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“I Flew to the USA Not Knowing I Would Be Sharing a Stage With Barack Obama”

A photo of her sitting next to the US President and Mark Zuckerberg inundated the net last month. Who was the Egyptian woman shining at the centre of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit spotlight? Mai Medhat talks starting from zero, dismissing labels, and the journey that led her to the world stage.

It was the aftermath of the January 25th uprising when Mai Medhat’s startup idea sparked, while she was heading off to 'crash' Egypt’s Startup Weekend with her now business partner Nihal Fares. “I wasn’t invited, but we crashed the event because we really wanted to see it,” says the determined 28-year-old entrepreneur, who shattered the glass ceiling shaped by apathy, powerlessness, and traditional social mandates by crafting her own startup, Eventtus, in the midst of a convulsed, post-revolutionary Egypt.

In less than five years, her online event management company set up its second office in Dubai, racked up 8,000 events under its belt, and raised two rounds of investment led by giants including the likes of Vodafone. But no achievement would even come close to standing on stage next to Barack Obama and Facebook’s mastermind Mark Zuckerberg, while the President of the United States himself is introducing her to an international audience at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit 2016.

The Summit, held at Stanford University in Silicon Valley on June 24th, was the seventh of a series - which POTUS announced in his historical 2009 Cairo speech - that were consecutively hosted in Turkey, UAE, Malaysia, Morocco, and Kenya. “I had signed up for the summit long before, but I didn’t know I was going to be called on stage until a day before the summit began,” says the young entrepreneur, still in surprise.

Representing the wave of young, zealous entrepreneurs shaking and reshaping the Middle East, Medhat shared stage with Jean Bosco from ‪Rwanda and Mariana Costa Checa from ‪Peru, two other entrepreneurs impacting their communities through scalable businesses. “Representing Egyptian entrepreneurs was a lot of pressure, but it was also a chance to show the world that we exist – that we can do something big, and that there are thousands of startups creating jobs and changing the world through technology,” says Medhat from her office in Tagamoa El Khamis, in the outskirts of Cairo.  

Mai Medhat sharing the stage with Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, and two other entrepreneurs at GES 2016. 

Aware that her figure embodied the rise and drive of Arab female entrepreneurs, Medhat demystifies the label. “I hate to be defined as a ‘female entrepreneur',” she says. “I don’t feel any different from a male entrepreneur; it’s all about your skills and qualifications, and I actually like to embrace the fact that everyone wants to help a female entrepreneur. If you know how to capitalise on this, being a woman can be a competitive advantage.”

“So why I was chosen?” she ponders. “I think they saw the full journey of how we started, how we bootstrapped from nothing until we raised investment, and how we got more traction and launched in different countries, with clients that are big names,” she says, taking ownership of the colossal ship she now steers. Her company, which offers event organisers tools to sell tickets, manage events, and facilitate networking, served as the online powerhouse behind major international events, from Egypt’s RiseUp Summit and the Harvard Arab Weekend in Boston to the ArabNet Digital Summits in Dubai, Riyadh, and Beirut, the ‘big five’ DMG Events in Dubai, and soon the Dubai Expo 2020.

But how do you grow an internationally scaling startup from a project harnessed by a duo of 24-year-olds? “We started working from different cafés across Cairo; we didn’t even have an office but, as we are engineers, we were developing the platform ourselves,” says Medhat as she traces back the inception of her proud brainchild. It was that day, on that first-ever Egyptian Startup Weekend in May 2011, when the idea came up almost as the organic result of her frustration while pursuing the very goal that is quintessential to any event: to connect with others. “We were there to learn about startups, to meet mentors, investors, and so on, but it was very hard to learn who was there; there was no tool to connect people during the event.” A week later, at TEDx Cairo, the same shortcoming popped up again. “Organisers had a lot of trouble directing the crowd toward the stage after the break,” says Medhat. “So we both quit our jobs and decided to dedicate our lives to developing this app,” she adds, embodying the hands-on eager spirit that impregnated Egyptian youth at the uprising of 2011. “It was a time of hope; it was the rush of the revolution. If we had forced Mubarak to step down, we could do anything. That was the spirit back then,” she says.

So when it came down to securing their first client, Medhat and her partner went back to the event that had triggered their now-evolving idea: a TEDx talk. “We first established a partnership with TEDx AUC; it didn’t generate revenue, but was like a big launch for us because we wanted people to know us,” she says, while admitting that getting the word out was not a challenge as they tried “everything, from digital marketing, to knocking on the door of every event organiser in Egypt.”

Having bootstrapped their kickoff, the duo raised a first round of investment of $175,000 led by Vodafone Ventures and Cairo Angels, and grew 50 per cent quarterly throughout the country’s political and economic ups and downs – and despite them all. “Because we work with events, the impact was high, as a lot of events got cancelled or re-scheduled. But we actually took it as a challenge and gave event organisers a better way to push notifications and re-organise it,” she says.     

The entrepreneur manages a team of 15 at her two offices in Cairo and Dubai. 

After their regional expansion and the opening of a second office in Dubai in 2013, Medhat raised another round of investment for an undisclosed amount, this time led by Middle East Venture Partners (MEVP). With clients now in India, Spain, UK, and the USA, Medhat’s story – showcased to a worldwide audience of hundreds of millions – mirrors that of an entire generation thriving for change - ultimately, a role model set out to diversify the univocal icon of the white male entrepreneur.   

“I was amazed by the idea that Obama understands the value of entrepreneurship and how we can bring countries together though this,” says Medhat, noting her firsthand impressions of her encounter with the American leader. “The fact that a president is moderating a panel on entrepreneurship is incredible. He understands it and he is pushing it forward,” she says.

Photography by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.
Photographer: Ahmed Najeeb.

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