The founder of development finance initiative, 138 Pyramids, talks Egyptian youth, the art of listening and the ego of entrepreneurship in this candid StartupScene interview.
The number 138 holds a special place in the annals of Egyptian history. The Great Pyramid of Khafre stands at 138 metres in height. In 2008, it was said that there were 138 identified pyramids across Egypt’s lands. For Neveen El Tahri, however, 138 signifies a goal, one that came to form at around that same time. As the Chairperson of development finance initiative, 138 Pyramids, El Tahri has, for the better part of the last decade and beyond, made it her mission to find and support the most innovative startups and SMEs in Egypt - and to have 138 local, homegrown companies that thrive and reach their potential as part of their portfolio.
“Since 2007, I have been very focused on young people,” she tells StartupScene. “At that time, my daughter was graduating and most of her friends and colleagues came back to me and asked, ‘Aunt Neveen, what do we do now?’”
It was at this point that El Tahri had something of an epiphany. She realised that her daughter’s generation and the ones to follow were much better informed than her generation had been, but had no obvious avenues. “I decided that I was going to invest in them in any way I can,” she continues. “To make sure they partner with the right people, to put them on the right track to where they should be and to invest in the companies that they create.”
When I first started looking at these young people in 2008, nobody was talking about entrepreneurship... but I could see what could come of it.
The journey to 138 Pyramids has a deep backstory when it comes to El Tahri’s own role. A graduate of Cairo University and alumna of both the Harvard Business School and London Business School, she landed her first job as an investment banker in 1980 at Chase National Bank of Egypt (which would go on to become CIB). 14 years on, she dipped toes in the unknown waters of entrepreneurship in 1994, when she launched one of Egypt’s first brokerage firms, Delta Securities Egypt. Considered one of the most influential players in Egypt’s early capital markets, her experience, acumen and nous would see her becoming the first woman elected to sit on the board of the Egyptian Stock Exchange for two consecutive terms between 1997 and 2003. She also founded ABN AMRO Delta Asset Management in 1997 and Delta Capital Investments in 2006, giving her what she believes is a unique vantage point as both entrepreneur and investor.
“138 Pyramids is part of my serial entrepreneurship,” she says of a venture that first came to fruition as Delta Shield for Investment, on the heels of a new wave of opportunity for Egypt’s youth promised by the January 25th Revolution of 2011. Out of it came Delta Inspire as a professional management arm and 138 Pyramids as a funding arm that works in more currencies than just funding. “We don’t give them money and leave them,” she explains. “We provide networking, accounting, regular follow-ups - we even have a relationship manager that is a vital part of the company.”
When asked what 138 Pyramids looks for, she without any hesitation says that the entrepreneurs themselves is paramount, as is a constructive working relationship. "Passion is of course a great thing to have, but it's also about readiness to listen,” she explains. “At the end of the day, this is a partnership, so how willing are you to listen?” Scalability is another key factor for El Tahri and co., while the creation of job opportunities, both direct and indirect, is another factor it holds in high regard.
It’s her first answer that reveals a particular point of irritation, however. While the launch of 138 Pyramids is based on the depth of talent that exists in Egypt, that same talent is often the crux of a common issue: ego.
“Egypt is full of talent, but the one negative thing I’ve seen is tied to the idea that everyone wants to be an owner,” she says. “They all come in with a valuation before they’ve even started anything - it has nothing to do with valuations at the beginning,” she laughs, no doubt recalling one or two inflated egos she’s come by in her time.
Leaning on her own entrepreneurship, El Tahri looks for less tangible elements, asserting that securing the right partners and seeding is the first step to taking a startup forward, before then looking at how one can capture market share and achieve growth. She refuses to use funding as a totalling barometer for success, for example, instead wanting to look at how profitable the startup in question is or can be.
“This mentality of ‘I have a valuation from the very beginning’ has made us retreat from business that we could have gone into,” she tells, adding that while this line of thinking cant be dismissed as being ‘wrong’, it does speak of the immaturity of the market, a phenomenon that she has witnessed and navigated several times over.
“When the capital markets opened, everybody wanted to be a broker,” she says while refraining from rolling her eyes. “Later on everybody wanted to be an asset manager, then everybody wanted to be an investment banker. Today everybody wants to be in private equity. Having been there many a time, I know exactly how it works, but I always love to be the starting point, because it’s difficult. I like to open the market and so when people come in, I feel like I’ve done something worthwhile.”
Over the past five years, I've met so many entrepreneurs and been blown off my feet.
For every bloated ego, however, there are many more truly inspired entrepreneurs in Egypt, according to El Tahri, which circles back to what 138 Pyramids was founded on: local talent.
“Egyptians are so street-smart,” she says with a grin. “They always find a way to do things. Over the past five years, I've met so many entrepreneurs - whether we’ve invested them or they’ve just come by us - and I’ve been blown off my feet. Everyday I realise that this is the place to be working in.” Citing the Egyptian government’s recent focus on SMEs and entrepreneurship, she has seen what we call the ‘ecosystem’ evolve and grow beyond what she imagined a decade or so ago.
“When I first started looking at these young people in 2008, nobody was talking about entrepreneurship, but I could see what could come of it,” she recalls. “The first company I backed was Inertia. It was three young people who today sit in the same league as the biggest real estate and construction businesses in Egypt.”
“In my first company Delta, we worked with Orascom, which was such a small company. Today they have El Gouna and presence in Switzerland, Oman and Montenegro - but it was actually an SME at the time.” El Tahri, with all the sincerity one could imagine, envisions this for other homegrown companies, no matter how small and regardless of the sector in which it oprates in.”
“Why, with a venture capital mind, can’t we think that the small companies we have can become big? Why can’t Feteera [Egyptian F&B chain] become the international name for feteer like Simit Sirayi of Turkey? Why can’t Foool Tank do the same as Zooba [and expand to the US]?”
El Tahri goes on to assert that if you have a good, scalable idea, all you need is marketing and proper commercialisation - something that 138 Pyramids is doing by giving entrepreneurs the base from which to reach for higher things and again feeding into the notion that 138 Pyramids works with a much more valuable currency than money: guidance.
“The startups that have come in and really grown much faster than others are the ones that are listening, that are taking the mentoring seriously, the ones asking us,” she says. “I always say, you work us, tell us what you need and we can see how we can contribute.”
In one case, we were told ‘who are you to tell me what I want? I’m the CEO if the company.'
Naturally, not every deal has worked out. Of the current 138 Pyramids portfolio, El Tahri estimates that around 40% have the potential to be big - not unicorn big, she admits, but big nonetheless. She also estimates that between 35-40 % are startups that might be growing slowly, but remain viable businesses and are hitting one of the important criteria of creating employment opportunities. The remaining 20-25%, meanwhile, didn’t work out for one reason or another. They were either simply considered write-offs, or sold back their shares. For El Tahri, though, it all comes back to that willingness to listen and take on the non-financial incentives of partnering with 138 Pyramids.
“In one case, we were told ‘who are you to tell me what I want, I’m the CEO of the company?’,” she reveals. “We’ve had people who blame us for everything wrong that happens - we’re helping, we’re not running the company!”
Despite these bumps in the road, the instances of what could have been and the infancy of the market, El Tahri is unworried and unhurried. She sees Egypt for what it can be, but understands that a large part of it has to be left to play out on its own. Despite this, her goal remains the same. “I want us to one day have 138 companies in our portfolio that can be iconic.”
Learn more about 138 Pyramids here.
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