Bootcamp for entrepreneurs in Sharjah

From a social enterprise encouraging young people to do good deeds in the community to an app that bills itself as a "Careem for stuff", The Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre (Sheraa) has unveiled the first batch of 10 start-ups it is supporting.

Najla Al Midfa says Sharjah has positioned itself as an education hub in the UAE. Reem Mohammed / The National
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Some of the most agile business brains of our time were forged in university. But the campus can also be a crucible for viable entrepreneurial ambitions – just ask Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

With this in mind, Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre (Sheraa) opened last year and set about drawing from the well at American University of Sharjah.

It has now filtered 10 business start-ups from 100 prospects for its entrepreneurial “boot camp” and recently revealed the results to Sharjah Ruler Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, corporate partners and prospective investors at a “graduation” showcase.

Among them was Egyptian Iraqi Noha Mahdi, who put her master’s in education studies to good use. With so many start-ups realising high-tech dreams, the 28-year-old and college friends sought to inspire children aged nine to 18 away from devices through the Mawada Project, which offers skill development and engagement programmes.

“In the digital world we get a distorted understanding of reality and we become less human,” she says. “We are a social business dedicated to creating community service learning programmes, helping develop essential life skills while giving back.”

That can include assisting others with reading skills, taking meals to the elderly or improving animal welfare.

The Mawada Project was among an inaugural batch identified, incubated and accelerated by Sheraa in its first year.

Launched under the patronage of Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi – chairwoman of Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (Shurooq) – Sheraa links campus aspiration to real world commerce via seed funding, office space, subsidised licensing and mentoring for four months.

Another fledgling enterprise finding traction is Yadoh Fat­ima. A home-made food delivery business focused on traditional Emirati dishes, it cites Sharjah Police and Sharjah Health Authority staff as customers.

And with dining a UAE pastime, restaurant-related app Keza is on the radar of foodies and outlets as it “bridges gaps between expectation and reality in the dining out world”, according to its UAE-born Pakistani founder and chief executive Nida Sumar, 29.

The app followed extensive research among diners and restaurants, revealing how both sides aspire to improvement, be that to service or the supply chain.

“We are the only solution that brings diners, restaurants and suppliers together on one platform,” she pitched to potential partners. “When you’re hungry you sign in to Keza, explore restaurants around you, choose your service, eat with your eyes before you order, request the service, pay and split, all on the Keza app.”

With more than 11,000 “tech ready” restaurants in the UAE, she says “the opportunity is huge”.

That’s music to Najla Al Midfa’s ears. The Sheraa general manager hopes to turn students into job creators rather than job seekers.

AUS joins many leading overseas universities hosting an entrepreneurship centre. That includes American University of Cairo, American University of Beirut and New York University Abu Dhabi, with which Sheraa has partnered to exchange knowledge and provide expanding, talent-hungry SMEs with a point of contact.

“Sharjah has positioned itself as an education hub in the UAE,” says Ms Al Midfa. “At University City you have 20,000 students studying across various universities. Most were graduating and trying to look for jobs. A lot were struggling.”

Under Sheraa, some of the 10 selected teams took a final year degree project, commercialised it and turned it into a viable business.

“We looked at the entrepreneurial landscape; a lot of entities in the UAE ecosystem were focused on helping start-ups, already established, to grow. One thing we say is Usain Bolt … someone had to teach him how to walk before he could run.

“Maybe some of these ventures won’t be their final ventures, but we’re confident we’ve created the entrepreneurial talent that’s required.”

Certainly some will be disruptive. Baghdad-born Cartpool founder and chief executive Hameed Al Beiruty, 24 and an international management master’s student with a bachelor’s in web development, was hunting for a cheap hoverboard on a student budget when he envisaged a crowd-powered platform for individuals to bulk buy goods.

Aimed largely at academics or shoppers seeking gaming products and car parts, particularly from abroad, Cartpool has signed five UAE vendors, with 13 pending overseas. The team began working seven months ago and their site went live this week.

They could find synergy with Yalla Pickup. A blend of “Careem for stuff” and Aramex, it connects people needing to move items with approved van owners. Founder Elie El Tom, 39, from Lebanon, had the idea while returning home to Motor City, Dubai.

“It took me one day to move a crate from one place to another,” he recalls.

“I saw these small trucks with big phone numbers. We’re building a smart city and these numbers were bothering me so I thought why don’t I connect people who want to move stuff with people who have trucks.”

Something of a wild card, Mr Tom, was the only non-student but Sheraa liked what his maturity and experience in business development could bring to the mix. Yalla Pickup now has 130 users, 20 businesses registered and has executed 50 trips.

“You order a truck at the click of a button – it will come to your doorstep,” he adds.