Soukie Speaks

How to develop a stronger culture of mentorship for startups in MENA

Nader Sabry was born in Canada to Egyptian parents who immigrated to the country in the 1960s. His father was an earth scientist and his mother was a fashion designer. So growing up, Nader developed a deep appreciation for both science and design. After graduating from high school, Nader pursued a bachelor’s degree in business communication at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, during which time he also started his own entrepreneurial journey. Then, after working for many years, he decided to pursue an MBA in strategy at Cambridge University, where he further developed his longtime passion for using entrepreneurship to solve social problems. For the last couple of years, Nader has lived in the UAE where he has built a very diverse career for himself.

In addition to being a serial entrepreneur (who has helped found several successful startups and raised over $20 million in early-stage venture capital) Nader has also served as an adviser to governments and fortune 1000 companies and held several key positions in Dubai. Positions that include the Chief Strategist for the Dubai Department of Economic Development, the Director of Strategy for the Dubai Foreign Investment Office and the Head of Innovation and Thought Leadership at A.T. Kearney. Last but not least, Nader is also a passionate youth advocate who tries to inspire young people living in developing nations to embrace science and technology through his Get2space initiative- a program he established in 2014 in partnership with the US Space Foundation.

Currently, Nader is the CEO and founder of TIMEZ5, which is a Canadian space technology company certified by NASA’s Space Foundation and a winner of the Global Islamic Economy Summit Innovation award from His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum in 2013. TIMEZ5 is the world’s first health and wellness lifestyle company that focuses on helping customers optimize their physio-spiritual experience through innovative products. The company’s flagship product is a physiological prayer mat, which aims to help people enjoy their prayer and meditation more by helping them reduce their pain, improve their posture and increase their energy.

While Nader is continuously trying to disrupt the health and wellness markets in the Islamic economy by using innovative technology, that’s not the only thing that he’s trying to disrupt. As an entrepreneur who has been mentored and offered mentorship to others, Nader knows the great value of this experience and he would like to see a change in the quality of mentorship in MENA region’s startup ecosystem. In this interview, I talk to Nader about the current culture of mentorship for startups in the MENA region and what needs to change in order to develop a stronger, more effective one.

1) How do you know when a mentor is a good fit for your business and what challenges do you think entrepreneurs face when trying to find the right mentor in the current culture of mentorship in the MENA’s startup ecosystem? 

I believe that mentorship is the key to success for any startup and finding the right mentorship isn’t always easy. I also believe that it’s important to distinguish between free mentorship and compensated mentorship. Although there are several free resources (e.g. several key accelerators and incubators have a roster of mentors that entrepreneurs can connect and seek guidance from) and access points for entrepreneurs to get help in the initial phases of their business, it’s also important for entrepreneurs to find ways to compensate mentors who add value. In order to ensure that mentors continue giving them the support they need to grow themselves and their businesses.

Having said that, I would like to also highlight that compensation doesn’t always have to translate into hard cash. There are three ways that you can break down the idea of compensation: cash, equity or some mix of the two. For entrepreneurs who have a limited budget, I recommend using free help initially, as it’s an excellent way to determine whether a mentor is a good fit for your business and worth investing in. When it comes to determining whether a mentor is a good fit, I think that the following three factors need to be kept in mind:

  • Their technical expertise;
  • Their business experience;
  • Their “cultural alignment.”

For most entrepreneurs, the first factor should be obvious. As far as a potential mentor’s business expertise is concerned, I always advise entrepreneurs to look for mentors who are entrepreneurs and have started, scaled and successfully exited from at least one business- if not more. Not only does personal experience with the full startup cycle give mentors a better understanding of their mentees’ struggles, it also improves the way they advise them to overcome these struggles. Thus, helping entrepreneurs bridge any gaps they may have in their knowledge and expertise, as they go through the different phases that they will go through as a business.

However, I believe that the most important factor in determining whether a mentor is a good fit for you (or not) is to understand to what extent they’re culturally aligned with your startup. In other words, do their values align with what you and your startup stand for? Will they be there when you really need them to be? Last, but not least, do they have what it takes to help you get the real results that you need to move your business forward? Although mentors shouldn’t execute any advice they give on their mentee’s behalf, they can play an instrumental role in guiding entrepreneurs to achieve their goals.

One of the biggest concerns that I have about entrepreneurs looking for a mentor in the MENA region is that almost everyone they’ll speak to in this process will try to convince them they’re an expert in something- even if they’re not. Consequently, it’s absolutely vital for entrepreneurs to stay focused and alert during their search for a mentor. Entrepreneurs can reduce the likelihood of getting stuck with a so-called expert by:

  • Asking closed-ended questions to ascertain the expertise of a potential mentor candidate and then follow up with open-ended questions to see what their thought processes are like;
  • Expressing their most pressing concerns to mentors and seeing how they respond;
  • Asking mentors to share successful solutions from past experiences that might help them with a current problem they’re facing.

If a mentor’s responses are genuine and useful, then the likelihood is that they know what they’re talking about and they’re qualified to help you grow your business.

 2) In your opinion, what’s the best way for startups in the MENA region to find mentors ?

Personally, I think that accelerators and incubators are a great starting point. Therefore, I highly recommend current and aspiring entrepreneurs to spend some time in their local accelerators and incubators, so they can network and introduce themselves to the program managers. Once entrepreneurs can build a relationship with these program managers, they can ask them for introductions to mentors who might be a good fit for their startup. Subscribing to your local incubator and accelerators’ mailing lists and attending their events is also a great way to engage with other entrepreneurs and meet potential mentors.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Having said that, entrepreneurs shouldn’t limit themselves to incubator and accelerator events. There’s a growing number of startup events across the MENA region, where entrepreneurs can network to find a co-founder, a mentor, investor and much, much more. Linkedin is also a great place to recruit mentors, because many people clearly state on their profiles that they’re open to mentoring startups.

Lastly, I advise entrepreneurs to spend as much time as possible reading about entrepreneurship in general and the MENA region’s budding startup ecosystem in specific. Not only will extensive reading help entrepreneurs become more familiar with the industry jargon, it will also help them get to know the main players in the ecosystem and prepare them for future conversations with potential mentors and investors.

3) What are the biggest challenges in the mentorship culture in the MENA region’s startup ecosystem and what needs to be done to overcome them?

As I mentioned before, I think that one of the biggest challenges in the mentorship culture in the region’s startup ecosystem is that everyone thinks that they’re a so-called expert. Thus, making it difficult for entrepreneurs to know who the real experts are, which could pose a real threat to the growth of our regional startup ecosystem. Keeping that in mind, I think that MENA-based entrepreneurs need to get smart by breaking down their mentorship search and looking for true experts who can help them with:

  • The overall growth of their business in the long-term;
  • The growth of specific parts of their business in the long-term;
  • The growth of specific parts of their business in the short-term (i.e. a single problem)

By breaking up their mentorship search in this manner, entrepreneurs can identify the specific expertise that they need, so they can start to figure out who can really help them grow their businesses. However, entrepreneurs need to remember that it’s not always easy to get the attention or time of good mentors, because their expertise are in high demand. Subsequently, entrepreneurs need to find different ways to help ease the burden on their mentors’ time by making their mentorship sessions simple, quick and focused.

4) As an entrepreneur who’s currently trying to disrupt the health and wellness sectors in the Islamic economy, what’s your advice to MENA-based entrepreneurs who are trying to innovate in other sectors but can’t find the support or mentorship that they need to do so?

I believe that entrepreneurs can always find support, they just have to be resourceful and creative in doing so. That’s why I always try to remind entrepreneurs that some of the best solutions are found in the least expected places. Therefore, I highly encourage every entrepreneur to:

  • Visit local and regional accelerators and incubators;
  • Attend entrepreneurial events of different sizes and themes;
  • Join groups that are organized on platforms such as meetup.com, Eventbrite and Linkedin;
  • Read a lot about how other people are trying to tackle similar problems and connect and learn from them- when possible.

Thanks to the internet and modern technology, we live in a truly global age. With that in mind, MENA-based entrepreneurs shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to potential mentors who live in other places. At the same time, they shouldn’t underestimate the potential candidates who might be just a couple steps away from them right here in the Arab world.

6) What advice do you have for startup mentors and mentees who want to optimize their relationship in order to ensure that both parties are receiving and adding value?

As I said before, the best way to optimize a mentorship relationship is to determine the length of the mentorship relationship (long term vs. short term), the kind of mentorship that a mentor can offer (business vs. technical) and the scope of the mentorship (specific vs. broad). Once an entrepreneur can define these expectations, they can clearly communicate the following points to any prospective mentor:

  • What their vision is and why;
  • What problem(s) they need to solve;
  • Which problem (or part of the problem) they need their mentor to help solve.

Photo by Paul Bence on Unsplash

The ability to answer this specific sequence of questions gives both parties a clear understanding of their commitment to each other. Thus, establishing a strong foundation for their relationship- no matter how short or long it is.

Finally, I think it’s important to emphasize that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Although a mentor might genuinely want to help an entrepreneur grow their startup, there will eventually come a point when they will need to be compensated in some way, shape or form. That being said, that doesn’t mean that entrepreneurs need to pay their mentors from the get go for their mentorship. However, when an entrepreneur has determined that a particular mentor is the best fit for their business, they shouldn’t wait around. They should lock them in with a clear and specific compensation package to keep them motivated and engaged.

6) If a startup mentor or mentee feels that their relationship is becoming less productive, how would advise them to improve it? Alternatively, if the relationship is beyond repair, how would you advise them to end the relationship on good terms- keeping all of the MENA’s cultural sensitivities and expectations in mind?

As any seasoned entrepreneur will tell you, not all mentors will stay with you throughout your entrepreneurial journey. Mentors will come and go and that’s completely normal. The most important thing is that both mentor and mentee make the duration and the purpose of their relationship clear from the very start. For example, if a mentor has committed themselves to helping you with a specific short-term problem, then your relationship already has a clear objective and a clear end date. Consequently, you should keep this in mind and manage your expectations from day one.

On the other hand, if a mentor or an mentee feels that something is just not working, then it’s their responsibility to end the relationship before it becomes toxic for both parties. If a mentor or a mentee feels like the other party isn’t honoring their commitment then they should:

  • Clearly state that things aren’t working out;
  • Clearly explain why they’re not working out;
  • Clearly outline the impact that the problem is having on both parties;
  • Come to a mutual agreement to not continue working together.

Although it’s important to be aware of the cultural differences in communication or the generational differences that may exist in any mentorship relationship (especially in a multicultural place like the UAE) it’s also important to realize that too much beating around the bush can ultimately create bigger problems for both parties. So, I suggest that both mentors and entrepreneurs try to deal with their issues in an honest, straight forward and timely fashion.

7) Any last thoughts or advice for mentors or mentees in the MENA region’s startup ecosystem?

Unfortunately, I think that good mentorship is highly underestimated. I believe that my personal success is the product of good mentorship from several people who have provided me with invaluable personal, business and technical guidance for a very long time. Not only did these people believe in me, they also supported me and made sure that I stayed on the right track. All of my mentors have played an instrumental role in my success on all levels and I greatly appreciate their wisdom, because it has all added up and helped me to become the successful and fulfilled person that I am today.

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