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Thursday, 23 May 2019

My Morning Routine: Ayman Ismail, founder and director of the AUC Venture Lab

My Morning Routine looks each week at how a successful member of the community starts their day — and then throws in a couple of random business questions just for fun. Speaking to us this week is Ayman Ismail, founder and director of the AUC Venture Lab, Egypt’s first university-based startup incubator and accelerator.

My name is Ayman Ismail. I’m an academic, educator, entrepreneur, consultant, researcher, news junkie and mentor. Maybe the thing that really defines me is that I’ve never been able to do just one single thing. I’m passionate about working with people who get things done on the ground, or who are interested in learning or doing things.

I have several day jobs. I teach entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial finance at AUC. In that capacity, I’m often asked whether you can really teach people to be entrepreneurs. My answer is that being an entrepreneur is a mixture of knowledge, skills and behavior. I can teach things that require knowledge — such as how to start and manage a business — and I can teach new skills. Behavior can’t be taught, but I can raise people’s awareness about their own behavior.

I also do a lot of research on entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship, economic development, and the policies that enable these things. I led the creation of the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) report, for example. I’m currently working with the Planning Ministry on an input paper for Egypt’s sustainable development strategy, trying to incorporate some ideas about entrepreneurship.

My hands-on work with entrepreneurs takes place through the AUC Venture Lab. Much of my work involves leading, developing and designing the program, but a lot of it is also about mentoring, discussion, networking and providing support to individual entrepreneurs and startups. I also work a lot with the social entrepreneurs of Nahdat El Mahrousa, who run businesses driven by social issues.

I’m not a morning person. My brain is more wired and alert at night, so that’s when most of my new ideas come to me. When I’m at AUC, if I’m not teaching, I’m talking with students or entrepreneurs, bouncing ideas around with them — the chance to engage with someone and brainstorm is the most exciting time of the day. That joint learning and exploration is probably the thing I love the most about what I do.

So when I’m working on anything that requires a lot of quiet focus, it’s usually late at night. The best time for me to do my long, reflective thinking is when I walk my dog late at night, when we’re moving and the dog decides where we’re going. It’s a good chance to just think and reflect.

I spend a lot of time following the news. There are two big stories that I’ve been following and thinking about a lot for the past few years and days, respectively: Trump and Huawei. I see the story of Trump as epitomizing the wave of populism currently sweeping the world, and our future in the next few decades will depend on how this wave continues moving. Similarly, the Huawei story may turn out to be a key milestone in the whole globalization narrative. It could change the course of our development, away from the global platforms we’ve been working so hard to create, with implications for technology and industrial policy.

The AUC Venture Lab has been running for six years, and in that time we’ve supported over 150 companies. When I came to AUC in 2011, entrepreneurship was really nascent in Egypt, and my mandate was to expand the entrepreneurship footprint.

Half of the companies we’ve supported have been funded through angel investment or venture capital, with the total investments approaching EGP 1 bn. That figure is admittedly skewed by the success of a star: Swvl. But this is typical in the world of startups. We’ve also mobilized hundreds of mentors, faculty members, students and partners to be engaged with us and learn more about entrepreneurship. And we’ve established a program — the first of its kind in the region — specifically to support fintech. It’s currently in its fourth year.

What do I do in my free time? Honestly, I’m not sure what free time means. I love reading, and I used to read a lot, but nowadays I read a lot of different things in a slightly fragmented way. The luxury of reading a long novel doesn’t really exist anymore.

One person I find very inspiring on a business and a personal level is Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba. He’s very interesting, grounded, with quite a bit of sarcasm in the way he speaks. He’s passionate about what he does and he knows which values he cares about. At the same time, he’s very adaptive.

Staying organized and on top of things is a challenge. We have a serious communication overload, and with that comes fragmentation. You get hundreds of messages every day on lots of different channels, and just managing all of these could be a full time job. The challenge and the most important thing is to figure out what your absolutely essential priorities are, and to focus on them, even if there are other things you would also really like to be involved in. Perhaps the most difficult thing to master is not feeling guilty about the things you aren’t able to do. You need to accept that you just won’t be able to do everything.

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