Entrepreneurs are vital to UAE's economic success, students told

UAE students are told that entrepreneurship will make the UAE more competitive worldwide as the country diversifies from its reliance on oil and property development.

Students Salma al Jaberi (R), 21, and Yusra Bani Hashem (L), 19, ask questions during the Akoun Workshop - an initiative that aims to inspire local youths to become entrepreneurs. Silvia Razgova / The National
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ABU DHABI // Young entrepreneurs play a vital role in the future of the country's economic success, the director general of the Abu Dhabi Council for Economic Development said yesterday.

Entrepreneurship is necessary to make the country more competitive globally, Fahad Al Raqbani told students at Khalifa University. Small and medium businesses will play an increasingly important role as the country diversifies from its reliance on oil and property development.

Mr Al Raqbani was speaking at a workshop for the Akoun Business Idea Competition, which offers direct investment and mentoring programmes to aspiring Emirati entrepreneurs.

The programme will offer workshops at 30 universities and colleges across the country until May. Any Emirati student can attend and submit a business proposal before May 31 to win investments and mentorship support.

"The government cannot absorb all the graduates," he said. "That's a fact. There are opportunities of course with the government and the private sector level, but our main objective out of this initiative is to help the student and guide the student into being an entrepreneur and think in an entrepreneurial way. We believe that this field can help take a certain number of graduates every year."

Small and medium businesses make up a quarter of the Abu Dhabi private sector, a much lower rate compared to other countries.

"Not many Emiratis, whether in Dubai or in Abu Dhabi or in the whole of the Emirates, work in the private sector," Mr Al Raqbani said. "Previously people used to think that in order for me to be a businessman my father has to be a businessman. We are trying to change that."

Akoun will host workshops across the country in the coming weeks to attract students to its guidance programme. Students yesterday had the chance to talk to successful entrepreneurs like Anas Bukhash, the co-founder of Ahdaaf Sports Club, who brought indoor pitches to the UAE.

Mr Bukhash grew up admiring the cartoon football hero "Captain Majid", but studied chemical and mechanical engineering to please his parents.

"Did I love mechanical engineering? I didn't love it. I loved football," he told students. So he changed careers. After many rejections and a lot of paperwork, he opened his first two pitches in 2009. There are now 18 in the UAE. The secret is "passion, planning and perseverance".

"Recently in the past three to five years we can see the entrepreneurial fever has taken over the UAE," Mr Bukhash said. "The country knows how important it is for people to elaborate their talents."

It is the first year the Akoun programme has operated outside Abu Dhabi.

The number of students registered for the programme has nearly doubled each year since Akoun began, from 23 entries in 2010 to 113 last year.

"The chances of succeeding as an entrepreneur today are much higher than they were 10 years ago because you will have someone who will put a business plan together, you have funding made available to you," said Mr Al Raqbani. "... if you had an idea 20 years ago you went to the bank and the bank would say show me something that you own."

Many of the students were interested in entrepreneurship, but only on a part-time basis.

Sisters Sara and Yousra Bani Hashem attended yesterday's conference. They will apply for this year's Akoun award to develop their campus manicure business.

"I want to try everything," said Sara, a first-year civil engineering student, flicking through a phone with photos of fingers painted as strawberries.

Entrepreneurship is in their blood - their mother and grandmothers were tailors in Aden who designed gowns for British balls.

"I thought of designing clothes but there's no opportunity to," said Sara. "We have to focus on our studies. In fashion you have to design, to sew but in nails you just do it and you see the results."

Both women want to work for the Government and do business part time. "Because I think since our government helps us, I should do the same for government," said Sara.

Last year's third-place winner was Ahmed Al Ali, a nuclear engineering student who proposed a "unique fridge" vending machine. He said he loves "the challenge and fun" of entrepreneurship but does not plan to pursue business full time.

Half of his friends would like to run their own business part time but everyone wants a Government job, he said. Government employment gives "position" or status, security - "they can't fire you" - and a good salary. "The money is guaranteed and it's so high," said Mr Al Ali. "In the private sector every day is a challenge but the Government pays."