When we first announced the names of the startups that were going to participate in the 5th edition of the Silicon Valley Program, we didn’t realize just how transformative this journey is going to be both on the professional and personal level.
Over the course of 5 days, the Silicon Valley Program introduced 21 entrepreneurs from 4 Arab countries to each other, investors, and (most importantly) a whole new way of doing business: the Silicon Valley way.
The countries that took part in this year’s edition of the Silicon Valley Program were Qatar (sponsored by the Qatar Development Bank QDB), Lebanon (sponsored by the Investment Development Authority of Lebanon IDAL), Bahrain (sponsored by Tamkeen), and Palestine (supported by MENA Catalyst Foundation).
The 5-day acceleration program revolved around networking opportunities with investors, site visits to tech companies, mentorship, and Techcrunch Disrupt SF. What’s more, the entrepreneurs received an intensive one-day training and mentorship session which included workshops on the startup matrix, defining their value proposition, fundraising strategies, and elements of a pitch. Lastly, all startups attended and exhibited at one of the world’s biggest tech conferences: Techcrunch Disrupt SF 2019. Most importantly, all 21 entrepreneurs had the opportunity to directly connect with, and learn from CEOs, mentors, and investors.
It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for all Arab entrepreneurs, who will head back home and build on all the lessons and eye-opening discussions they’ve had whether with investors, media, fellow entrepreneurs, and impact-driven mentors. The networking and connections that the participants have made with mentors and investors will be of immense value, especially as they continue developing their innovations with a solid understanding of how entrepreneurs from other parts of the world are building impactful businesses.
Continue reading if you’d like to know how this journey went for the entrepreneurs, day by day. You could also see our Instagram highlights throughout the journey here.
Day 1: Visiting Salesforce, Facebook, and Google HQ all in one day
After an 18-hour flight to San Francisco, it was no wonder that everyone was jet-lagged, yet all 21 entrepreneurs were thrilled to be visiting the coolest tech campuses in the world, and hear from C-level executives about their experiences and lessons.
While it might seem glamorous to just tour the colorful campuses, the entrepreneurs had the tremendous opportunity to meet with several speakers from each company, who shared his/her insider knowledge on the valley startup ecosystem.
The entrepreneurs started their tour at Salesforce where our good friend Benny Zavos welcomed the teams and led the expedition through the Salesforce tower which, by the way, has become a San Franciscan landmark as the tallest tower in the city. All 21 founders met Joslyn Faust (director, corporate messaging), who gave them a presentation on ‘customer success in the fourth industrial revolution’. The discussion was open for questions, particularly as the entrepreneurs wanted to know more about Salesforce’s services, and how it enables startups to acquire new customers, and more importantly, retain them.
Also, all entrepreneurs got to be part of Salesforce’s ‘family’ as they toured the 67th floor of the tower, also called the Ohana floor. What is interesting is the fact that the last floor is usually reserved for executive offices in traditional office buildings, whereas at Salesforce it’s for everyone to connect, work, and relax over the sound of piano jazz classics, played by the company’s mascot: Astro.
After finishing the tour at Salesforce, all teams took the bus heading to yet another tech giant: Facebook.
The teams arrived at Menlo Park at around lunchtime, where they first saw the iconic thumbs-up sign, informing everyone of their arrival to Facebook’s headquarters.
During their site visit, the entrepreneurs toured the campus and met with Wael Salloum, head of data at Whatsapp Inc., who is also an investor and a mentor. The ‘Ask Me Anything’ session with Wael went over his journey as an entrepreneur, his thoughts on data policies and ethics, as well as his personal pursuit to invest in Arab innovators, whether financially or through knowledge-sharing.
Afterwards, the entrepreneurs continued the discussion with 4 Facebookers of Arab origin, who shared their stories and what they’re currently working on at Facebook. The entrepreneurs took the opportunity to ask about Facebook as a new driver for media content, developing and creating new communication tools that would engage the next generation of users. Moreover, the entrepreneurs were excited to learn how Facebook could be utilized as more than just a social network, but also as a platform for education, data management, and VR communication.
Wrapping up the session was relatively easy, especially after knowing where the entrepreneurs were heading next: Googleplex.
Once the bus arrived at the Mountain View campus, the entrepreneurs sat with Anas Osman, VP of Strategy & Operations at Google Cloud, who talked to them about his team’s vision for Google as a driver of innovation and entrepreneurship. Also, Osman went over how Google established its global brand by customizing its offerings and solutions according to the users’ needs. His inspiring talk gave the entrepreneurs a unique perspective on how Google deals with unique political, ethical, and technological obstacles, especially as its impact has become global.
Day 2: Lots of lessons, lots of work to do
The program was jam-packed with activities, things to do, and learning opportunities, so there wasn’t a moment to waste. The second day of the program consisted of a training at Bootup Ventures, a collaborative and creative startup ecosystem where startups can grow and corporates can innovate.
The entrepreneurs first started their training day with Eric Malis who leads the Startup Innovation program at BootUp Ventures and the Silicon Valley Center for Mindset and Innovation. Malis gave a hands-on workshop to help entrepreneurs define their value proposition, which leads towards knowing which fundraising strategies to adopt. The session viscerally taught the entrepreneurs about the ‘Silicon Valley mindset’, and particularly how investor-entrepreneur relations are handled. Meaning, what do VCs in the valley area come to expect from today’s entrepreneurs in terms of due diligence and market research.
Besides, the entrepreneurs received a seminar from Arun Nithyanandam (Vice President, Americas at Compassites Technology Solutions, Advisor and Mentor at BootUp Ventures) and Ashok Ramaswami (Software and strategic finance executive) on growth hacking strategies, and the different financial models that a startup could have.
Later during the day, the entrepreneurs had the luck to meet the CEO of Bootup Ventures, Mukul Agarwal, who gave an impromptu talk on the importance of being brief and concise with their pitches. Matter of fact, he even made it more interesting by asking the entrepreneurs to pitch live to their peers in 30 seconds or under. Some of the entrepreneurs were up for the challenge and were able to explain their businesses within the time limit. The session was very honest and feedback was done in a transparent and constructive manner, allowing hands-on participation from all the entrepreneurs to learn to reflect on their pitches and adjust accordingly. The purpose of the exercise was to emphasize the importance of brevity and making sure that every word grabs the attention of the audience.
The highlight of the day was when the entrepreneurs were addressed by Dr. Ousama Hasanein, a veteran entrepreneur, mentor, and venture capitalist. Dr. Hasanein addressed the entrepreneurs as their peer, knowing how it feels to face difficulties and venture out into the market without really knowing the outcome. His talk went over his personal story as an immigrant, and how he overcame obstacles facing him.
Lastly, the day was wrapped up with a cycle of 1-on-1 mentorship session,co-organized with TechWadi, where all #SVP2019 entrepreneurs closely discussed with investors, entrepreneurs, consultants, and innovators, how they could improve their business models and ask any questions they might have. The session has proven to be of immense value, especially as each entrepreneur had his/her own set of issues that they liked to be addressed, and have various perspectives on.
Days 3-5: TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco
In recent years, TechCrunch Disrupt SF has become the world’s leading authority in debuting revolutionary startups.
The annually held event has become a staple on every entrepreneur's agenda from around the world, and MENA’s entrepreneurs are no different. Our entrepreneurs made the best of their time at TechCrunch Disrupt SF by exhibiting their innovations to a global audience of entrepreneurs, media, and investors. Also, the entrepreneurs used Crunch Match, a utility that is specifically designed to arrange and schedule 1-on-1 meetings with individuals who share common benefits and interests.
The MENA pavilion was strategically placed in front of the entrance of the exhibition area during Techcrunch Disrupt SF, where several members of the diaspora came and were thrilled to see innovators from their home countries.
Besides, the entrepreneurs attended a number of talks and panels that were relevant to their startups. Namely, some of the speakers that the entrepreneurs were most interested in were Marc Beniof (Chairman and CEO of Salesforce), Sam Altman (CEO of OpenAI), Travis VanderZanden (CEO of Bird), among others who went over the industries’ latest trends and innovations.
Day 4: Meeting with the MENA diaspora
After finishing up from the second day of TechCrunch Disrupt SF, all the entrepreneurs headed to a networking event which also featured a discussion panel ‘Think Like a VC’, bringing venture capitalists to examine the current state of investments and investor-entrepreneur relationship.
The event was organized by Techwadi, a non-profit organization connecting Silicon Valley and the Arab world to promote economic development, and the support of MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab.
The panel was followed by a Q&A and networking session, where many entrepreneurs exchanged contact info with the attending investors and accelerators representatives.
Day 5: Back to school
The fifth and final day of the program took the entrepreneurs to Udemy, the world's largest online learning platform.
The day started with a fireside chat and Q&A with Yvonne Chen, VP of Marketing at Udemy, where she went over the process of building and scaling a marketing team during a time of constant change and innovation. Chen candidly shared with the entrepreneurs her advice on hiring for impact, and how employees could become a startup’s best brand representative and spokesperson.
To our surprise, Greg Coccari, CEO of Udemy, decided to pass by the room to talk to SVP2019 participants about the company’s mission and how his team aims to make education accessible to everyone around the world.
At this point of the program, the entrepreneurs were thrilled to be heading back to their offices with a whole new set of skills and knowledge that they have acquired during the past 5 days that’s going to propel them to the next level.
MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab wants to, once again, thank the partners and true believers in the importance of holding the fifth edition of the Silicon Valley Program: Qatar Development Bank for sponsoring the Qatari delegation, the Investment Development Authority of Lebanon (IDAL) for sponsoring the Lebanese delegation, Tamkeen for sponsoring the Bahraini delegation and the support of MENA Catalyst. Also, thanks to Techwadi for helping with the organization of the tours and networking event.
It truly is inspirational to meet the Arab entrepreneurs who took part in this year’s Silicon Valley Program, as well as fellow innovators from across the world. It goes to show that everyone is trying to make the lives of people better, each in their own way.