Ecosystem Spotlight: Sheraa

Q&A with Najla Al-Midfa, CEO of the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center

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Najla Al-Midfa is Chief Executive Officer of the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center (Sheraa), a government-supported entity that launched in January 2016 with a mandate to build the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Sharjah and support entrepreneurs as they build and grow innovative startups that contribute positively to the region’s economy. Since its launch in 2016, Sheraa has graduated over 100 startups that have raised over $85M in investments, created over 1000 jobs and generated over $60M in cumulative revenue.

Prior to Sheraa, Najla was a Senior Manager at Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development, where she led a team of business counselors through the due diligence process of selecting ventures for financing. She has also held roles at McKinsey and Company’s New York office, primarily serving clients across the financial institutions sector, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Shell.

Additionally, Najla is a board member of United Arab Bank, a Vice-Chairperson of Young Arab Leaders and a board member of Endeavor UAE. She is also a fellow of the Aspen Institute’s Middle East Leadership Initiative. In 2019, she was selected to be an Eisenhower Global Fellow. Najla holds an MBA from Stanford University.

What was the inspiration behind creating the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre, and what do you hope to catalyze within the ecosystem?

Sheraa was born out of the need to harness the MENA region’s talent and empower the local leaders with the skills and resources to build a brighter future through entrepreneurship.

Sharjah, one of the seven emirates in the UAE, has positioned itself as a leading hub for education with a University City that is home to over 30,000 students. With three physical hubs located in the heart of this critical mass of human capital, Sheraa is in the unique position to help lead Sharjah’s efforts to build a world-class entrepreneurial ecosystem that produces globally competitive, fast-growing companies in sectors that serve as engines for socio-economic development.

Since our launch in 2016, Sheraa has graduated over 100 startups that have raised over $85M in investments, created over 1000 jobs and generated over $65M in cumulative revenue. We have developed a full suite of programs that guide entrepreneurs from idea through to being seed-ready; helping them refine their value proposition, build and test their MVP and ultimately achieve product-market fit.

We provide founders with non-dilutive capital in the form of equity-free grants of up to $100K, while also helping them develop a fundraising strategy and introducing them to key stakeholders and investors in the ecosystem.

We also have formed strong partnerships with both corporate and government entities in order to further enhance the connectivity and cohesiveness of the ecosystem. As part of our commitment to bridging the gap between startups and corporates, we are proud to have founding partners such as Bee’ah, a leading integrated environmental, recycling and waste management company, Air Arabia, the Middle East’s first low-cost carrier, and Crescent Enterprises, a multinational logistics, investment and venture firm, who have all provided tremendous support to our portfolio startups innovating in their respective fields.

Public sector partners such as Sharjah Media City (Shams) and Sharjah Research and Technology Innovation Park have been pivotal in easing business set-up and licensing.

Additionally, Sheraa also hosts the annual Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival (SharjahEF). The Festival attracts over 3,000 attendees — primarily young changemakers — and has featured world-renowned speakers such as Gary Vaynerchuk, Chairman of VaynerX, Arlan Hamilton, founder of Backstage Capital, and Magnuss Olsson, Co-Founder of Careem, to name a few. Our mission with the Festival is to inspire the next generation of global entrepreneurs, instilling in them the courage and confidence to build impactful businesses through not just global inspirational stories, but also real-world skill building and the power of community.

As we continue our efforts to put Sharjah on the global map as a destination for startups, our focus is now on refining Sheraa’s strategy to pursue geographic and programmatic expansion opportunities. Among these are a soft-landing program to support startups from the region that want to build a presence in Sharjah as well as the introduction of a corporate innovation program. This offering will allow us to leverage our unique combination of access to innovative startups, and leading private and public sector entities in the UAE, to curate strategic opportunities and improve connectivity within the ecosystem.

What makes the city of Sharjah such a powerful and unique location for innovation and entrepreneurship?

Sharjah has long been an entrepreneurial city and continues to be hailed as a beacon of creativity, culture and enlightenment in a region that is often misunderstood. From establishing UAE’s first airport to the first port for facilitating seaborne trade across the Gulf, Africa and the entire Indian subcontinent, Sharjah is a city of firsts. Innovation, ambition and entrepreneurship are inherent in the city’s DNA for several reasons, but most importantly, due to the Sharjah government’s focus on equipping both the emirate’s infrastructure as well as its people with the capacity to lead pioneering change. While many may see economic development and culture as mutually exclusive, Sharjah’s model of economic growth has always been deeply rooted in a commitment to human progress and prosperity based on the exchange of knowledge and ideas.

To understand the value Sharjah places on nurturing human capital, one need only visit University City, home to some of the top universities in the region. Not only are these educational institutions — such as the American University of Sharjah, Higher Colleges of Technology and University of Sharjah — beginning to incorporate entrepreneurial learning into their curriculums, they are also placing an increasing emphasis on R&D, innovation and commercialization. Sheraa, which has partnered with these institutions, acts as a support system for the projects emerging from student and faculty research, working with up-and-coming entrepreneurs to build sustainable, high-impact startups.

As part of the UAE, Sharjah enjoys a strategic location between Asia, Europe and Africa — a major advantage to investors and entrepreneurs, particularly given the city’s robust infrastructure and proximity to some of the world’s fastest growing economies in Asia. Another key advantage that Sharjah possesses is affordability given the lower cost of living and doing business. Complemented by the continued development of free zones such as the Sharjah Research, Technology and Innovation Park (SRTIP), Sharjah Media City (Shams) and the Sharjah Publishing City (SPC), which provide competitive licensing rates and 100 percent foreign ownership, Sharjah continues to mark itself as an attractive hub for entrepreneurs.

The private sector is playing its part as well, and Sheraa is proud to have founding partners such as Bee’ah, Air Arabia and Crescent Enterprises, who have begun to incorporate innovation into their DNA and are embracing opportunities to meaningfully engage with startups.

Across the emirate, collaboration has been key to the growing success of the entrepreneurship ecosystem, showcasing what is possible when civil society, academia, the public and private sector come together to ensure it thrives.

These efforts, guided by entities like Sheraa, are what have led to Sharjah being named the top High-Growth ecosystem in the Activation Phase in Startup Genome’s Global Startup Ecosystem Report (GSER). While the activation phase is the earliest stage of an ecosystem’s development, the ranking points to Sharjah’s growing reputation on the global entrepreneurship stage.

What is the representative profile of the startups that belong to the Sheraa community?

Sheraa’s community of startups is fairly diverse, especially given the fact that we are industry agnostic and have offerings to support ventures across the startup journey, from start-up to scale-up. That said, our forte is the comprehensive, in-depth support that we offer at the early stage — focused on idea validation, value proposition, product development, product/market fit and investment readiness. We customize our offerings for each startup based on their specific gaps and needs, offering hundreds of hours of expert mentorship and one-on-one coaching. As a result, over 70 percent of our portfolio would be considered pre-seed or seed stage ventures.

Perhaps the more pertinent question is the representative profile of the founders, rather than the startups, since that is our key criteria when it comes to selection. We are constantly on the lookout for changemakers who will not only transform industries, but by solving real problems, will also change lives.

Demographically speaking, we place no limitation on the age, gender or nationality of our founders. Diversity is important to us, and we pride ourselves on the fact that 50 percent of the ventures we have supported have been women-led.

Finally, while we are industry agnostic, our startups have trended towards sectors where Sharjah has a natural advantage: this includes the creative economy, education, mobility and sustainability.

COVID-19 has had many devastating effects on businesses of all sizes, particularly startups. Earlier this month, Sheraa announced it will provide equity-free grants to help startups — specifically those in the retail, property, fintech, travel and tourism, agriculture, education, technology and creative sectors — cope with coronavirus-induced challenges. Can you talk more about this program and the expected benefits to both the startup community and the Sharjah economy?

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Sheraa launched a $1M startup solidarity fund to support the UAE startup community. In a joint effort with our CE-Ventures, the venture capital platform of diversified global business Crescent Enterprises, we disbursed $200K in emergency funding to 11 startups to extend their cash runways. These startups had otherwise robust business models or strong pivots, but their growth and impact had been unduly affected by COVID-19.

We are also big believers in supporting startups by providing them access to the market and integrating them into industry supply chains. As a result, a significant portion of the fund was earmarked for contracts to startups, from around the region, for projects that were initiated by either Sheraa or our partners.

Additionally, the fund is also being used to support startups that are developing solutions that will help us thrive in the post-COVID-19 world. With a focus on healthcare and food security, both of which have become increasingly vital to national resilience, Sheraa will utilize part of the fund to support startups successfully addressing challenges in these sectors.

It has been heartening to see other ecosystem players in the UAE step up and show their support as well. Motivate Media Group — the region’s leading multi-platform content producer — partnered with Sheraa to set up a $272K (AED 1MM) in-kind support grant to boost the visibility of UAE’s tech startups during the COVID-19 crisis.

Overall, our aim has been to not only help mitigate the short term effects of the pandemic on the ecosystem, but also ensure its rapid recovery by rewarding startups that have been agile enough to adapt. Cash efficient startups are also more likely to be well-positioned to benefit as the economy recovers. Furthermore, we are also promoting startups whose products and services have much to contribute to our corporate and government clients alike by encouraging innovation in their industries.

What is next for the organization and what should corporates and startups know about working with Sheraa?

At Sheraa, founders are at the heart of everything we do. Our entire mission is based on the premise that entrepreneurship has the power to change the world for the better, and it is entrepreneurs that will help lead that charge. To that end, all our offerings are developed with their needs in mind, and we continuously seek to incorporate their feedback and expand our programs accordingly. Additionally, we prioritize depth in our programs, focusing on each startup’s individual needs, offering customized support and hundreds of hours of one-on-one mentorship to provide a true white-glove experience.

Of course, we also recognize that no ecosystem can be developed in a silo, and we therefore take a similar approach with our corporate and government partners. We work closely together to develop initiatives and programs that will move the needle towards a vibrant startup hub in the emirate.

Looking to the future, the COVID-19 crisis has, in many ways, been the ultimate stress test across all industries, and it is safe to say that many traditional players were caught off-guard. As a result of the dislocation, we expect to see an acceleration in the digital transformation of various industries, as they look to technology to help ensure their survival. For example, we will certainly see the rise of demand-driven sectors such as emerging technologies in healthcare, finance, logistics and online education. From access to mentorship, resources and a network of customers, capital, experts and influencers, Sheraa will continue to place special emphasis on these priority sectors to bolster Sharjah’s self-sufficiency especially in light of the new realities in the post-COVID-19 world.

We also believe this shift, and the significant investment that will come with it, will be a defining moment for our ecosystem. It presents an opportunity for organizations like Sheraa to reframe the narrative around corporates, connect more deeply with their needs and challenges and then build a pipeline of innovation that serves those needs. This will also give rise to a new generation of startups that will not only help industries transform and adapt, but will go on to lead our post-crisis recovery by creating jobs and contributing to socio-economic growth.

The timing of this heightened corporate engagement is serendipitous, as we begin the construction of Sheraa’s flagship headquarters at the Sharjah Research, Technology and Innovation Park campus and continue to develop soft-landing programs aimed at attracting more startups from the region to make Sharjah their home. While other ecosystems may focus their incentives on access to capital and real estate, we are determined to attract the best startups with strong market linkages and access to highly-skilled talent.

Overall, Sheraa has a long list of goals in order to achieve our mission, from access to funding, enhancing educational offerings to providing real-world entrepreneurial skills as well as reskilling graduates to be employed by startups. We are also exploring ways to directly support R&D-based startups. As ever, our aim is to act as an enabler for the entrepreneurial community in the UAE and the region at large, making way for innovative tech startups as they strive to become profitable, powering local and regional economies and building a better future for all.

It’s an exciting time, and we look forward to unveiling everything we have in store.

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Silicon Foundry is an innovation advisory platform that builds bridges between leading multi-national corporations and global startup ecosystems.

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