We could list hundreds of Ahmed el Alfi’s achievements; But there are five words that define him best: the father-figure of Egypt’s entrepreneurs. The founder of Sawari Ventures, Flat6Labs and Cairo’s entrepreneurial hub Greek Campus, his startup Nefham provides Egyptian youth –and adults – with 100,000 online lessons a day, supplementing a dysfunctional and outdated educational system. After his speech at the Rise Up Summit 2014, we had a chance to speak to him.
What do the MENA startups tell you about the Middle East?
They tell me what their parents taught them: ‘I want to get out of here, I wish I could move to Europe or USA.’ So I tell them: wake up, look around, make an objective decision, not a passionate decision that someone has preempted you to do, and challenge the framework in which you are thinking.
And looking at what they do, how can we read the region through them?
Young, with the ability to grow fast, with the ability to carve out its own place in the world if it stops copying. What ecosystems need to be is like Silicon Valley: self-perpetuating.
But we if we are talking about not copying, why think of Silicon Valley?
No, without copying what makes it self-perpetuating, but it’s the ideal you want to get to. Why? So that it doesn’t depend on 40 people, a government official, and three funds that carry the whole load; so that people just do it themselves and it becomes like the rainforest, we are not involved anymore. What happens in the rainforest? Things die, they fall, they rot, they fertilize and nourish and grow the next cycle, and keeps going. An ecosystem is, by definition, perpetuating.
One of the biggest fears entrepreneurs have is failure. If you look back in your career, what was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it?
Accepting the wrong people in the wrong position and not acting soon enough, because I was not confrontational enough to take rapid action. One of our companies 12 years ago could have been my biggest success but we didn’t get rid of the CEO because he was a high-profile guy, but he destroyed the company. The same thing I expect my entrepreneurs to do: when you see that something is not working, act quickly and pivot.
The things I did right and went well 25 years ago, I forgot about them. The things that went wrong and the lessons learnt, even if it was 16 years ago, will always stay in my memory. You have to take failure, embrace it, and analyze it looking at all the pieces. It’s only when you look at your failure fully that you find your skills.
So how can an entrepreneur stay passionate despite failure?
Losing desire happens to anyone. It’s why marriages fail. Sometimes you have to trick yourself to stay motivated, sometimes you need to fake it. If you wake up every morning and write down “I am optimistic, I am optimistic”, and you keep going, you will become optimistic. I tell myself to be optimistic and see the glass half full; there’s a lot of good things to see every day, no matter where you live.