Cairo's surprising culture of entrepreneurship
© Gayle Trotter

CAIRO — After four years at the epicenter of revolution and cultural struggle, this city may find itself the locus of exciting technological developments. Today's Cairo is a hotbed not of political strife, but of entrepreneurship and innovation.

RiseUp15, recently held in Cairo, brought together the Middle East's leading entrepreneurs, global investors and learners of all ages and backgrounds. The annual summit occurs on the downtown GrEEK Campus, not far from Tahrir Square, where iconic protests unfolded before a watchful world during the 2011 pro-democracy uprisings then known as the Arab Spring.

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A lifelong interest in ancient Egypt led me to visit Cairo to experience the mystery and wonder of this city in person. As my plane touched down, my cellphone lit up with texts and email alerts warning, after the fact, of a bombing at the Italian consulate just hours earlier.

Traveling by car to my first destination, I began to absorb the sights and sounds of the place Egyptians call Umm ad-Dunya, the "Mother of the World." Many mothers of this world first caught my eye as they boldly carried their infants across four-lane highways with cars speeding in both directions, a harrowing real-life version of the decades-old classic video game "Frogger," whose object is to cross a busy multilane highway without going splat.

A local informed me that Cairo's lack of traffic laws or enforcement shows that Egypt is more democratic than the United States: People are not hemmed in by restrictive laws or policing.

As the nerve-wracking excitement subsided, the mechanical dance of Egyptian traffic and the back-and-forth of driver and pedestrian took on an orderly and strangely efficient feel. In contrast to notoriously aggressive and gridlocked traffic back in Washington, the Cairo traffic maintained a constant motion in which everyone seemed to know his or her place.

Check-in procedures at a Western hotel chain seemed typical other than airport-style security screening, for which I walked through a metal detector and they X-rayed my luggage. Having made the trip from Giza to downtown Cairo, I was eager to meet with local entrepreneurs and experience local culture.

My first stop was at the GrEEK Campus, the brainchild of Los Angeles-based Egyptian-American entrepreneur Ahmed Alfi. Alfi spent two decades investing in technology and media, and he returned to Cairo to start one of the earliest Egyptian venture capital funds, Sawari Ventures. Ahmed started the technology start-up accelerator Flat6Labs in addition to the GrEEK Campus.

The GrEEK Campus comprises five large buildings with classrooms, a library, offices and sweeping staircases. A grassy courtyard in the center holds eye-catching modern art, including a sculpture of a dinosaur chewing on an old computer keyboard and colorful sculptures of ancient Egyptian pharaohs scrambling up the tall walls, giving a nod to the past and making a statement about the present.

Diverse types populate the GrEEK Campus, from undergraduate and graduate students with a burning idea to share with the world, to twenty-somethings who have launched an idea or two but hunger for more, to experienced entrepreneurs who mentor the up-and-comers while looking for new investment opportunities.

All of them meet at the ping-pong table in the courtyard for friendly competition, new relationships and prospective opportunities.

The animating ideas vary widely: a babysitting service for upper-class families who need occasional help and value the care college or graduate students can provide their children; a reliable car-repair service that will schedule appointments with reputable garages; an advanced software-based pen to improve classroom learning.

Some ideas target eventual profit, whereas others target socially oriented goals centered on solutions for providing an underserved populace with food, water, energy, healthcare and education.

Defying stereotypes of Islamic women's roles in the Middle East, the most impressive of the dozens of entrepreneurs I met were women. At the GrEEK Campus, Sally Halawa sat with me in the studio of Kemet Art and Design, sharing with me her vision to bring design skills to young Egyptians. Halawa exudes grace and refinement. Having previously worked at the Egyptian Museum, her passion is to open the world of design to others.

Hanan Abdel Meguid, a woman with sleek, curly black hair and a friendly smile, founded Kamelizer, an angel investment fund focused on technology startups. An experienced businesswoman, Meguid sees the values of investing and supporting young Egyptian companies as they build products and assess market potential. Kamelizer's role is to take a company from seed-capital stage to an early institutional financing round. Her young assistants brimmed with enthusiasm, creativity and determination.

Across town, Alfi's other initiative, Flat6Labs, resides in a nondescript building on a narrow street. Alfi and many others like him are profiled in Christopher Schroeder's "Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East," an intriguing book describing how technology promises to transform the Middle East.

At Flat6Labs, entrepreneurs submit their plans for review on a quarterly cycle. Each quarter, Flat6Labs receives upwards of 400 online applications, of which roughly 60 applicants gain interviews. Experts pare the 60 down to 10 startups that receive four months of intensive training and support. For these finalists, Flat6Labs incubates them with seed funding, office space, computers, Internet access, training, legal support and tax advice while nurturing an ecosystem to provide continuing support for its graduates.

There, I met Dana Khater. At 19 years old, Khater became Flat6Labs' youngest entrepreneur. She applied to the cycle on a whim, just four hours before the deadline. Despite having no business partner, which usually leads to rejection, she was accepted. While dreaming up her fashion business, she studied electrical engineering and economics at the American University in Cairo (AUC), often the only woman in her class and frequently hearing that she was in the wrong class. Most of the women, Khater explained, transferred to the business classes.

Khater started a cupcake business at age 15 and, while a college student, produced the AUC fashion magazine after rejection from a school-sponsored initiative led her mother to encourage her to start a magazine on her own.

Through Flat6Labs, Khater launched Coterique. Her first customer, based in Los Angeles, found her online. Her second customer came from New York City. She had to buck the cultural expectation of the traditional career track of college, then a steady corporate job for a well-known company like Procter & Gamble, where she could climb the corporate ladder.

Khater senses a change. More people now think it's cool that she is running a startup. To would-be female entrepreneurs, she gives ready advice: "Start young and just do it! Though it is not cool to be broke and struggling, it is okay to keep struggling."

Coterique has experienced steady monthly growth, with sales to international celebrities including a well-known Hollywood actress, the wife of a Real Madrid player, and the head designer at a major apparel brand. Her company is now in a $1.5 million financing round to raise money to hire top talent and fuel future growth in the Middle East and Asia.

These three female entrepreneurs share a common bond with their Western counterparts. They want to improve their communities, serve others, and create value. And they do this despite the challenges and changes of a complex and dynamic world. The promise of Cairo's future does not require it to become the next Silicon Valley. In a city known as the Mother of the World, women are turning challenges into opportunities.

Trotter is a political analyst, commentator and lawyer. Her views are her own.