Persistence is the Main Characteristic We Find Unique in Our Founders
Interview with Reem Al Junaibi, Operations and Community team at Hub71.
Coming from an extensive technology research background, both in UAE and the U.S., what have you brought to your role as part of Hub71’s Operations and Community team?
My research background gave me exposure to advanced technologies and provided an opportunity to see firsthand how technology is changing not only industries but also the workforce. I became more passionate about these changes, especially in the workplace, and how they translate into real-word opportunities.
I see this emerging in the UAE, especially because of our ecosystem, and the higher education institutions that focus on science and technology. We’re building human capital that is now spearheading commercialization and creating startups and a tech ecosystem.
I’m also really passionate about using research and applying it to startups. My experience of working in the corporate sector in heavy industry, government, and education has shown me that corporates and startups can work hand-in-hand to create value. By starting with the education institutions where patents and research are developed before working closely with corporates and government, we can transform ideas into real-world technologies.
You demonstrated an entrepreneurial spirit during your time at MIT Media Lab where your automated water quality monitoring system became a semi-finalist at the UAE’s Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Award for Good in 2016. What is it about your experience that you can pass on to entrepreneurs to help them develop innovative products and services that solve common problems of today?
My research mainly focused on using data analytics to understand how tech is transforming the workforce. I realized that automation is having a big impact on many traditional job roles, while at the same time creating new opportunities in new fields. I wanted to look at developing nations and see what can be done to create more jobs in different regions around the world.
Sometimes creating a system that allows simple technologies to work together creates a much bigger impact. This idea stems from my systems engineering background and asking myself; how can you use a simple technology and scale it to create a huge impact by creating a back-end system that allows it to happen? And this is exactly what we are doing at Hub71. Startups are creating technologies that are essentially the spark to a huge movement that I believe will shape the future. The potential of small solutions scaling rapidly really excites me.
One thing I really loved about my experience at MIT Media Lab is that no idea is frowned upon. The radical ideas would get the most support. That’s what continues to encourage me to support mind-blowing ideas. Risk taking, putting into practice transformative concepts and being bold and disruptive reflects on how I work with our startups. If they come up with a radical idea, I encourage them to go for it. It’s this attitude that I gained from MIT that can help push entrepreneurs to develop transformative solutions that can have a great impact on today’s and tomorrow’s problems.
Over the past year, Hub71’s Community has grown rapidly, and you play a key role in selecting new startups, what characteristics in a startup stand out for you?
Persistence. Generally, my relationships with startups begins 7-8 months before they join Hub71. Our relationships progress over time and I stay up to date with their developments. Through this, I notice that the common thread between the startups that make it to Hub71 is their persistence and passion to continue to develop. They would never take no for an answer. They will continue to apply, pitch investors and are open to feedback to continue developing and improving. That is the one attitude that all these successful startups share and it’s the kind of environment that we want to develop in our community at Hub71.
The more failures you have the more experience you get. We look at previous failures from startups as something to positively learn from. Persistence is the main characteristic that we find quite unique in our founders.
When you meet founders seeking to join Hub71, what is it about the community that they are most interested in?
Apart from Hub71’s Incentive Program, which continues to play a big role in attracting startups, there’s also intangible benefits. Something as simple as a founder trying to hire a new tech developer could be solved by sending a message to the community and receiving a list of options. It’s being surrounded by like-minded people who are working on similar things and learning from each other’s experience that creates the most value.
Ultimately, it’s the close-knit community and opportunity to have a support system of not only Hub71 team members but also other founders.
What do you enjoy most being part of Hub71’s Selection Committee?
Creating opportunities for people. What fascinates me most is the number of jobs that have been created by the startups. Seeing startups start off with two or three people and then in a couple of months grow to 10 or 15 team members, is very exciting to see.
Also, after selecting the successful startups, I enjoy witnessing the solutions they develop evolve. I see great potential for them to help advance the market and create a much stronger and innovative hub in Abu Dhabi.
It’s incredibly exciting when we see a startup make a proof of concept (POC), sign a contract with a customer, or expand globally, especially as we have played such a crucial role in creating these opportunities as part of the Selection Committee.
Are there any common mistakes that startups make when pitching for selection into the Hub71 Incentive Program?
The biggest mistake is founders not knowing their business well enough. This means being across the numbers as well as the operations. You really must understand what business you are developing and have a clear plan. Of course, with early stage startups, lots of things change quickly but at the same time you should really know your business inside out.
Founders should thoroughly research their business and be prepared to answer questions about their plans and take feedback from committee members, investors, or corporate partners. Being open to constructive feedback will help them grow.
Once you have selected the cohort, how do you ensure each startup begins a fulfilling journey at Hub71?
First, accessibility to the Hub71 team members is important and we continuously engage with each startup, making sure they each have access to everything they need to set up their business quickly. Everything is prepared in advance of their arrival, from finding an apartment to allocating their office space and securing their license. All they need to do is go through the process and once complete, our continuous engagement will give our startups even more exposure to the ecosystem which allows them to find the right contacts and integrate quickly.
Secondly, before startups arrive, we also conduct comprehensive research and place effort into understanding the challenges they face. We continuously gather feedback from other startups and look at what challenges our existing community members went through to ensure they are fixed before the next cohort arrives. One example is the banking solution to improve the experience of startups when opening bank accounts.
We try to be proactive by solving problems before the startups arrive. There will always be new challenges, especially as startups in new sectors and from different geographical areas enter the community as we grow. Many will have similar challenges, but we understand that working in different sectors may bring a different set of challenges that will need to be addressed.
There will always be new ways we can interact with our founders, but the most important thing is being close to them and continuously engaging with them throughout their journey at Hub71.
Are the youth getting enough opportunities to enter careers in tech?
Yes, the youth are leading opportunities to enter the tech space. When you look at the number of incubators, accelerator programs and tech hubs being launched in the UAE, it’s growing at a rapid rate that did not exist 5-10 years ago. The number of hackathons and opportunities are very accessible for the youth.
Also, young people can benefit from the government’s huge focus on promoting the STEM fields and business in universities. From knowledge to talent development, we have some of the most advanced universities from around the world.
The youth need to grab these opportunities and it is their persistence, consistency and being active in the community that will make a real difference to how they will succeed. Essentially it provides them with a basis to help create a team, further develop their technologies, and eventually attract investors.
However, culturally it may be challenging, particularly among Emiratis as they tend to be more interested in pursuing stable employment instead of taking a risk and starting a company. As Emiratis, we all face this discussion with our parents to get a ‘real’ job. But believe it or not, this is a conversation that happens globally. Naturally, most parents encourage their children to pursue stable jobs. So, I think the most important thing for the youth is to engage their parents and families in what they are doing so they can get an understanding of the impact and great potential of startup companies.
Through celebrating real-life examples like Careem, Souq or Instacart – all of these startups have grown into hugely successful businesses. By taking the excitement of building a startup, it’s important for these successes to not only be shared with young people but also with parents to see the potential.
In your opinion, what more could be done to inspire students to be more entrepreneurial?
We need to continue highlighting success stories, especially through the founders we have at Hub71 who are mostly young and successful at what they do. The founders have shown they can start companies and handle a team and through their experiences, it’s far superior to working in a typical 9 to 5 job.
Of course, opening the Hub71 community is something we regularly do by running workshops, activities, events and many other engagements which students can be a part of. This will help young people understand what happens in our tech ecosystem, preparing them for the experiences they could expect when starting a company.
Many of our founders started three or four companies before they became successful and that is totally fine because they need to have a mindset of not being afraid of failure, rejection or an investor saying no. Having resilience is important for students so they can continue to thrive, no matter which field they decide to pursue.
What is it about your role at Hub71 that you love most?
Mostly the exposure I get to the founders and sharing the energy that they have. I always tell them we learn more from you than you learn from us. I try to be very close to each one of our startups to walk in their shoes and understand what they’re going through.
This excites me most, being on the frontline of engaging with entrepreneurs and seeing their startups up close. For me, it’s all about understanding their technologies and what they’re trying to achieve so that our team can ensure we deliver the right opportunities and make sure their voices are heard.