies such as Dr. Amjad Aryan who founded the fast growing Pharmacy1 chain in Jordan.
I also learned how the Government is following through with entrepreneur friendly fiscal policies in Jordan, such as the reduction of the minimum capital requirement for starting a business by more than 96% in 2008 with plans to eliminate it altogether according to our speakers last night. And more recently, the Jordanian government is looking for ways to stimulate financing options for entrepreneurs. Leaders in the government are conducting a feasibility study on the possibilities of setting up two Venture Capital funds, which will focus on providing capital to the growth of new ventures. While I remain skeptical as to the effectiveness of government controlled funds for new firm formation, in this economy if structured right, this can help when partnered with an effective startup ecosystem.
But with around 70% of the population here in Jordan less than 30 years of age, Jordan’s leaders need to engage much more urgently and aggressively in helping encourage broader acceptance of entrepreneurship and the startup culture in Jordanian society. Jordan needs new young firms fast in order to begin to meet future worries about unemployment rising above its current 11% levels. In the words of Nobel Laureate Robert Lucas “a large fraction of people must experience changes in the possible lives they imagine for themselves and their children and these new visions of possible futures must have enough force to lead them to change the way they behave”. Marwan Juma got it right when he said government cannot create new businesses or new jobs - that is the work of entrepreneurs. But delivering that message to the nation is a job for Kings.