Can we begin by talking about the Prince Mohamed bin Salman College for Business and Entrepreneurship where your centre is located?

Yes, of course. MBSC was established as an “entrepreneurial leadership school for the next generation”. Saudi Arabia needs “job creators” not just “job consumers” and so our aim at MBSC is to develop a new generation of transformative leaders who are able to think creatively and act boldly. MBSC is the first institute of higher learning in the kingdom to focus on entrepreneurship. Our aim is to produce graduates that will be capable of creating economic and social value wherever they work as government leaders, heads of corporations, founders of new businesses or as employees.

How does the Babson Global Centre for Entrepreneurial Leadership fit into this?

BGCEL is a collaboration between MBSC, Babson Global, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Babson College, the world ́s leader in entrepreneurship education,and Lockheed Martin which supports the centre through its Saudi Economic Offset Program. Our aim at BGCEL is to provide students and entrepreneurs with the knowledge and skills they need to launch and grow business ventures and so we provide programs on start-ups, small and medium-size enterprises, and women’s entrepreneurship. In addition, we provide experiential learning opportunities for MBSC students, government officials, businessmen and women. In addition to our education and training programs, one of our aims is to be the focal point for developing an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Saudi Arabia and neighbouring countries. We collaborated with the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) to produce the 2016/17 GEM Saudi Arabia survey which was the most comprehensive survey about entrepreneurship in the kingdom to date. We’re currently working on the second edition of the report for 2017/2018. Ultimately our aim is to become a destination where aspiring entrepreneurs from all walks of life come to learn best business practices what we call “Entrepreneurial Thought and Action”, the signature pedagogy of Babson College.

As Director of BGCEL you are ultimately responsible for the success of the centre. How is your previous academic and work experience helping you?

Well, on the academic side,I have a BA in Education and a Masters degree in strategic marketing from the University of Wollongong in Australia. I also have an executive certificate in Design Thinking from the D-School at Stanford University and acquired two certificates from MIT Sloan School of Management, one in regional entrepreneurship and ecosystem building and the other for executives in management, innovation and technology. As far as my career is concerned, I’m fortunate to have had a wide range of experience in management, teaching, training and marketing. For example, prior to being appointed Director of BGCEL, I worked at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and at its Entrepreneurship Centre where I co

designed and taught a course in entrepreneurship and technology innovation that was offered to Masters and post-doctoral students. I also managed the university startup accelerator. I think the knowledge I’ve gained from these experiences and others both academic and work related  have allowed me to take on the job as director of BGCEL with some measure of confidence.

Have you ever run your own business?

Yes, that too. I ran my own business organising mega-marketing events and offering commercial consultancy to large organisations. Our clients included several Dubai government departments, the Kempinski hotel, Mall of the Emirates, Infiniti Cars and others. I was also involved in a joint venture with a startup in Dubai focused on creating media and production services to a variety of agencies such as Starcom Dubai and Yahoo Dubai.

The 2016/17 GEM Saudi Arabia survey you referred to indicates entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia face a variety of challenges. How do you think these challenges can be addressed?

There is a great movement nowadays in Saudi Arabia towards entrepreneurship and business creation. Yet the road still has some bumps to overcome such as challenging regulations, access to funding at seed stage, finding the necessary skills and talents to join a startup to name a few. But entrepreneurial activity in Saudi Arabia is gaining momentum. I think our top priority should be to work on developing entrepreneurship education, not only through specialised curricula and programs but also through workshops and activities that enable students to test the potential of their business ideas that can later be grown-out into commercial ventures. In terms of government regulations and procedures these problems exist throughout the Arab world and elsewhere. In Saudi Arabia we are pressing ahead to simplify procedures for entrepreneurs so that they can run their businesses smoothly.

What are some of the specific issues with regard to commercialising new technologies?

In today’s world, the use of advanced technology is key to reaching international markets. Entrepreneurial ideas in general and particularly those based on new technologies should be translated into commercial businesses that have social and economic impact. We must first understand that the problem is not with technology itself but that its value depends on how it is used and its potential impact on people and organisations. I think “design thinking” should be incorporated into the curricula of universities to teach students how to identify problems and then provide solutions. Generally, I would say that it is very important to focus on customer needs and pains, not just products. Some may argue that disruptive innovation is not necessarily based on a need or substitutes for something else in the market, but the truth is that every product or service does serve an emotional, functional or social need. For this reason, “customer discovery” is extremely important. An entrepreneur with a good idea should fully understand the market, test out his or her idea, and then evaluate the business potential. It is also very important to build a strong and goal-oriented team to carry out the planning and operate the business.

How important is mentoring?

Mentorship is essential for entrepreneurs but finding the right mentors is a challenging process. The mentor has to be knowledgeable and at the same time he or she must be genuinely interested in supporting the start-up. We have done start-up and mentor match making in the past and introductions through our networks but more work needs to be done in this area to get experts more interested in our mentorship programs.

The problem of micro-management and lack of collaborative thinking is widely prevalent in the Arab world. How can this be addressed?

The“one-man-show” attitude toward running an organisation has proved to be non-relevant in the context of today’s business environment. Employees should be looked at and treated as the most important asset of any organisation. If they feel overlooked or undervalued and are kept away from decision making processes, they will feel disengaged and will no longer have a sense of “belonging” to the organisation. Some companies in Saudi Arabia are taking serious and specific steps to engage their employees in the decision-making process and thus, in turn, bring out the best in them. The value of an employee should be measured by his or her ability to come up with innovative ideas that will benefit the company and to work closely with other team members towards achieving the vision of the organisation. Business owners and CEOs need to focus on developing leadership skills amongst their employees and solicit their input in the decision-making process. We have participated in many programs focused on bringing about “cultural change”within large organisations and the impact was impressive. Many behavioural changes were evident and the impact on the organisations was measurably high.

What are the prospects for Saudi companies with regard to competing in overseas markets?

While many Saudi companies do have the potential to compete in overseas markets, they need time to enhance their competitiveness. They need to start to incorporate new technologies into their operations and they need to design their businesses with an eye on international opportunities – not just the local market. Some companies till need to pay more attention to branding that will tell their unique story. In order to compete internationally, we need to have a deeper understanding of business and consumer cultures and behaviours of other countries and we also need to better understand the dynamics of those markets. Attracting people from diverse backgrounds to Saudi Arabia and bringing the knowledge we already have to the table is also something we need to consider. For these reasons, we encourage Saudi companies to compete in international competitions and participate in programs in order to access the right networks and look at things more from a global perspective while also gaining more visibility. We don’t lack the talent in Saudi Arabia or even the great minds that could impact the world, we just need to reshape the perspective.

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