September 1, 2013

Building Lebanon’s next generation of entrepreneurs

Building Lebanon’s next generation of entrepreneurs

September 02, 2013 01:04 AM
Injaz winners pose for a picture at AUB in Beirut, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir )
Injaz winners pose for a picture at AUB in Beirut, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir )

BEIRUT: Organizers at the seventh annual Injaz Lebanon youth business plan competition described this year’s entries as being on par with those of well-established companies – a testament to what aspiring young entrepreneurs can achieve with the right support.

“The level of maturity and the amount of business information they have access to is amazing. You’d think they were in their mid-30s with their self-confidence and business knowledge. I’ll be out of the market soon,” said Gilbert Doumit, founding member of Injaz Lebanon, an NGO with affiliates by the same name throughout the region that aim to educate students about workforce readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy.

“There’s a perception that at this age they don’t want to do anything. But when you give them something to spend their time on, they can be creative,” Doumit said.

On Saturday at the West Hall auditorium at the American University of Beirut, five teams of high school students pitched their plans to a panel of jurors who judged their ability to make money, market their product, benefit society and create a viable business.

The business plans ranged from eco-friendly products to help Lebanon’s environment to practical solutions to everyday problems. In the end, the company Portocello, which created a stand for mobile phones, won the top prize and will now represent Lebanon in the regional competition.

This year’s prize for marketing went to Eco-box, an iPhone holder made out of recycled material, and the winner for corporate social responsibility went to Car-een (a contraction of car and green) for their double pouch that fits neatly in the car to hold tissues and garbage – as a way to discourage drivers from littering.

From the same company, Elie Makdissy won the prize for best CEO.

The two other entries – Eco-aqua, an environmentally friendly water filter, and Fekra, which made gift boxes of baby cedars for planting, were also strong contenders. Sadly, the two teams from Tripoli – one that made furniture from recycled goods and another that made a sports armband – were unable to attend this year’s competition because of ongoing clashes in their city following a massive bomb just over a week ago.

Indeed, there is no getting around the fact Lebanon’s security situation makes doing business unusually difficult. Even though the Civil War ended over 20 years ago, periodic flare-ups have resulted in a loss of confidence in investment and long-term planning. A somber reminder of this was in the event’s keynote speech by renowned architect Bernard Khoury.

After having achieved the best education in his field at the Rhode Island School of Design and Harvard University, he returned home to Lebanon to what he thought would be not only the rebuilding of a structures but also the rebuilding of a nation. Instead, he was commissioned to design a number of temporary projects for the entertainment industry, the best known of which is the underground nightclub BO18.

During his slideshow presentation, he also showed a photo of a more recent project – the Yabani restaurant in Sodeco, where he estimated diners spend LL50,000 a head for a sushi meal, while standing alongside it was a dilapidated old building housing squatters that he estimated were earning $200 a month – a contrast he deplored as immoral.

Despite Khoury’s brutally honest assessment of fundamental shortcomings in the country’s postwar reconstruction, or perhaps because of it, Doumit followed the presentation by thanking Khoury for making him “proud to be Lebanese.”

While most of the day was filled with polished presentations by accomplished business leaders and the young competitors, the event did give the audience a behind-the-scenes look at how the young entrepreneurs prepared for this big day.

Nagy Souraty, who runs a program at Beirut’s Al-Madina Theater that has been dubbed the “theater of the edge” because of the daring stunts performed. Though by his own admission an unlikely candidate to work with an entrepreneurship organization, the artistic director discussed one of the most essential things for people pitching their business plans and taking questions before an audience: overcoming stage fright.

By putting them on the edge, so to speak, he was able to get them to focus on their task thereby forgetting their stage fright. His techniques are not for the faint of heart. During the competition, he had members of the competing companies get on stage and name one thing they should have done differently. They then had three minutes to go back to their team and devise a strategy to save their business in the event it had gone bankrupt.

“They’re in their boxes, and they need to get exposed,” Souraty said during a break. “They will be going into an environment where they need to be pushed and find a path.”

For the members of the Eco-Aqua team, bringing their product to the real world can’t come fast enough. Even without winning the competition, they want to create a real company out of their fiberglass water filtration system.

“Our vision is to become part of the future infrastructure of Lebanon,” said Maryam Jaafar, part of Eco-Aqua’s human resources.

When asked if she was worried about it interfering with her studies, she said, “We’ve already been doing this for five months while in school.”