Catalysts of Change: Egypt's Journey with Africa’s Business Heroes

Sunday 23 Jun 2024

Between April 20-27, 2024, Hangzhou, China, witnessed a convergence of Africa’s brightest entrepreneurial minds. The Africa’s Business Heroes (ABH) Prize Competition, an initiative by the Jack Ma Foundation and Alibaba Philanthropy, played host to 40 participants, including top 10 Heroes, finalists and partners from across the continent.

ABH

 

This immersive experience at Alibaba’s headquarters enriched participants with invaluable insights to elevate their entrepreneurial endeavors. As ABH continues to empower African entrepreneurs, Amena Elsaie, CEO of Helm and an ABH top 10 finalist in 2022 shared her insights in an exclusive interview with Al-Ahram, highlighting the hero's journey, lessons from the China trip and plans for the future, to inspire entrepreneurs across Egypt and North Africa to seize opportunities like ABH.

1- Could you please introduce yourself and your business briefly? Tell us what your company does and where it's based.

 

My career path has been a dynamic and meaningful journey, driven by a deep passion for driving positive change and ensuring the full inclusion of persons with disabilities in Egypt and across Africa. After graduating with a degree in journalism, marketing and visual arts from the American University in Cairo, I was profoundly impacted by a "Dialogue in the Dark" experience during a semester abroad in Germany. This transformative experience led me, at just 23 years old, to co-found Helm, a social enterprise dedicated to disability advocacy.

As the CEO, I have had the privilege of leading Helm to the forefront of the disability field in Egypt and the Middle East/Africa region. Helm has earned recognition as a best practice by the prestigious Zero Project at the United Nations Headquarters in Vienna for our exceptional employment and accessibility initiatives from 2017 to 2021. I'm incredibly honored to have been named a Top 10 Winner among 22,000 businesses with social impact in the Africa’s Business Heroes (ABH) Competition, founded by Mr Jack Ma of Alibaba, in 2022.

 

My expertise has been further validated through a JICA certification in "Improvement of Accessibility of Social Inclusion – Barrier Free Environment." Helm has also won numerous awards, including the MIT Pan-Arab business plan competition for our "Entaleq" application and selection for a two-year global acceleration program by Rise Egypt in 2016-2017 as one of the top 5 social enterprises in Egypt.

Today, Helm has impacted over 500 government and private institutions in Egypt and beyond, driving policy changes and building a thriving market for disability inclusion. It's been a deeply fulfilling path and I'm excited to continue pushing the boundaries of what's possible, always striving to create a more equitable and accessible world.

Helm is an independent social enterprise in Egypt, strategically aligned with prominent global networks and advisory boards to enhance its impact. It is a member of the Africa’s Business Heroes network, MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab, Zero Project network, ILO Global Business Network, USBLN, DisabilityIN and Rise Egypt.  

Helm's advisory board includes renowned disability and business leaders like Ilene Zeitzer, John Kemp, Shehab Elnawawi and Jay Cardinally, providing invaluable guidance. 

These global and local partnerships position Helm as a powerful force for driving disability inclusion and accessibility in Egypt and beyond, leveraging international best practices and collaborative initiatives to implement effective solutions for persons with disabilities.

2- Can you provide a brief overview of what the Africa’s Business Heroes (ABH) initiative is all about, especially for Egyptian entrepreneurs and other readers who may be unfamiliar with it?

 

The Africa’s Business Heroes Prize Competition, sponsored by the Jack Ma Foundation and Alibaba Philanthropy, seeks to empower the next generation of African entrepreneurs by providing grant funding, training programs and support for entrepreneurial development. Each year, the competition features 10 finalists who pitch their businesses for a chance to win a share of US$1.5 million in grant money, contributing to the growth and innovation of Africa's entrepreneurial ecosystem.

 

ABH steers entrepreneurship in Africa towards social innovation, reshaping the business landscape to prioritize social impact and sustainability. This competition has provided a shift in how a lot of people in Egypt perceive entrepreneurship. 

 

Through initiatives like Helm, which supports persons with disabilities, ABH encourages leaders to address societal needs, recognizing that successful businesses must solve pressing problems. The competition transcends mere financial rewards, offering entrepreneurs invaluable support and feedback through the different stages, elevating the standards of entrepreneurship and fostering a culture of social impact in Egypt and beyond.

The ABH Competition provides entrepreneurs with valuable insights into their standing and identifies gaps through evaluations by esteemed judges worldwide. Ultimately, this raises the standards and expectations of entrepreneurship, fostering a culture of excellence and continuous improvement within the entrepreneurial community.

 

3- Egypt has demonstrated remarkable success in ABH prize competition, with seven finalists emerging among the top 10 winners since the initiative began in 2019 to date. These Egyptian entrepreneurs that emerged among winners in the initiative, known as ABH Heroes, have collectively secured grants exceeding US $1,065,000. Can you share your journey in the competition and what it means to you personally?

This was not the first time that we applied as Helm to this competition. The first time, we reached the top 20. After that, we received a lot of feedback on why we didn’t win, which made a significant difference and taught us how to improve ourselves. It also challenged us to apply again. The second time we applied, the key lesson we learned was to continuously evaluate and compare ourselves to other businesses, not just in our field but on a regional and global level. This helped us set a higher benchmark for Helm and engage in continuous assessment with top-notch leaders.

The ABH process allowed us to think about how to evaluate our success. It taught us the multiple dimensions of evaluation and helped us develop a stronger structure for assessing Helm's performance. We learned to utilize our strong advisory board effectively and to implement a system to ensure constant evaluation.

Another important lesson we learned is to celebrate success, progress and even challenges. Facing challenges means playing a tougher game and one of our biggest achievements is becoming part of a network of like-minded entrepreneurs, coaches and mentors. Being part of this network allows us to continuously learn from the best. It’s not just a temporary benefit; we are now part of a great community that provides access to a enormous number of resources we can use. Winning the competition is a bonus, but going through the journey taught us how to set a vision for self-evaluation.

4- As an Egyptian entrepreneur who has excelled in the ABH initiative, what advice would you give to others considering participating, especially now that applications are still open until June 9, 2024 and are free for all interested entrepreneurs both men and women of all age groups, across every sector?

 

Apply to the ABH competition, even if you're not sure you can win, is a valuable experience that can significantly benefit your business. We've applied to ABH three years in a row and each time we've learned completely new things.

 

The goal should not be solely about winning the competition, but about the experience of understanding and benchmarking your business, learning more about its strengths and areas for improvement. Going through the ABH process allows you to gain insights from top-notch experts and business leaders - some of the world's best advisors. They will thoroughly review your business and provide guidance to help you optimize operations, strategies and more.

 

Participating in ABH creates a safe environment to receive this high-level feedback and mentorship, rather than making potentially costly mistakes out in the real world. The experience has been invaluable for us as business leaders, helping our team work together more effectively towards common goals.

Even if you don't win the ABH competition, the knowledge gained and connections made can be transformative for your business. The process of applying and going through the program is an opportunity to deeply assess your company, identify areas for growth and implement changes to drive long-term success. 

I would highly recommend applying in the coming editions, regardless of your perceived chances of winning.

 

5- You recently participated in a trip to Hangzhou, China, organized by ABH, where over 40 former heroes engaged in various activities alongside Chinese investors and other ABH stakeholders. Based on your trip experience, what insights or practices did you gain from China that you believe could benefit Egyptian and all African entrepreneurs for further economic growth?  

 

The trip to Hangzhou, China, as winners of the ABH (Accelerator Business Hub) competition, was an incredibly exciting and transformative experience, not just for me personally, but for our entire entrepreneurial team. The anticipation of the learning and insights we would gain as business leaders was palpable.

The trip far exceeded my already high expectations. I expected to be wowed by the cutting-edge technology and innovative business systems in China, but the access and deep dive we were able to experience at Alibaba was truly remarkable. We didn't just get a surface-level tour - we were able to go behind the scenes and truly understand how Alibaba's various business units operate, the strategies and philosophies that drive their success.

Learning about Jack Ma's journey, from the founding of Alibaba to the impressive growth and impact the company has achieved, was profoundly inspiring. Seeing first-hand how he and his team were able to overcome challenge after challenge, break industry norms and create such immense value was incredibly motivating. It's one thing to hear about entrepreneurial success stories, but to witness it up close and personal is something else entirely.

This trip provided our team with an unparalleled opportunity to benchmark our own business against the best-in-class practices we observed at Alibaba. We gained deep insights that are already helping us identify areas for improvement and implement new strategies to drive our own company's growth and success. The knowledge and connections we made during this experience are invaluable assets that will continue to pay dividends long into the future.

I encourage any entrepreneur or business leader, whether they have won a competition like ABH, to seek out opportunities like this. The chance to learn from the world's most innovative companies and visionary leaders can be truly transformative for your business and your own growth as an entrepreneur.

 

6- How do you plan to apply the knowledge gained the ABH trip to contribute to Egypt's digital transformation and economy?

 

First, through Helm adopting strategies learnt, advertising our applied lessons – and the most important thing is becoming a beacon of hope for other social entrepreneurs or those who seek to make an impact. Inspire others, individuals. Helm works with the government sector and private sector as well as a community of 500,000 people who follow Helm and are part of Helm- so becoming a stronger organization is the first form of leadership. 

 

7- How has your business evolved since you became involved with ABH and received grant funding? What specific benefits have you gained from your participation to date?

 

Our Business had evolved a lot after participating in ABH, we started taking steps to build a foundation to scale across countries in Africa and beyond. 

We started to take steps regarding evaluating ourselves and after the competition we have clearer needs, we have a more accurate visibility and articulation of how and what we want. We started to create a stronger strategy and thus improved our mechanisms and hiring strategy, recruit fundamentals managers and leaders and focus on a stronger leadership approach across our business and working in developing the foundation of our business itself. 

The last thing we’ve learned is to build our community and to embrace our culture and to develop a culture that is to scale.    

 

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In conclusion, Amena's journey epitomizes the spirit of Africa’s Business Heroes, showcasing the profound impact of entrepreneurship. Her story stands as a beacon of inspiration for aspiring entrepreneurs. Her remarkable tale underscores the transformative potential of following one's passion, driven by purpose and a commitment to effecting positive change.

ABH closed the call for application to the 2024 edition on June 9 but encourages entrepreneurs to follow the journey of this year’s participants. This year’s top 50 finalists will be announced by August, followed by the announcement of the top 10 in September. The final winners will be unveiled later this year at the Grand Finale in November. For more information visit the ABH website https://africabusinessheroes.org/en/ or follow ABH on X (https://apo-opa.info/3KY3OQs), LinkedIn (https://apo-opa.info/3L1Cgda), Instagram (https://apo-opa.info/3KZTXKa), Facebook (https://apo-opa.info/3ylgNE9) and YouTube (https://apo-opa.info/3YDG5bH). 

 

Join the ranks of visionary entrepreneurs like Amena in shaping the future of African business and innovation.

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