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Abu Dhabi 2017 | ECONOMY | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Abdullah Saeed Al Darmaki, CEO of Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development, on encouraging young people to become entrepreneurs and the importance of SMEs.

 Abdullah Saeed Al Darmaki
BIOGRAPHY
Abdullah Saeed Al Darmaki is the CEO of the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development (Khalifa Fund), a government-owned vehicle that drives the development of SMEs in the UAE. Al Darmaki has over 20 years experience, starting out in the hydrocarbon spectrum back in 1994 before moving into capital investments as well as the manufacturing industry. He was most recently in the civil service sector. Al Darmaki holds a degree in international affairs and political science with a minor in history from Lewis & Clarke College in Portland, Oregon.

In light of the upcoming 10th anniversary of Khalifa Fund, what is your assessment of the institution's role in financing SMEs and startups and what setbacks has the institution overcome along the way?

Since its inception, Khalifa Fund has worked on two main pillars. Those were primarily on fostering entrepreneurship within the mindset of the Emirati population and the direct financing of small businesses, especially those startups. I would say the first few years were challenging from the perspective of managing expectations and how entrepreneurship can be perceived as a new career opportunity other than always looking for a public-sector job. Hence we embarked on a series of strategic initiatives that engage with the communities and institutions that have outreach programs even from a social development direction. Furthermore, we conducted hundreds of awareness campaign programs and activities through academia and NGOs so as to entice young people and get them excited about the new lifestyle being an entrepreneur can provide them. On the small business financing side of our mandate, we started with one financial product and gradually created more products that fit the different demographics of the applicants that come through our door. With that we started to see a surge of interest from an average of about 50 applications to over 300 per month. I would also contribute that notion to the fact that in 2009 our mandate was expanded to cover the whole of the UAE and that brought more interested parties forward. Of course we cannot forget the period of time when the global economy went through some turmoil and much of the region was affected by it. Needless to say that SMEs were faced with similar challenges especially due to the fact the service sector was one of the areas much affected in this region. However, and in the last several years, we at Khalifa Fund have been able to devise a mechanism whereby we would closely monitor the different economic sectors within the UAE and accordingly come up with targeted policies to support SME growth or limit them for a period of time and until that economic activity starts to see some improvement in its performance.

How will the recent move from the Ministry of Education to include innovation in its parameters encourage education centers to develop the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the UAE?

I believe that it will enhance the ecosystem within the UAE. We at Khalifa Fund believe that innovation takes different shapes when it comes to surviving in a competitive economy, especially when you have new business coming from regional and international destinations. Without that crucial parameter, young business tend to struggle and at times fail. At times we at the fund have seen several business owners completely change their business model/operations and try to innovate in their own respect so as to be able to grow that business and address new opportunities.

What are the main constraints in fostering entrepreneurial mindsets among young Emiratis and how can these effects be reversed?

These challenges need to be tackled at the grassroots. Young people in primary and secondary schools need to be exposed to these ideas and be encouraged to become entrepreneurs in their own respect, besides looking toward the labor market as a career opportunity. We also acknowledge that gaining experience in the world of work builds character for those UAE graduates and we welcome a period of time where they gain work experience. I have personally worked with the European Union Commissioner Office on creating a link with other international institutions that are willing to provide some level of skills development for business owner startups and that is still in the works. I will not deny that we continue to address the stigma linked to self-employment and that needs to be addressed if we want to see a new generation of entrepreneurs. There continues to be a lot of work done by schools, universities, and governmental agencies to change this perspective and that is why we have always said that this will be a collaborative effort from all related parties.