Entrepreneurs’ mentoring site seeks Arabic boost

Website wants to expand its user base in the UAE, Gulf to help startups thrive and spur job creation

An online platform that matches mentors with entrepreneurs is seeking partners in the Middle East to provide an Arabic version to help build the region’s startup ecosystem.

MicroMentor, which functions like a matching site for entrepreneurs, wants to broaden its user base in the UAE, GCC and North Africa to help young people start businesses and tackle chronic joblessness in the region.

“[MicroMentor] was created to democratise access to social capital,” said Anita Ramachandran, the platform’s director. “A lot of entrepreneurs don’t have MBA networks, or their father’s friends, or professional clubs [that can help them]… Our mission is to break down barriers and increase access to a set of knowledge and expertise.”

Support for the Arab world’s youth is sorely needed. Youth unemployment stood near 30 per cent in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in 2014, the highest in the world; and the region will have to create 200m more jobs by 2050 to keep up with demand, according to the World Bank.

Launched in 2008 by global NGO Mercy Corps to target small business owners and micro-entrepreneurs initially in the US, MicroMentor allows them to create a profile and connect with mentors online for free. The site makes more than 10,000 connections a year with 30,000 users in 92 countries, according to Ramachandran. It currently has around 270 mentees and 80 mentors from MENA and the Gulf.

The nonprofit programme is looking for expertise, seed funding and to develop its network to produce an Arabic version of the MicroMentor platform. It is already in talks with four potential partners in the UAE, she added.

Financing permitting, the site wants to target the UAE and GCC, as well as Tunisia, Morocco and North Africa. The Gulf, in particular, is a “hotbed” of entrepreneurs who see starting a business as a path towards sustainable livelihoods, added Ramachandran.

“Interest in the Middle East has been growing as a result of what I see in Tunisia – a growing young population that is looking for meaningful work, or to start a small business or social enterprise as a means to build their lives,” she said. “[But] whether they have access to the right resources, infrastructure and environment to be successful can be very spotty.”

There are many hurdles for would-be entrepreneurs. Funding is one, but business advice and a knowledgeable person to turn to are equally important particularly for those who are marginalised, such as women, said Ramachandran.

The nonprofit platform provides an open marketplace where mentees can request advice, from vetting a business idea to looking at particular elements of a business plan. Such expertise boosts the chances of survival: 90 per cent of enterprises that used MicroMentor last year survived, compared to the US national average of 69 per cent, said Ramachandran.

The programme is a great way for mentors to give back, added Ramachandran. She also hopes the platform busts some myths about mentoring to encourage more people with professional experience to step forward. Many are put off by the thought they might have to commit to the mentee for a long period of time.

“We’re trying to demystify mentoring and say it can be available in smaller doses and still be meaningful,” she added.