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3 Continents, 95 Speakers, 11,000 Connections: Looking Back at Startups Without Borders Summit 2020

For some, the hybrid format might have been a case of making the best of a bad situation. For SWB, it galvanised and offered exciting opportunities.

There was a real chance that this year’s Startups Without Borders Summit wouldn’t go ahead, on account of a certain pandemic that has been laying siege to all and any semblance of real life, indiscriminately and unapologetically. When you think of what SWB stands for, however, what it aims to do, this was the opportune moment for founder Valentina Primo to lead the line for the refugee and immigrant entrepreneurs that she so wholeheartedly champions. The limitations imposed by COVID-19 weren't going to stop her. The limitations of travel weren’t going to stop SWB from bringing influential figures and industry heavyweights from coming together.

And so three stages across three continents were set up - in Cairo, Amsterdam and San Francisco - and the hybrid virtual/on-ground summit hosted a bumper 48 sessions featuring 95 speakers all in one day, under the fitting title, ‘A Brave New World’.

When faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to turn a challenge into an innovative idea: creating a hybrid online-offline event that could transcend borders across continents. And, despite initially thinking it would be more challenging, the results proved that we can create a more powerful impact by leveraging technology: giving people who are often limited from travelling the opportunity to connect with investors and mentors from all over the world.”
Valentina Primo, founder of Startups Without Borders

Proceedings kicked-off on the highest of notes, with Prince Constantijn van Oranje taking the virtual stage for the opening. Royal status aside, Prince Constantijn is one of the Netherlands’ most ardent supporters of entrepreneurship as the envoy at tech accelerator, TechLeap.NL, and the founder of the Netherlands’ biggest entrepreneurial event, Startup Fest Europe.  (pictured below with Primo)

It set the tone for what was a hustling, bustling day of talks, panels, fireside chats. The sessions were concise but rich, digestible but insightful, all channelled into the goal of discussing this ‘brave new world’, this ‘new wormal’, as we get to grips with a post-Corona world that has bred new opportunities as much as it has new challenges. Some of the highlight speakers included General Manager of Dell Technologies; Roberto Croci, Managing Director of Microsoft for Startups MEA; Eamonn Carey, Managing Director of Techstars London; Selina Bieber, Senior Regional Director of GoDaddy MENA, Turkey and South Africa; and Ramez T Shehadi, Managing Director of Facebook MENA - giants in their respective fields. The summit also welcomed a host of the most prolific investors and VCs, members of the ecosystem that are breaking the mould and backing the increasing diversity on the entrepreneurial landscape, including Backstage Capital, Unconventional Ventures, Included VC and Digitalundivided.

Knowing the hardship that many migrants and refugees go through, their choice to become entrepreneurs and be leaders in their communities is really hard, but it’s really powerful and is something I think we should embrace. I hope we can collaborate to see more successful business by migrants so that they can also fulfill their own potential and be role models for others. Prince Constantijn van Oranje

But it was arguably away from the stages that the summit really shone with some unique offerings, not least the brilliant Startup Country Tours. The innovative feature guided attendees through four of the most exciting ecosystems on the planet. The first two, San Francisco and Amsterdam, had those in the know nodding in agreement - but it’s the other two that raised eyebrows: Estonia and Cyprus, two of the richest and most welcoming ecosystems going.

Anett Numa, Digital Transformation Adviser at the e-Estonia Briefing Centre, led the Estonia tour, taking attendees through the nitty-gritty of how entrepreneurs can become Estonian e-citizens and launch/expand a startup there. The Cyprus leg of the tour was arguably even more dynamic, thanks to impact-centred accelerator, Changelabs, which operates out of the island. Founder Karim Samra went one further than just playing tour-guide and used the chance to launch a special Changelabs startup registration package that supports startups moving into Cyprus as a way to enter Europe and reep the rewards of an ecosystem that has been earmarked as one of the best places to be right now for any young, emerging entrepreneur.

Samra also announced the launch of Changelabs' brand new first-of-its-kind accelerator for refugee entrepreneurs in Lebanon, which will target 30 startups. Divided over two cohorts, the startups will all receive funding, as well as day-to-day support in their scaling. 

Another of the highlight features of the summit came in the form of the Investor's Room, which matched entrepreneurs with suitable investors for one-on-one sessions. The sessions were undertaken in partnership with was undertaken in collaboration with GIZ Egypt, Berkeley SkyDeck, Cairo Angels and MedAngels - hige names among many others who threw their support behind SWB this year. Facebook, GoDaddy, GIZ Egypt, Nyenrode Business University Amsterdam, Hult International Business School and AUC Venture Lab all had roles to play in the summit, and their involvement speaks volumes about the impact SWB is having.

While we are focusing on the moment, the now, the need for SMBs to evolve through this critical period, our aspiration and long-term goal is to see these businesses navigate, expand and ultimately thrive. All of this and more is core to our company principle to promote economic opportunity and helps to illustrate our commitment to SMBs and their success. One thing we can all relate to from COVID-19 is how small the world has become and how connected we all are to each other. We are focused on making it easier for businesses of all sizes to connect with their customers irrespective of where they are in the world. Ramez T. Shehadi, Managing Director of Facebook MENA

Looking to the next annual edition of the summit, the 2020 success does beg one question: if, by this time next year, COVID-19 is no longer a barrier, does SWB go back to a traditional on-ground format? Or does it continue to embrace this ‘brave new world’, a place where the rules of yesteryear are rapidly becoming outdated? Does Primo utilise this unique hybrid format again? Who knows. What we can say, however, is that Primo and co have elevated the format from a plan-b, to a uniquely encompassing and far-reaching platform that couldn’t be more poetic in how it so perfectly speaks of the growing relevance of some of society’s most marginalised.

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