“The longer I stayed in Silicon Valley, the longer it disappointed me,” says S[k]aleup Ventures' Salma El Hariry, as she explains how she turned frustration into a gamechanging event: Vested Summit.
On a school bus at the age of nine, Salma El-Hariry met Sherin Wafaai, and little did they know that in around 20 years they would work side-by-side as co-founders of Vested Summit; a conference embracing tech heads working with technology to reach a social impact. "[We met] again at a PR class at AUC, and then again on Facebook years later," Wafaai tells Startup Scene ME. "We realized we were living parallel lives, Salma in San Francisco and me in Amsterdam." El-Hariry pitched her good-old friend the concept of S[k]aleup Ventures, the mother company hosting Vested Summit, and it took her an hour-and-a-half messenger call to get Wafaai on board as a partner and co-founder.
Vested Summit is taking place in Hurghada's resort-village, Gouna, between May 9th to 12th, spotlighting three sectors in technology: VR, AI, and blockchain. kicking off with a 48-hour hackathon designed for fintech entrepreneurs, the conference will give high-impact driven entrepreneurs a playground and a stage to pitch. "Blockchain can be used to create solutions for global social and environmental problems at scale," says Wafaai. "Our hackathon is about 'Building the Future with Blockchain,' with the freedom to design for the problem that is closest to your heart."
As a team, the number one challenge was not living in the same country. With Wafaai in Amsterdam, El-Hariry between San Francisco and Cairo, and Hala Gabr, their VP, in Abu Dhabi, the timezones in which each lived in posed as a very tough challenge they had to overcome. However, they have successfully pulled this off as a remote team for an entire year; in fact the team has only met in person for the first time last month.
From Silicon Valley to Cairo
"I left Egypt after the revolution to pursue my masters at Hult San Francisco campus," El-Hariry tells Startup Scene ME. "I ended up staying 4.5 years in Silicon Valley, because I fell in love with the culture of innovation, collaboration, and openness over there. It was contagious!"
Innovation was in the air. Everyone - even the Starbucks barista - was working on the next big thing. "I soaked myself so deep into it after attending, organizing and speaking at 379 events in 4 years. I’ve witnessed the rise of the unicorns such as Uber, Airbnb, dropbox, back in 2011 from idea to billion dollar companies," she reminisces. "However, the longer I stayed in the Valley, the longer the Valley disappointed me," she says; explaining that it shifted from rocketships, advanced robotics and AI to smart socks that can find its pair in the washing machine, or an on-demand butler service that is well-funded and backed by the Valley's largest venture capital firms.
"It honestly felt like solutions in search of a problem; not a solution to a problem," she denounced. Communicating with entrepreneurs back home, evolving with the strong wave of socio-political revolutions shaking the region - resonating from one corner to the other, she got inspired because they were tackling real world problems but with very little resources, unlike the model she witnessed in San Francisco. "So I co-founded and ran an accelerator program in Silicon Valley focused on bringing MENA-based startups to the valley for a five-week program to access mentors, investment opportunities, and tech know-how," El-Hariry says. However, the entrepreneur slowly came to the realisation that it was too early for the market and that the MENA entrepreneurial key players had to boost the overall ecosystem in the region to be able to see some true progress and in turn success stories.
So, that's when S[k]aleup Ventures was born to put entrepreneurs in emerging markets on the global map and fuel the growth of the emerging markets' GDP through innovation and technology startups who have the power to create exponential value to our social and economic problems.
From Abassiya to Amsterdam
"The quality of life people have as patients in Abassiya is an indication of a broken system," Wafaai starts as she remembers her experience at the mental hospital close to the heart of Cairo. She was studying psychology and wanted to get deep down to the people. So she went to the mental hospital every week along with her studies, and realised that there are so many problems that need to be solved. "I was so shocked at the conditions that I promised myself I would do something about it."
"A few degrees later and a pivot to technology made me realise that you can affect way more lives using technology than you can being a single student trying your best to give these patients a higher quality of life." In Amsterdam, Wafaai studied Computer Science and got a doctorate in computer-human interaction. That was when she learned how to help humans with technology and how entrepreneurs can facilitate their interactions with the help of tech tools.
"One of the things I appreciated the most about the startup founders in Amsterdam is that people bootstrap until they have something worthy of being funded; which comes as a result of Dutch pragmatism," she says. "More importantly, I learned the importance of design thinking and starting with your user." Wafaai and her team are also bootstrapping to pull off Vested Summit, after an entire year of research on the MENA startup ecosystem.
Now we’re thinking: Okay,we have the tech we have the humanity and how we’re going toput them together now. And basically Vested Summit is one of the ways we're going to do that.
So what is “Conscious Technology"?
El-Hariry has actually coined this term because social impact became an abused and overused term for anyone who’s trying to make an impact out of scalable innovative solutions that attempt at solving real world problems. "Conscious tech is about daring to ask the impossible questions, and truly finding scalable moonshot answers that aren't just making money but are truly making the world a better place," she elaborates. To name a few of the conscious technologies Vested Summit looks forward to showcase, there will be a smart ring that reads for the blind, a pair of 3D printed bionic limbs for under $100, VR to remotely diagnose patients, a football that stores kinetic energy and is used to power rural villages where electric power is a scarcity.
There is however a thin line between conscious technology and charity. To Wafaai, convincing people that conscious startups are not NGO's or NFP's has been a challenge. "They are startups trying to add value to the world and make a profit;" she clarifies, adding that these conscious startups are also trying to grow and build up patiently, without making their goal just about money.
This year, Vested Summit is kicking off its first event, highlighting three of the hottest conscious technologies: Augmented Reality or Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence and blockchain. "These technologies are platform technologies and are still in their infancy stages," El-Hariry says. "Also, their applications in emerging markets are far more exciting than what entrepreneurs in big tech hubs like Silicon Valley and New York have been experimenting with."
Some of the exciting startups in those spaces who will present at Vested Summit include a startup that helps provide refugees with accounts on a blockchain platform so that they can access healthcare, education, and other services. The summit will also introduce a flying drone that delivers medical supplies to remote areas in Africa, as well as an AR studio that builds educational apps to immerse the younger generations in an engaging and interactive learning experience.
Vested Summit provides solutions for three major problems that startups in the region are facing; skills, money, and exposure. "Thus the experience of Vested Summit is designed respectively under three major tracks; the Hackathon Track, the Shark Zone Track and the Global Exposure Track," the summit's VP Hala Gabr tells Startup Scene ME.
The Hackathon is a 48 hour fintech or blockchain challenge aimed to bring startups, developers, and designers with frontier tech experts to hack away. Followed by the Shark Zone Track, where "tech heads will be literally swimming with the sharks in the Red Sea," Gabr goes on; using sharks as a metaphor referring to international investors eying potential in the congregation of conscious technology startups. "The Shark Zone is a unique startup/investor meetup, we’re promising the top line of startups in the emerging market a boost of their pitches to global investors, and a one to one sessions on a boat in the Red Sea," she adds. The Global Exposure is a two-day inspirational talks, debates, panel discussions about the hottest tech topics and how emerging markets can localize such technologies to meet their needs and solve their problems. "Along those lines, startups will be showcasing their work at the tech expo in a stimulating innovative walk of the future."
The team looks at the tightly-knit village of El Gouna as the best setup to make the entrepreneurs' dream companies come to life. "Two reasons," says Wafaai: "Gouna will contain our participants in the Vested zone. Based on the theory of the mere-exposure effect, it’s more likely that people will forge relationships if they keep crossing paths; unlike in Cairo, where they will likely disappear after the event is done." The second reason is because El Gouna, which is one main partner in the summit, is a sustainable city that’s on its way to being a tech hub in its own right, housing The Technical University in Berlin’s campus (TUBGC).
"Since Vested summit is all about conscious technology, it is very important to bring on board partners who are mindful about having a social impact and changing people’s lives to the better," Vested Summit's Head of Global Community and Partnerships Mona Makhlouf tells Startup Scene ME.
I mean, it takes two to tango.
Head of Business Development Ahmed Rizk lets Startup Scene ME in on more details about the "mindful" partners: "Our visions go inline with the summit's main partner, Orascom, El Gouna's developer," he says. "Given that Orascom wants the city to be a hub for entrepreneurship, and at the same time we would like the emerging markets to be under the spotlight, to bring in international players to invest in entrepreneurship and the progress of emerging markets."
Looking at the ecosystem, S[k]aleup Ventures are not taking advantage of Vested Summit to compete with anyone. "Bringing those who are interested in technology, who are adding to or creating new technologies in Egypt and other emerging markets, together with international investors and corporate giants who are interested in providing for these technologies to come to the world."
Photography by Ahmed Ashkor for Mo4 Productions
Sign up for the daily Startup Digest.