A HELPING HAND

Sharjah 2020 | IT & MEDIA | INTERVIEW

Sheraa focuses on ensuring it provides entrepreneurs the support they need to build their businesses and reach their full potential.

Najla Al-Midfa
BIOGRAPHY
Najla Al-Midfa is CEO of Sheraa, a government-supported entity with a mandate to build the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Sharjah and support the next generation of entrepreneurs. Prior to joining Khalifa Fund, she was a senior associate at McKinsey & Company’s New York office, primarily serving clients across the financial institutions sector. Her experience also includes roles within PricewaterhouseCoopers and Shell. Al-Midfa is a board member of United Arab Bank, where she also chairs the Board Audit Committee and is a member of the Board Risk Committee. She is Vice-Chairperson of Young Arab Leaders and a fellow of the Aspen Institute’s Middle East Leadership Initiative. She holds an MBA from Stanford University.

What is being developed in Sheraa right now, and what are you most proud of?

We continuously seek to improve our programs and ensure we provide the support entrepreneurs need to build their start-ups. With their feedback in mind, we have revised our offering to focus on filling the critical gap between having a product and launching it into the market. Additionally, Sheraa continues to partner with esteemed organizations such as Expo Live, the Sharjah Youth Council, and Liv Bank—to name a few—to provide inspiration and mentorship to those still at the early stages of developing their business ideas. This “Founder First" philosophy is what I am most proud of about Sheraa. We are dedicated to creating an exceptional experience for everyone who joins our programs, free of charge. Moreover, the relationship extends far beyond their graduation. Our entrepreneurs know Sheraa will always be here to support them. I am also proud of the nature of the start-ups we attract, which is not only focused on financial gain, but also on creating positive impact.

Which sector currently exhibits the most potential for growth in Sharjah?

Sharjah is on an upward trajectory and is filled with opportunities across numerous sectors. The Emirate's natural strengths continue to lie in heritage, creativity, culture, and education, so tech start-ups in those areas will likely be able to make the most out of the market. Sheraa has partnered with leading entities—Air Arabia, Bee'ah, Crescent Enterprises, and Sharjah Media City (Shams)—to help develop start-ups in other growing industries, namely aviation and tourism, sustainability, social enterprise, and creative economies. We also look forward to working closely with the Sharjah Research, Technology and Innovation Park (SRTIP) to help encourage and support creativity, R&D, research commercialization, and knowledge-intensive businesses in sectors such as mobility, environmental technology, and smart cities. Our partnership with Sandooq Al Watan will play a key role in this, particularly for emerging Emirati innovators.

How would you assess the status of Sharjah in terms of AI, and which industry can benefit the most?

Sharjah is excited to be developing an innovation ecosystem that leads the way forward on new technologies such as AI. Within universities, degree programs that look at new areas of technology are being introduced, a sign of the opportunities that lie in those fields. SRTIP is a testament to the Emirate's keen focus on developing an innovation ecosystem. These fields are also an emerging area of focus within Sheraa. Our portfolio includes start-ups such as BluePhin Technologies, which has built a smart robot that leverages robotics and AI to collect waste from commercial water bodies. Sweepteq, another recent graduate, is currently developing AI applications to support cameras that track debris on airport runways. Sheraa looks forward to supporting more start-ups in similar fields, especially because every industry will be impacted by AI. We want to be the catalyst that brings these innovations to market.

What are your goals and objectives for 2019?

Our overall goal for 2019 is to continue to enhance our offerings and find ways to scale our impact. We aim to refine our programs, with more of a focus on innovative tech ventures, provide increased access to the Sharjah market for our start-ups, as well as boost our community engagement. We are also proud to partner with Sharjah World Book Capital to nurture and support entrepreneurial talent across book, publishing, and content-related industries through various competitions and programs. Additionally, our second round of applications for our seed program will open in September, with the six-week program beginning the following month. Organizing for the third Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival is also well underway. Also, in the pipeline is a program for established (post-Series A) tech start-ups, both local and global, that want access to the Sharjah market, particularly the ones that play to Sharjah's priority sectors.