International Entrepreneurship: Exposure To Micro-Markets In Tunisia
BY: IVY SCHULTZ
Can I interest you in some gladiator sweat?
A stone’s throw from Gladiator’s El Djem amphitheater in Tunisia, enterprising business owners would sell gladiator sweat as an exclusive, pricey product to wealthy women who believed the liquid would bring them the vitality of the fearless fighters.
If you visit Tunisia today, you will still find warriors in the arena, although of a different kind—the warriors are now entrepreneurs and the arena has grown from a small country in North Africa to a nation ready to compete globally. In Carthage, once a hub of Roman trade, tech startups are now immersed in a growing entrepreneurial ecosystem, fighting hard to bring value to an international market.
Modern Tunisia is, in a sense, an entrepreneurial endeavor itself—building a capitalist democracy where there hasn’t been one before, facing challenges and obstacles as most startups do. Since the Arab Spring in 2010, Tunisia has been holding on to democracy, and the energy among the many students, professors and business leaders trying to drive positive change is palpable. Strengthening the startup ecosystem, bringing employment and funding to the country is seen as critical as the country approaches 10 years of democracy.
There will certainly be challenges for Tunisian startups: there is a small market (11 million people, $40.3 billion GDP as of 2017), limited angel and VC funding and a general lack of entrepreneurial culture that is taken for granted in the United States. At the same time, there is incredible drive within the ecosystem and in neighboring countries that need talented startups to solve their problems. Technology makes all of this easier. Faster internet connections coupled with talented, multilingual, STEM graduates make it possible for Tunisian startups to expand their reach to the global market. Tunisian startups are also getting more help and getting more attention. A law termed the Startup Act recently passed, removing bureaucratic barriers, making it easier for founders in the country, and positions Tunisia to lead by example in the region’s innovation ecosystem.
With all of the energy in the community, the experience of the Tunisian startup arena and the individuals who support it leaves a mark on anyone who visits.
Mohamed Abedelmalik is a seasoned student-entrepreneur at Columbia University. He is a senior majoring in computer science at Columbia Engineering, and he has worked on a few different startups and also at a VC firm. For Mohamed, participating in the Open Startup Tunisia boot-camp, a program in which American students from Columbia and Tunisian students came together to immerse themselves in startup techniques and startup life, was a “wake up call.”
His takeaway from the experience of being in Open Startup Tunisia: “Don’t start something unless you’re super passionate. When you see the passion that some people [in Tunisia] have you think differently.” Mohamed was working on a different project before the trip, and the experience made him question his passion. He now feels that he is pursuing a “more genuine version of entrepreneurship,” working on one of his original interests and passions. This has unfolded into a health-tech startup.
As Mohamed said, “Getting to see people feel responsible for the outcome of the youth of their country is incredible.”
Learning From Tunisia
Passion, although a cliché, can never be overstated in entrepreneurship. When a community is motivated and stakes are high, there is impressive movement in innovation.
Also, creating space for student-to-student interaction will shape the future. Allowing budding founders, leaders and knowledge economy workers to know and understand each other will not only improve relationships but make the businesses of the future more efficient. It helps form new connections and opens borders. Students like Mohamed know that exposure to the global marketplace is critical—and college students have embraced study, work and travel abroad for decades. However, not all students have such exposure and this is frequently the case with entrepreneurial students and engineers.
For example, entrepreneurial students focused on technology are often in the lab, and, when they emerge with a working prototype, are focused on markets that are most familiar to them. Entrepreneurial students, and especially engineers, although often focused on the development of technology itself, are increasingly drawn to understanding international markets and opportunities, along with the prospect of meeting new people and connecting with startup-focused students in other countries. However, engineers have tight schedules and course requirements, making it tough to find university programs abroad that will fit their requirements. But when there’s a way to have an immersive experience in another country, like Mohamed did, the impact is deep and profound.
Context and culture matter: The leaders of the future will have to understand a world that is a collection of micro-markets. On the ground exposure is one of the best ways to understand how these markets truly work and operate in a global context. Students learning from each other get a visceral lesson when they look to connect on a person-to-person level. How do you translate your culture? Will your jokes get laughs?
It’s important for students to understand different markets and startup scenes like the one in Tunisia. There, the new gladiators are the entrepreneurs themselves, like the fearless group of Tunisian women led by Houda Ghozzi, a professor of Business Strategy at the Global Business School Network in Tunis. It’s imperative to have an understanding of the population that will eventually be part of the competition, the market or part of the team and to understand a broader definition of sweat equity.