Amel Saidane is an entrepreneur, ecosystem builder and digital transformation expert. She is president of Tunisian Startups and the co-founder of BetaCube a venture builder in Fintech. She is an innovation and digital transformation activist acting for instance as a board member for the Digital Center of Excellence of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and as Tunisia steering committee member for Digital Arabia Network, a platform supporting the digital transformation in the Arab world. She also a member of the BMW Responsible Leaders Network, and a fellow of the BMW Ready-Go program.
How can the policies of the EU promote more possibilities for entrepreneurs in the South and what innovative approaches could it take?
A different process of storytelling
First of all, the most relevant thing is to show the process we, as Southern entrepreneurs have been a part of. On one hand, the biggest big milestone is represented by the open dialogue with the EU countries aiming to create a safe space for people to share their impressions and perspectives. On the other hand, we created an exchange between southern countries both MENA and Southern Mediterranean ones. It is a step ahead because those countries are very heterogeneous even though they also have a similar understanding of what’s different in their home countries. The leading discussion has been focused on two main points: the identification of innovative ways of encouraging entrepreneurs in fostering their businesses in their own countries; the articulation of new ideas and new thoughts that can make EU think differently. This process helps also in refining the fundamental basic narratives on the Southern countries: we have been dealing with the legacy of the old ways of doing things and often the Arab countries have been only reacting of policies initiated by Europe without initiating anything on their own. Try to implement something that has been done in Europe might be extremely challenging for the reality of the southern neighbourhood. So, the process we are initiating goes also through rethinking the narrative of the future of work itself in these countries, taking into account their own realities.. Work is being defined in the southern neighbourhood of Mediterranean as an extremely traditional way of doing things: white and blue-collar jobs, university graduates versus the others. So, the new world of work is going to give more value to skills that have been considered as second level competencies like arts and creativity. Re-positioning the value of these skills is the key to redefine the role and contribution of everyone by the system that is trying to put everyone in boxes. Then, of course, is going to redefine the role of the entrepreneur. In Tunisia, a successful person has always been someone holding a university degree and who has climbed the ladder of some large corporate or multi-nationals. In my opinion, try to tell a different story of a different kind of entrepreneurs can actually overcome the classical model and might inspire the new generation to test new models. My feeling, when I talk to younger people, is that they are kind of trapped into this model even though they are unhappy and want something different but they don’t know where to look for those. That’s exactly why the storytelling is so important.
Building bridges for young entrepreneurs
The new generation does not feel the borders the way we have felt them. By now, borders are more fluid, they can be overcome. Young people do not take into consideration from where they come from but more where they can go. They identify themselves firstly as their roles in the society rather than their nationalities. We need to take this into account because it is an extremely interesting perspective in order to start a “new deal” for innovative business. Building bridges is going to be key for everything related to the developing of skills and the new ways of learning and collaborating. The offer of platforms for exchange or programs like AISEC and various other programs in Europe that connect people from different backgrounds, might be extended to the southern neighbourhood to, on one side help Europe embrace other cultures and way of dealing with similar issues and to the other side to connect young entrepreneurs from the South. Unfortunately, today the majority of the exchanges are one-sided with Europe, especially in the entrepreneurship sphere. The creation of new platforms might also have a positive side-effect on the connection of the Arab countries themselves, creating some kind of triangle and networks that will expand.
How to reshape the image of non-university jobs and encourage entrepreneurs in this area in order to make these jobs attractive?
There are various ways to do that, and there is no magical solution. Something we are testing in Tunisia, is going through a legal framework and gives several fair advantages for entrepreneurs to start business. Plus there is something called compensation where you can keep your salary for one year while starting your own company (off course there is a threshold – one year as a safety net if you decide to leave your company and start a business). We don’t have any compensation or active labour programs where you get a salary when you don’t have a job, but this is something that is starting now to exist in some Arab countries. Offering this kind of safety net to encourage people to leave their jobs and test something different might be a way to do that. They very often stick to their jobs not because they are happy or productive, but because they have to pay back a credit or have a family to take care of. The storytelling I was talking about before is affecting also the re-shaping of the mindset and is working on the fear of failure and on the culture of entrepreneurship. This process needs to go hand in hand with a new narrative that encourage young people to think out of the box. Media and media professionals could also help, telling different stories to help build the pipeline. In economic terms, we should create value in the southern countries and this can only go through giving the entrepreneurs access to the market and to the funding, enable this kind of access. As for example, we have a new framework for start-ups if they get through an approval process, to have a foreign currency account they could use for their own business. Sometimes it is just about very small steps that make the process easier and more efficient.
How to encourage entrepreneurship in terms of skills not only related to the self-employment but also as a valuable competence in a dependent kind of job?
Self-employment is inevitably the first step towards entrepreneurship. Being self-employed or a free-lance is a way of testing this kind of independence, this requires also some facilitation from a legal framework perspective. If I take an example from Tunisia, a freelance here does not have any legal existence. We cannot exist as a freelance at the moment. Furthermore,the skills required to be an entrepreneur need to be developed as you don’t have here in Tunisia a specific set of the so called “hard-competencies”. These can also be supported and accelerated through enablers and incubators. We need more of these in our countries, we can count only two at the moment and not even covering the whole lifecycle of a the start-up. We need many more of these to create some sort of competition between them as well, some kind of alternative for the entrepreneurs.
Innovating the school curriculum
We definitely need to create incubators at the university and to adjust the curriculum in high school adding up more innovative subjects. Tunisian school today is working exactly the way it has worked before. I can see this with my children, they do the exact same thing I have done many years ago. The skills required for entrepreneurship like problem solving and critical thinking, managing the complexities, project and team working are not part of any high school curriculum today. Our reality requires a new vision and a lot of openness in order to test new approaches and to see how and if they work. This is the mindset we will have to work on, it’s not only about the entrepreneurs themselves because sometimes they have the right skills but keep hitting their head on the wall because they face new hurdles every single day. This is going to make them abandon the option and having people around them seeing what they have suffered, will have a ripple effect on everyone else. Working on innovation on all the possible levels will foster the entrepreneurial spirit and will make it become one of the pillars of the country’s strategy for the growth.
Which policies would be effective to increase the participation of immigrants women in the job market and the acquisition of higher skills (in the digital for example) and to improve the working condition and employability of women?
This is a very interesting question, because in the everyday reality of the Arab world you will see women who outperform men in all fields of STEM at the university and then they just disappear in the workplace or they remain in the entry level jobs.
How we can reverse this trend and make sure they have the same opportunities as men and make it able for them to access work position and top-management positions? I think that first we have a fundamental need to work on the culture and bias in the existing working place. Definitely, it will take some time but we have to start from that. The bias is subtle so nobody will tell you no for an opportunity, for you will not get this because you are a woman or you will not get funding of this project because you are a woman, but you might not even have access to that conversation or you’re proposal might be discarded and you might not have the same negotiation at the later stage. Hopefully, the new transformation of the job market, linked to the digital possibilities, will provide more opportunities for female professionals. To this extent, female entrepreneurship is going to open a lot of new opportunities for women because, from my experience, they are usually far more innovative than their male peers.
Certainly, freelancing is going to give an option for women as well and this brings a question on a strategic level: would be feasible for women from southern regions to build a common regional platform that would allow women to have different ways of accessing the regional job market in order to foster the southern territories? We will have to rethink the capacity of women, support them to speak up, to have more self-confidence and not to limit themselves but come to the discussion and stand up for their opportunities and rights and to be part of the discussion. The discussion of the quota is very controversial but might be essential to make a difference, for example in making sure we have 50% of female representation in the parliament. If we have women at this level of decision, this will end up having more female perspective in the policy making and in at the economic level.
We briefly touched upon the psychosocial image, how can training facilitators best support migrant entrepreneurs in Europe and the South?
Training can do a lot, but maybe we can think of training in a different way, for example peer to peer consulting can have a huge impact and act as a facilitator for new and young entrepreneurs. Many in the entrepreneurship environment complain about getting mentors and trainers that do not have real life experience themselves, giving kind of lessons of stuff they do not have a clue about. I am always thinking about creating and using exchange platforms to build a dialogue that is a bit provocative avoiding the themes we usually hear and go for the topics that are taboo and nobody wants to talk about. One example is to talk about the psychological aspect that typically is not being addressed and sometimes openly avoided. The path through entrepreneurship is extremely challenging and lonely and it can go very well in a direction of reward and personal growth or leading to a failure. This has to be said frankly! In any case, a real entrepreneur will find a way to stand up again and pursue the battle on the journey, we just don’t want to make it too difficult for them to stand up again and this phase might be supported by others who went through that and stood up again.