The MIT Arab Alumni Association was recognized for the creation of the UnliMITed podcast with a Great Dome Award at the 2022 MIT Alumni Leadership Conference (ALC) that took place on campus September 16–17.
At the height of the pandemic in 2020, members of the MIT Arab Alumni Association (MIT AAA) were brainstorming ways to keep the MIT Arab community connected while in-person events weren’t an option. After the club launched a successful webinar series, Dana Dabbousi ’20 floated the idea to start a podcast featuring intimate conversations between Arab MIT alumni.
“We wanted to make it a little bit more personal, a little bit more of those interactions you would get at a conference,” Dabbousi says, “where you’re just hearing about someone’s story and how they got to where they are.”
From there, the UnliMITed podcast took off, and it has been going strong for three seasons. The first season, hosted by Dabbousi, features members of the MIT AAA executive board. Season two, hosted by Areen Bahour ’16, is geared toward incoming MIT students and prospective students and features young alumni speaking about their MIT experience. Season three, the current season, hosted by Omar Obeya ’18, MEng ’19, features accomplished alumni sharing stories about their careers and MIT memories.
The podcast’s founding team includes Dabbousi, Bahour, Obeya, and Mamoun Toukan AF ’17, MAP ’18, with support from Mayce El Mostafa MEng ’13, MIT AAA president from 2020 to 2022.
“We hope that the podcast becomes a go-to source to all Arab alumni to share their stories and learn from one another,” says El Mostafa. “We also hope prospective students get to identify with any of the available stories, thus encouraging them to pursue their dreams.”
At this year’s Alumni Leadership Conference, the MIT AAA is being recognized for the creation of the UnliMITed podcast with a Great Dome Award, the highest honor the MIT Alumni Association bestows upon any of its organizations. The award is given in recognition of distinguished service to the Alumni Association and MIT by alumni organizations.
“The recognition of the MIT Great Dome Award was the most humbling and surprising part of this experience,” Toukan says. “And I’d say it’s a great motive for the team and the next board to think of new creative initiatives, as well as taking this podcast forward.”
Listen to this episode of the Slice of MIT podcast to hear Obeya’s interview with Dr. Ayman Ismail MCP ’99, PhD ’09. Dr. Ismail is the director of the AUC Venture Lab at the American University in Cairo’s School of Business.
You’re listening to the Slice of MIT podcast, a production of the MIT Alumni Association.
Dana Dabbousi: The podcast I think holds a special role in our hearts in terms of connecting our alumni. Which is one of our main goals as a club is to connect MIT to the Arab world and the Arab world to MIT.
Host: If you asked Dana Dabbousi what she thought she might be doing after receiving her undergraduate degree from MIT in 2020, founding and hosting a podcast probably wouldn’t have been on the list. But while serving on the board of directors for the MIT Arab Alumni Association, she had an idea for how to engage the MIT Arab community.
With the support of then board president Mayce El Mostafa, Master of Engineering in 2013, Dana started the UnliMITed podcast, a production of the MIT Arab Alumni Association. Here’s Mayce:
Mayce El Mostafa: The UnliMITed podcast, which is called belaa houdood in Arabic, is a conversation between two MIT alums highlighting their paths that led them to MIT, their memories of MIT, and their current and past career achievements. To avoid losing connectivity, UnliMITed was and is supposed to be a way to keep Arab alums connected and a way to share their story to inspire new Arab generations of MIT.
We hope that the podcast becomes a go-to source to all Arab alumni to share their stories and learn from one another. We also hope prospective students get to identify with any of the available stories, thus encouraging them to pursue their dreams.
Host: At this year’s Alumni Leadership Conference, the MIT Arab Alumni Association is being recognized for the creation of the UnliMITed podcast with a Great Dome Award, the highest honor the MIT Alumni Association bestows upon any of its organizations. The award is given to alumni organizations in recognition of distinguished service to the greater MIT Alumni Association and MIT.
Dabbousi: It felt like our work was worth it, at least within the MIT sphere, but I think even more than that we've received a few messages on LinkedIn. We've received some emails from students or people back home who were really inspired by some of the stories we shared, and I think that to me was even more meaningful than an award could be.
Host: Dana works on the podcast with Mayce and some of her fellow MIT Arab Alumni Association members, including host and editor of UnliMITed season three, Omar Obeya, undergraduate class of 2018 and Master of Engineering in 2019; host and editor of UnliMITed season two, Areen Bahour, undergraduate class of 2016; and editor of UnliMITed season one and two, Mamoun Toukan, Master in Supply Chain Management in 2018. Each episode features conversations with Arab alumni about their time at MIT and the career paths they pursued after graduation.
On today’s Slice of MIT podcast, we’re bringing you a recent episode from UnliMITed in which Omar interviews Dr. Ayman Ismail, who first received a Master of City Planning degree from MIT in 1999 and then returned to the Institute ten years later to complete a PhD in 2009. Dr. Ismail is the director of the AUC Venture Lab at the American University in Cairo’s School of Business. Before we get into that episode, we’re going to hear a little bit about how the podcast got started from Dana, Omar, Mayce, and Mamoun.
Host: Let me take you back to the beginning: It’s 2020, the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, and Dana is serving as the director of conferences on the MIT Arab Alumni Association board of directors.
Dabbousi: What that usually means in a nonpandemic situation would mean just putting on an in-person conference where a lot of people get to network and meet other fellow alumni in the region.
Once the pandemic hit, my role was limited in terms of what I could do. I knew virtual conferences were kind of getting saturated on the market. No one really wanted to be attending four-, five-day conferences online on Zoom.
Host: The board decided to pivot their community engagement strategy from in person to digital channels; first, by launching a webinar series.
Dabbousi: It was all really a great way for us to adapt and see what our capabilities were, and I think it worked really well for the team, considering we’re a pan-Arab group. Our entire executive board isn’t even in one country, and our alumni, our members, no one is in the same region. So this kind of virtual setting was really effective for the kind of work we were doing
Host: So looking to build off the success of the webinar series, the team decided to pilot a podcast, with Dana hosting the first season. Here’s Mamoun explaining how the idea for the UnliMITed podcast came about:
Mamoun Toukan: Dana Dabbousi came up with the idea of having an intimate one-on-one conversation between alumni and students to share their MIT experience with the world. We launched the first season, introducing the MIT Arab Alumni Board and their advisors. And I believe it was a successful experimentation that helped build momentum to reach out to other members of the MIT community and generate more content and episodes forthe podcast.
Dabbousi: We wanted to take it a step further. We wanted to make it a little bit more personal, a little bit more of those interactions you would get at a conference. Where you’re just hearing about someone’s story, about how they got to where they are, and this was meant to really kind of open up those horizons for people and to what you could be doing, and so that’s where UnliMITed came from.
Host: After that, the podcast took off and it’s been going strong for three seasons. Here’s Omar:
Omar Obeya: My favorite aspect is that it resembles the everyday conversations I have with international students and alumni. Nostalgia about home, nostalgia about campus, and a lot of serendipity after graduation.
Dabbousi: We’re all Arab hosts as well as Arab interviewees. So it’s really a great way for us to visualize role models, people who inspire us and make us want to be the best version of ourselves.
Host: As you’ve probably figured out at this point, it’s no coincidence that UnliMITed, the English name for the podcast, includes the letters M, I, and T. But according to Dana, the podcast’s name has greater significance in both English and Arabic beyond choosing a word that includes those letters.
Dabbousi: I think UnliMITed really stuck because of the message. That the path to MIT, at MIT, and post-MIT can really be very unlimited. You don’t have to just visualize one idea of what that could look like and say, I don’t fall into that.
In Arabic, it’s belaa houdood, which basically means unlimited but more literally means without borders. So that kind of hits also to the fact that we are a pan-Arab group; we don’t really limit our audience to just part of the Arab world. We really want to reach every single person in the region and tell them this path is possible for you.
Host: And if another MIT alumni group wanted to start their own podcast, Mayce, Dana, Omar, and Mamoun offer this advice:
Dabbousi: I would say go for it.
El Mostafa: Go with your guts, go with your first impressions, make it fun.
Obeya: Find someone to brainstorm with, take action, just start small and iterate from there.
Toukan: There’s so much resources online to learn about how to start the podcast. Start with episodes that are within reach of your community, just to get the first episode out there.
Dabbousi: I think the first thing that happens is you start to doubt yourself. Is there really a need for another podcast out there? And I think the answer is yes, especially if the kind of people you’re interviewing are hard to reach. So just think about this person that you have a connection to could potentially be connected to a much wider network of people who could really benefit from the knowledge that they have to share.
Toukan: I’d say going from zero knowledge about podcasts to learning and putting it all together and actually launching it was extremely rewarding. It was a real team effort, led by volunteers working remotely at different time zones.
Dabbousi: If anyone from an MIT alumni organization is doing this, then they can do this. We survived MIT; we can do this.
Host: So with that, we’re excited to be featuring an episode of the UnliMITed podcast. And since Omar hosts this particular episode, we asked him to give us some background on what we’re about to hear.
Obeya: UnliMITed is all about showing the unlimited path that students can take after graduation. And Dr. Ayman’s journey is a real manifestation of working and succeeding in multiple of these paths. He studied engineering, business, and economics. He worked in consulting and in the entrepreneurial arena. He moved from Egypt to the States. He studied and worked in the States, and then went back, starting new chapter, new career in Egypt. So in this episode, I was interested to learn from Dr. Ayman, how he made these choices, and the lessons he learned from them. And also since Dr. Ayman is a very big name in the entrepreneurial arena in Egypt. I didn’t miss the chance to learn from him what’s the difference between the startup scene in Egypt and in the US.
Host: You can find more info on the UnliMITed podcast by visiting the MIT Arab Alumni Association’s website at mitaaa.alumgroup.mit.edu. A link to their podcast is also in the show notes for this episode. Now, here’s the UnliMITed episode with MIT alumnus Dr. Ayman Ismail.
Omar Obeya: Integrating study in the US can be an overwhelming experience. Between cultural challenges and surprising opportunities, the possibilities are just unlimited. This is UnliMITed by the MIT Arab Alumni Association, the show for interviewing MIT alumni to explore their motivations, culture shocks, nice moments, and reflections on their journeys. And I’m Omar Obeya, MIT class 2018, hosting this season.
Our guest today has more degrees than I can keep track of. He did a bachelor’s in engineering at the American University in Cairo, AUC, graduating in 1995. In the same year, he started an MBA, also in AUC, and graduated in 1997. He then did the master’s in MIT in city planning, graduating in 1999. For the following five years, he worked as a consultant in McKinsey, and then for a short project at the World Bank. He then went back to MIT, but this time for a PhD in international economic development. A few years later, our guest decided to go back to his hometown, Cairo. Today, he’s the director of the AUC Venture Lab and he’s the cofounder, angel investor, or board member of several fast-growing startups in FinTech, microfinance, and logistics. In 2012, he was selected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. Our guest today is Dr. Ayman Ismail. Dr. Ayman, ahlam bik [Arabic: welcome].
Dr. Ayman Ismail: Ahlam bik, Omar. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
Obeya: Thank you. So usually our show is divided into three parts. Usually we start with discussing your innovation of applying to MIT and traveling to the US, and then we ask you about your time on campus, and finally, we go on some reflections about your journey. So to start off, growing up, have you always planned to travel abroad or was it something that you decided on in college?
Ismail: So growing up, I always thought about actually traveling abroad and maybe doing graduate studies. My parents are academics and they’ve both had the opportunity to live abroad and to travel to different parts of the world and to study there. And I always saw this as something that I kind of had as part of my vision or dream after graduation. So yes, it was there, but over time, of course, what happens? And where do you go? And where do you study? And what kind of life do you have? That’s usually what changes with reality.
Obeya: What’s one thing that changed from that initial plan?
Ismail: I think initially I thought that I would spend most of my life in an academic track, but when I first came, I saw many of my friends and colleagues looking at different professional opportunities in the US and I felt that I wanted to get this kind of experience. So very quickly I started looking at, what are the most interesting competitive areas that can give me a broad experience? And that’s when I ended up in consulting.
So I came to basically do my master’s, PhD, go back and practice and teach, become an academic, but I ended up spending probably close to eight to 10 years working in different types of consulting projects in the US and that completely changed my mindset and how I thought about my career. And just one thing that I would advise everybody who would travel. It’s great to go and get a degree from another country and live there a little bit, but you must have a professional experience in addition to that degree. It completely changes your mindset and the way you think about, what do you want to do with your life?
Obeya: So why do you recommend that international students work before going back to their home countries? Are you referring to the importance of hands-on experience, or what are you referring to here exactly?
Ismail: No, I’m basically advising people to actually spend time working, whether before or after, in other countries. So let’s say you’re from whichever part of the world and you go to the US, you do your master’s degree, don’t just go back right after that. Spend some time, work in a company, work in a startup.
Obeya: You’re trying to say that you grow more this way, you get more of the different culture, right?
Ismail: You get to see a different side of the culture. What you would see, whenever you go to another country to a university, universities are very protected spaces. When you go there, things are designed to make the experience encouraging and easy and accessible. But once you start working in a company with other people from so many different backgrounds, you get to see a lot more of what happens in that country, the real culture, the real business practices, challenges, you work with different teams. It’s a completely different environment that gets you outside of the sheltered university space that we create.
Obeya: As a recent grad, I totally approve this message. So Ayman, you completed a bachelor’s degree in engineering, then you did an MBA in AUC. Afterwards, you returned to MIT for another engineering degree. Why did you go for another engineering degree?
Ismail: When I got my MBA, and that was a long time ago, especially in Egypt, it was not perceived in the same way that you would do it right now. So I did it pre-experience, meaning that I had not had a long working professional experience before doing that, and probably that was a mistake. And it was also mostly in an Egyptian context. And I wanted to learn more about business before even getting into the kind of academic PhD track that I wanted to get into, but it kind of changed my mindset about looking for opportunities and jobs and what I want to do in my career. But that change, it took probably several years until, I would say, it matured and translated into action.
When I came to MIT, my objective was basically doing a PhD, and getting into a master’s program is a good entry point to actually getting into a good PhD because you get to know the faculty. It’s much easier to get into your master’s program first, you get to transition to that university, and so on. So that was my plan basically, let me get in there, it’s a better entry point, and prepare for the PhD, which is pretty much what happened afterwards.
Obeya: But did you want to do a PhD in economics or engineering?
Ismail: I wanted a PhD in the same field that I was in, which was basically city planning focusing on information systems. That’s what I was doing, I was focusing on geographic information systems. And that’s what I wanted to do actually. And I applied on it and I got into that program. But then one semester after being in the PhD program, I did not feel that I was happy. So many different reasons, but I actually dropped out of that program, went and worked for five years, and then came back and changed into another field. So that’s why I always say that it’s good to have a lot more experience, practical experience, know what you want before getting into that pre-prescribed path of, “Let me go through the degrees one after the other until I get to the last one and then start thinking about my life.” Reality doesn’t work this way.
Obeya: So you said you weren’t happy in your engineering PhD program. In what ways do economics and engineering differ?
Ismail: So let me correct part of that. I was not happy in my PhD, not because it was in engineering or in a technical field. I was not happy because I don’t think at that point in time I had the maturity to figure out what I wanted to do with that program and I was just moving from one to the other. When you can get into a great program at PhD, you cannot say no to it, but at some point you realize that you don’t really know what you want. So that’s when I took a very tough decision to actually drop out and then go and work. And that’s what helped me explore very different types and different angles of what’s happening out there in the industry.
When I came back, I knew that I wanted to learn something about economic development. I wanted to learn something about why different countries do better and others do worse. I wanted to learn something that would be practical for Egypt and the Middle East. So that took me in a very different path. And I was lucky enough that I can do that kind of program also at MIT and in the same department, so it was an easy transition for me.
So it’s not about which field you like, it’s about, what do you want to do with the degree that you are getting? And making sure that you understand what it means, to understand the jobs that you can get with it, you understand the kind of work that you can do with it in practice. So that’s the most important thing.
Now, how is it different between you calling them engineers and economists or engineering and economics? Well, most of what I was focusing on on the engineering side was more about “how?” How do you do something? How do you solve a problem? How do you build something? It was more oriented towards implementation. The economic development side, which is not exactly economics because it’s looking at how do countries develop from an economic side but also from other multiple dimensions, there was more of asking, “Why?” Why is this happening? Why are those countries like this? Why does this policy work and this doesn’t work? So different kinds of questions and different ways of thinking.
At the end of the day, if you’re using the mindset that you had from your engineering education, structured thinking, quantitative thinking, problem solving, it will serve you very well, but you need to add to your toolkit the why question. I think that’s a question that we don’t ask much when you’re working in a technical field, and it’s probably the most interesting question to ask.
Obeya: So what’s one advice you would give a current MIT student?
Ismail: It’s a lot about asking that why question. Because you get into a program, you get into a specific technical side of it, whether in econ or engineering or pretty much any other field. And I think the faculty and the courses that challenge you most are the ones that tell you, “Okay, so now you know that body of knowledge, you know how to apply it, you need to ask a lot of whys.” Whenever you ask that question, it gets you into really controversies, digging deeper, challenging lots of premises that you have, so it’s a different way of thinking. And I think that’s a very important part that I would advise everybody to just keep asking that question. Sometimes you get annoying for your faculty, but, well, it’s a part of the fun.
Obeya: What about the corporate world? I mean, some companies would sort out the business people from the engineers and let business people do the decision making and ask engineers to focus on execution. And while I don’t generalize, I’ve heard this complaint from a lot of friends, really.
Ismail: I think companies that are very siloed, where you start putting people in buckets, are probably companies that are boring and probably not going to be very successful, and honestly I don’t think they’re worth the time of any MIT graduate to work at. So the companies that are doing interesting work are usually multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, you have people from technology, from business, from social sciences, from so many different dimensions working together. Yes, at some point, everybody needs to own their space, and at some point, everybody needs to worry about a specific part of the business, but when you keep people in silos and when you design a culture or organization that operates in silos, it’s usually not very innovative and also probably not going to go very far.
Obeya: It’s time now for our rapid-fire-questions round regarding life at MIT. So during your time at MIT, where did you live?
Ismail: I lived in different locations. I think out of the seven or eight years that I lived in Cambridge, I probably stayed in six or seven locations. First thing was one of the dorms, I think it was called Edgerton, I don’t know if it’s still there or not.
Ismail: But what I remember is that―
Obeya: Yes, it’s still there.
Ismail: It’s still there.
... I had a view of the MIT nuclear reactor out of my window, so that’s something that I remember very well. And then, after that, I moved around Boston in so many different situations. But when I came back for my PhD later on, I actually decided to buy my own place. It was a probably crazy decision at the time. I still have it till now. It’s a beautiful small condo and close to Central Square, probably one of the best decisions that I did. So if you’re coming to MIT for a PhD and spending a lot of time, look for opportunities like these.
Obeya: Okay, yeah. The best place to eat in your campus?
Ismail: Well, we don’t have many good places. I tried the trucks, I tried many places, and I didn’t like many of them. The only thing I remember is that there was a Moroccan guy who was doing probably the best maqluba in the student center, and I used to come just for that maqluba. I didn’t try anything else. I don’t think he’s there anymore, but I still remember his food, fantastic foods.
Obeya: Favorite activity outside academics?
Ismail: Interesting enough, there was a group of Arabs who are singing classical Arabic music in Boston. They became my best friends, Nabil and Randal and Henni and many others, and I used to spend lots of hours with them singing old classical Arabic music and enjoying that. And I think we performed actually several times in Boston. I think they still play the music and they still meet once a week. So a fantastic opportunity.
Obeya: Favorite place on or near campus?
Ismail: Walking by the Charles River, by far.
Obeya: Yeah. Favorite time of the year in MIT?
Ismail: I like the early fall, late summer, early fall. Once the humidity starts disappearing and before the winter comes in. Beautiful time to walk and enjoy the nature around campus and foliage; it’s just amazing.
Obeya: Favorite nonresidential building in MIT?
Ismail: The Stata building, Frank Gehry’s beautiful building, always makes me question function versus looks. Is it truly functional? But it’s a building that actually [inaudible 00:16:47]. You can never forget walking next to it. I used to call it, it’s the Alice in Wonderland building.
Obeya: Favorite place to work outside lab?
Ismail: Andala Cafe in Central Square. I pretty much wrote my PhD dissertation there. I used to go when they open in the morning, like 8:00, and they closed at 11:00 but let they let me stay until 11:30 or midnight.
Ismail: So I pretty much spent the whole year writing there and I tried every single item in the menu.
Ismail: So a fantastic place, you should go and spend some time there.
Obeya: So now we’re done with questions about your time on campus. And now let’s move to reflections on your journey. You finished your PhD in 2009. Were you thinking about entrepreneurship at all then?
Ismail: Not at all. I mean, when I came back to do my PhD, I decided to explore the international development side, so I was more interested in this World Bank path. I did a project with the World Bank, it was actually in Egypt, looking at the investment climate. Enjoyed it, and then I came back, took some courses. And actually, after I finished my coursework, I started going back to doing consulting and in the same time while writing my thesis.
So 2006, 7, 8, 9, 2010, all of that time, I was actually doing very interesting consulting projects in addition to working on my research. I worked for probably a couple of years doing different projects with the New York Times, different companies in addition to what I did in McKinsey or after that. So that was my focus. And I always thought about building a professional development consulting company. Entrepreneurship came, actually, I would say it was a matter of serendipity, and it probably has to do with when I started moving back to Egypt. Very interesting situation, but that’s when I got into the whole entrepreneurship space, but that was not on my mind earlier by any chance.
Obeya: So how did this transition happen?
Ismail: Most of the big things in my life happened, I would say, by chance. People call it serendipity. So I was planning to spend some time and explore what things looked like in Egypt, see what are the opportunities. I was spending some time also with my family. And then you got the whole revolution in Egypt and the region. So I decided to spend more time, part of it is to be with my family in those times and part of it is actually to try and be part of that historic time with all the good, bad, ugly, and crazy things that happened at that point in time.
So I spent some time there. I wanted to do consulting, but there was very little consulting at that time and place, so started exploring teaching at AUC, at the American University in Cairo, and that’s when I started my career there. And I was basically mandated to look at expanding the entrepreneurship space, and that’s the time when I started focusing on understanding entrepreneurship ecosystems and startups. Of course, it helps when you’re coming from MIT, because that’s one of the top places in the world where you get startups coming or originating, so I learned a lot from there. But we did not have much of an entrepreneurship ecosystem in Egypt, at least the tech-enabled type of venture capital–backed type of entrepreneurship ecosystem.
So started working on this at AUC, building it, collaborating with pretty much everybody who was doing it in Egypt, and suddenly I became completely immersed in that space, working with entrepreneurs, helping build companies, helping build support organizations, work on policy issues, and so on. So that was my transition to that space. And it was honestly a fantastic transition. I mean, I really enjoyed it and I still enjoy every single moment of my work there.
Obeya: So you had three transitions in the same time. You had just relocated to Egypt, you just switched from consulting to entrepreneurship, and you joined a university as faculty. Was it easy to have three transitions at the same time?
Ismail: Look, when you move from one place to another, it’s a good opportunity to change things and to get into something interesting. For me, Egypt at that point was a new place, a new situation, a pretty much actually new career. The whole country was changing in ways, some of them were great, some of them were not so great. And just being part of that, I would say it’s a transformative experience. You start thinking about, what do you want to do? Where do you want to play in that space, whether it’s the country or the context? What do you have to offer? What do you care most about? So you start asking those kinds of existential questions. Of course, they’re questions that you’ll never find a definitive answer to, but it’s something that you continue to evolve.
So what did I do at that point? Well, at AUC, I started working with entrepreneurs. And when you work with entrepreneurs, you learn a lot. You really, really learn a lot. You start building organizations, and so building AUC Venture Lab, and before that I built a program on entrepreneurship. And then after that, introducing majors and minors and then I actually joined several companies as a board member, co-investor, cofounder, whatever you want to call it. So the experience was actually pretty transformative and it still is.
So if you are doing that much change at the same time, yeah, it’s tough. Today, things, I would say, are more settled, but I’m always having the itch that, “Okay, do you want to settle there or do you want to try another something very different, new, whether in the type of work or in the place?” And so on. So I’m always questioning that, but also enjoying what I’m doing.
Obeya: So in general, what is a good sign that you need to make a transition?
Ismail: I don’t think there’s a good time for it, Omar. A lot of these big transitions happen in a very serendipitous way, it’s just by chance. If you feel that you’re not growing or you’re not enjoying or you’re not doing something good or you’re not having the best experience, then it’s time to do that. If you’re enjoying, if you’re learning, if you’re growing, if you are benefiting, if you have that feeling of excitement, then keep doing what you’re doing. So I think it’s not about the time, it’s about a state of mind.
Obeya: That makes sense. So now you’re a cofounder, angel investor, and a board member of several startups. In what ways did your engineering education help you?
Ismail: Look, being an engineer is something that sticks with you all the time. You are basically trained to solve problems, structure problems, think in a good quantitative way, and also skills that stay with you regardless of what you do. So you end up in finance, you end up in economics, you end up in engineering, you end up in management in general, it’s the same mindset. So there’s some technicalities that you’re going to drop from one career to the other, but the way of thinking is going to remain with you, and that’s a great education.
So I would tell people, regardless of what job you’re going to do, an undergraduate engineering education is a fantastic learning experience. So it doesn’t matter what kind of engineering you study and whether you’re going to practice it afterwards or not, it’s just a good education to have.
Obeya: Well, that’s great advice for high schoolers, and I’m sure that’s going to be great news to a lot of engineers, like me, as well. So a lot of our audience are ambitious Arabs who live in the West, but they would be still interested in starting ventures in the Middle East. As someone who works with a lot of startups in the Middle East, what do you think is the main difference between entrepreneurship in the US and entrepreneurship in the Middle East?
Ismail: Look, if you want to do something interesting in entrepreneurship, it’s about disrupting something that already exists. So if you are in the US, look at what’s out there and try to do something different. If you’re in Egypt or in Saudi or Dubai or Morocco or whatever, it’s pretty much the same thing. The only difference then, the context is very different. So in the Middle East, for example, and actually many parts of the world, we’re having a lot of digital transformation happening right now. So things that people used to do in a very traditional way, now because of connectivity, different experiences, different technology, people are doing them in a digital way. Simple things, buying things, lending, your financial experience, your health care experience, your entertainment experience, it’s happening that way. Many of these things already exist in developed markets, but we’re developing them right now in Egypt and in the MENA region and in emerging markets in general. So starting a business around that kind of experience is fantastic. You’re transforming people’s health care experience. You’re transforming people’s financial services experience. You’re transforming people’s mobility, logistics, transportation experience, and so on.
So if you want to come back to the region, look for things that would affect people’s lives, improve them, whether it improve access, improve affordability, improve quality of the service, and try to introduce products and services around that. That’s the kind of entrepreneurship that’s taking place right now. And a lot of money and effort is getting into that. And it also has a lot of impact. Some of these applications, and I don’t mean apps, I mean applications of technology, may already be there in the US, so they’re no
longer in the entrepreneurship realm. So if you are in the US and thinking about entrepreneurship, you might think about deep tech, AI, robotics, nanotech, things that are a little bit more about taking new signs and implementing it into the market.
So those are two different types of entrepreneurship and they look different, and the kind of business building experience you have is also very different. So if you’re going to become an entrepreneur in the US, look for what’s the latest cutting-edge knowledge and science. And try to build something around it. If you want to be an entrepreneur in emerging markets, look at a service or product that is not being done in a good way that affects the lives of a lot of people, so it’s large, it’s massive, and go and transform the human experience around it. Huge opportunity on either side of the ocean, but very different approach and way of thinking about it.
Obeya: So what is the most challenging part about entrepreneurship in the Middle East? For instance, do you think that the fact that consumers are not as familiar with technology, or even credit cards, for instance, presents a challenge for startups in the Middle East today?
Ismail: Look, everything you look at and you think that this is a problem is actually an opportunity. So you come to Egypt and you say, “Well, we don’t have a lot of people using credit card.” Well, that’s wonderful. That’s a huge opportunity for actually selling FinTech solutions, like mobile wallets, and other digital solutions that can get people to pay and buy for things in a very easy way that does not include using credit card. So there’s a huge opportunity in emerging markets for leapfrogging generations of work or generations of products that are actually taking place that have taken place in the US or in developed markets. So if you want to go there, you have to start thinking about every single problem that you see as an opportunity.
The challenges usually have to do with the speed of implementation. So some things you can do in a month in the US, you might spend 2, 3, 6 months doing in Egypt, for example, and that’s part of just dealing with that environment. So you will find that you’re moving a little bit slower on some dimensions, but what you think are problems are not actually the problems. They’re usually the opportunities that you can transform spaces and actually make a lot of wealth around it.
Obeya: So let’s take acquiring talent as an example. Can you elaborate on why hiring takes more time in the Middle East?
Ismail: I mean, you take everything. Hiring people, that’s a huge part. It takes a lot longer to identify talent and go through the right processes. Sometimes cutting deals with businesses, the B2B transactions, they take a lot longer compared to when you can cut a deal with a company in the US. So if it’s going to take you a month, it might take you here three or six. It’s going to take you six months, it might take you a year or more. So these are the things that actually take longer, and those are the challenges. Those are very different kinds of challenges. They’re more about institutional challenges rather than anything else.
Obeya: So let’s take acquiring talent as an example. Can you elaborate on why hiring takes more time in the Middle East?
Ismail: So if you are trying to hire people in the US, you are probably going to look at some of the recruitment websites or LinkedIn and the process itself to recruit might take a lot less. If you’re hiring in Egypt, now you see more people at LinkedIn, but hiring online is very nascent. So there are a couple of companies, Wuzzuf and Forasna, that are actually launched online job portals and websites. Those are new and they’re trying to get into the market and tell people, “Rather than hiring through word of mouth or traditional social media, you can actually post your jobs. You can actually get a nice pipeline. You can interview it in a professional way and screen it,” and so on.
So you’re starting to see these things changing. They were not like this 2, 3, 5 years ago. I think I remember when I was growing up. If you want to look for a job, you would go and download Al-Ahram, the newspaper, and look in the classified ads for jobs. It was the same, by the way, in the US, but they moved to websites, recruitment websites, LinkedIn, and similar platforms, probably a couple of decades before Egypt or the region in general. So now we’re catching up on these things, and that’s what I mean by digital transformation. You’re starting to see many things that you are changing the way that you’re doing, and that’s an opportunity.
Obeya: So these were the challenges. What are the top factors for startup success in the Middle East?
Ismail: First thing is the team and the people you pick to work with you. You are as successful as the people who are going to work with you, so you need to be very careful and have really fantastic people working with you.
Second thing, especially in a place like Egypt, whenever you’re getting into an opportunity, it’s going to be hard and you’re going to work for a long time, many years on it, so you might as well make sure that you are solving a problem that’s worthy of solving. You’re getting into a market that’s big enough. So having the vision early enough that says, “This is an area that is big and interesting, and I can do something to transform it,” and if I do that, it’s going to be big. So having the vision of picking a place that is big is very important.
Third thing is about persistence. You’re going to be falling and falling 100 times, and having that persistence is extremely important, especially in a challenging environment. I mean, it’s a tough walk when you are starting a business in a place like Egypt or in developing emerging markets in general, so you have to have that persistence and stamina with you all the time and a lot of optimism as well that serves you well.
Obeya: I’m pretty sure all people are taking notes right now. Now, last but not least, the question we always end with, what do you miss the most about MIT?
Ismail: Lots of, I would say, the intellectual capital that you would find there. So whenever you’re walking there, you’re going to bump into interesting people thinking about interesting problems working on amazing projects and just having those discussions day in and day out. It’s just amazing. You get to learn so much about so many things, and it adds a lot of humility knowing that you are within all of those people doing all those amazing things. So having that intellectual capital and intellectual challenge in your work, that’s the one thing that I miss big time about being there.
Obeya: Dr. Ayman, thank you so much for joining us today in the third season of UnliMITed. I loved hearing your insights about integration, entrepreneurship, and academia. Thank you so much.
Ismail: Thank you so much, Omar. It’s a pleasure to be with you and I hope to see you and to be on campus at MIT sometime soon. Thank you, Omar.
Obeya: Of course. For all our audience listening, if you like this episode, make sure to share it with your friends. And for more stories, don’t forget to subscribe to Apple podcast, Google podcast, and Spotify. Next episode is going to be a special episode in Arabic. Dr. Tarek Rakha speaks about his journey from Egypt to the US. He gives a lot of reflections about his time in academia, life advice for immigrants, and insights about differences in living in different countries. Stay tuned.
Host: Thanks to Dana Dabbousi, Omar Obeya, Mamoun Toukan, Mayce El Mostafa and the MIT Arab Alumni Association for sharing this episode of the UnliMITed podcast with us. Tweet us your thoughts on this episode to @mit_alumni. If you’d like to hear more stories from the MIT community, subscribe to the Slice of MIT podcast wherever you get your podcasts. Please rate the podcast and leave us a review. Also check out our website at alum.mit.edu/slice. Thanks for listening.