I was half asleep on Caltrain on my way to Palo Alto, after a long day in San Francisco. It was my first trip to Silicon Valley, and this lady sits next to me, gives me a big smile and, with this magical glow on her face, says: “Only yesterday—yesterday—my son sold his 12-month-old company for 30 million dollars. Only 4 months ago, I was sending him $300 a month to pay his rent.” She followed up by saying, “I am a regular person and living proof that this does happen to regular people, and if my son can do it, so can you. I can feel it.”
I was amazed and astonished when I later realized that this kind of believe-it-or-not conversation was not uncommon in Silicon Valley—the sense that anything was possible. I spent the following two weeks exploring the area’s wonderful melting pot of talent, ambition, money, academia, government, and corporations that make it a center of global innovation. As I thought back to my work in Lebanon, I also tried to answer this question: What lessons can Lebanon learn from Silicon Valley success?
A student group called the American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) had invited me to visit the group at Stanford. Thirty-three passionate innovators from all over the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region convened to share stories, and discuss their views and endeavors. I spoke about AltCity, a hub in Beirut that I co-founded two years ago. AltCity is a place where people eat, meet, and start up new enterprises. The intense experience at Stanford reminded me why we created AltCity: to help build an innovative, collaborative culture for the youth, where they can rethink their roles in reconstructing our shattered societies and economies.
Technology obviously plays a critical role in achieving this goal, especially in Lebanon, which shares many characteristics with Silicon Valley—including high-quality human capital; a diverse, multicultural society; and highly entrepreneurial minds. So while in California, I avidly pursued entrepreneurs, investors, fund managers, and accelerators, and identified five actionable steps to help propel innovation in Lebanon:
- Entrepreneurs should soak in the Silicon Valley scene. Most Israeli startups have sent their “number one” employee to the Valley to incorporate, find funding, and build relationships with top executives. It has paid off well for them, and I believe many Lebanese startups would benefit from the same exposure.
- Entrepreneurs should also leverage the vast Lebanese expat network. Engaging Lebanese expats and CEOs abroad is an absolute must if Lebanon is to build the missing link between global relevance and promising local small and medium enterprises.
- Government should support accelerators, incubators, venture capitalists, and all other participants in the small and medium enterprise (SME) space with tax incentives and trade agreements.
- Policymakers should create additional, more-effective loan guarantee schemes for digital businesses—especially those that lack the collateral attractiveness of traditional capital-intensive businesses.
- Policymakers should also create leaner, cheaper legal frameworks for individual entrepreneurs and startups in the digital space, including low- or no- capital requirement, and lower registration and annual fees.
There are no perfect recipes here. Building a community of innovators and collaborators is not linear; no set of actions emulated or copied from Silicon Valley or anywhere else is bound to work outright. The solutions are organic; the inspiration is Californian.
Fueling technology and digital innovation in Lebanon has the potential to alleviate unemployment and move the country into the 21st century. We need bold solutions to enable a structural environment that feeds innovation—Lebanese entrepreneurs have the power to nurture this environment in MENA, but only if they acknowledge and embrace the power of radical collaboration. As one veteran entrepreneur put it: “We can keep fighting over the grape or agree to share the watermelon.” With the right amount of inspiration and commitment to collaboration, we can ignite another, technology entrepreneurship “spring” and bring about real economic and social change.