YOUNG FUTURE

Abu Dhabi 2020 | TELECOMS & IT | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Sana Bagersh, CEO of BrandMoxie, on a varied career, young entrepreneurs, and social cohesion.

How has your various business and social ventures developed and what has been the driver of this?

For as long as I remember, I've held the belief that businesses have an intrinsic obligation to give back to society, in one form or another. Maybe this comes from my early influences growing up, my first choice of career as journalist, and my subsequent work in Thuraya satellite telecom company where our mandate was to bridge communities. When I helped to establish BrandMoxie in 2004, I soon began to mentor entrepreneurs because there was a need and not many resources for SMEs. I came across a significant number of Emiratis and expatriates who already had, or were interested in starting, a business, but lacked knowledge of the fundamentals. I realized that they often failed because of little things that were easy to do, or to avoid doing, but there wasn't enough awareness. I gave pro bono advice on everything from setting up a business, conducting research, identifying market opportunities, funding, designing product or service, optimizing branding and marketing, and running an operation. Very soon I was inundated by entrepreneurs who wanted time more time than I had. So, I decided to create a knowledge sharing platform that others could also contribute towards. I reached out to my friends – university professors, consultants, even competitors – to join me in delivering a monthly platform that provides advice and guidance to SMEs. In June of 2009 I set up Tamakkan, which in Arabic translates to “Empower Yourself” to focus on three pillars: entrepreneurship, innovation and leadership, with the specific aim of providing continuity so entrepreneurs could meet, bring their questions to experts and peers, and explore ways of collaboration. Zayed University generously provided me with space to hold the monthly seminars and then I later moved the seminars to Mamoura for several years and also rotated the sessions among universities as well as my own innovation spaces at Nahyan Camp, and later at twofour54. My hope was that other entities come together into the picture to create a larger startup ecosystem that integrates training, acceleration, incubation, funding, market access and coaching. The space I rented in twofour54 was perfect, all windows, lots of light and open space. I chose modular furniture that allowed us to host diverse functions, including seminars, art exhibitions, incubation, theatre, film screenings, hackathons and challenges, music performances and more. I worked with universities, schools, business groups, the twofour54 community and other community and creative groups. In 2009 I also launched Tempo magazine to support the growth of the creative community and to inspire and engage innovators and change agents. I wanted Tempo to help spread the word on what we were trying to achieve greater social impact.

How has the support eco-system for young entrepreneurs developed, and how do you work with universities?

The support ecosystem for young entrepreneurs has been growing, and now there's somewhat more, but still not enough, focus at school level. However, what's really encouraging is the launch of ambitious programmes at youth and start up level. This includes StartAD at New York University and other initiatives at Zayed University, Khalifa University, Masdar with entities like Kryptolab and Catalyst, Abu Dhabi Global Market, Sandooq al Watan in addition to the recently launched Abu Dhabi Investment Office. The big news more recently is Hub71, a Mubadala, initiative, which aims to attract global caliber startups to Abu Dhabi through a robust and well-funded incubation and acceleration platform. Corporates as well as government entities like ADNOC and the UAE Space Agency are also jumping into the innovation space. I am excited about my role as innovation consultant for Abu Dhabi Municipality where I helped launch a new initiative called Innovation Nation that is intended to act as a catalyst for partners to explore and participate in Nextgen Abu Dhabi growth areas like smart cities, sustainability, community, and happiness. There's definitely a lot of great ideas and tremendous excitement from all the stakeholders. However, the challenge now is to put all the pieces together so that we are not competing with each other, but rather complementing and leveraging off each other to achieve rapid and focused results. What's promising is that all the players are now starting to seek each other out to collaborate to create greater value. I launched another community platform, the Smovies short film competition challenge, in 2014, through a strategic partnership with VOX Cinemas, to help nurture emerging filmmakers and provide a platform to recognize new talent. We've already run seven competitions and are now launching a challenge on Climate Change that is focused on creating a multi-language repository of one-minute films on solutions and ideas to fight climate change. The idea is to create grass-roots content to activate community action on this side of the planet as it seems considerably less informed of the looming environmental changes which will affect our whole world. Across all three platforms, I have always worked closely with Zayed University, New York University, the Higher Colleges of Technology, Sorbonne University, Abu Dhabi University, Emirates College of Technology, and in the past also organized seminars with the University of Wollongong, Boston University, INSEAD, IMT, Franklin Covey and others. I occasionally give seminars and workshops at universities, schools and corporate events on entrepreneurship, innovation, women's empowerment and creating social impact through grass roots initiatives.

In what ways can entrepreneurship serve as a vehicle for empowerment and social cohesion?

We are witnessing rapid changes that are transforming our world. I'm happy to see growing recognition in the UAE and the region, of the importance of nurturing startups and creating environments that are conducive to the growth of SMEs. We know that SMEs are the backbone of strong and vibrant economies that can substantially contribute to national development because small businesses and startups take much needed risks to innovate and introduce new products and services to the market. We also know that there are sweeping changes globally in the way services are being delivered and the way they are being satisfied by the growing gig economy. I believe it is important that young Emiratis are prepared for this radical shift in the global business climate, and that they are adequately upskilled to be able to work as freelancers and independent contractors. They need to be prepared to operate in a competitive, highly dynamic environment of cross-border entrepreneurs and globalized online markets. We are already seeing that the rise of artificial intelligence is facilitating the growth of the gig economy and that this steep paradigm shift will see the most prepared of us survive and thrive in the new economy. Institutionally businesses can become more innovative; integrating “intrapreneurship” in the way they work by adopting a more entrepreneurial mindset that is typically associated with SMEs. Yet, unfortunately, many public and private institutions are too overgrown and unwieldy, and not equipped to change. It is these entities that will suffer most in the new economy. What is becoming fashionable these days is for institutions to set up gleaming “innovation spaces” as a way to become more innovative. But they will find that the mere existence of space is not enough and that what they need is systematic initiatives that include co-working, co-sharing, co-learning, incubation, acceleration, challenges, hackathons and more. This will ensure that new ideas are born, tested, launched, and allowed to flourish. In the Arab world we should also accept that failure is part of the learning journey, and that we must not punish those SMEs that don't succeed. We need to apply future foresight tools to predict what the UAE will need in order to thrive in the future. We also need to develop optimized Nextgen spaces that will be the innovation hubs of the future. When I look at the new work space concepts being created in the New York I am encouraged that there are successful models breaking through. These creative communities are dynamic, creative and fun, and manage to bring people together to work, learn and collaborate. What I think we'll see more of in the future is that spaces will start to skew towards specific themes and industries such as fintech, fashion, hospitality clusters. With millennials' changing lifestyles, I believe these spaces will increasingly also begin to integrate more livability options such as retail, accommodation, health activities and entertainment. Most interesting about this new urban phenomenon is that these multi-use spaces are being defined not by traditional urban planners but by the way startups and freelancers work.