Entrepreneurship has long been recognized as an asset to business and a popular career choice due to the flexibility and freedom it offers. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, three quarters of the population consider entrepreneurship a good career choice. That’s the highest global average, according to the London Business School’s Global Entrepreneurship Research Association.
The hope that young adults across the MENA region have for entrepreneurship stands in direct contrast to the Arab youth unemployment rate of nearly 23 percent – especially when the global rate is much lower at 13.7 percent. The promise of self-reliance is important to students in the region who are willing to work harder and longer if it means increasing their well-being and sense of security.
Countries like the United Arab Emirates are clear examples of this phenomenon – they rank first among MENA countries for offering entrepreneurial opportunities and are among the top economies supporting entrepreneurs worldwide.
Supply and demand – what then?
While the landscape is ripe for budding entrepreneurs with ideas they want to take to the next level, they need entrepreneurial education to support them. The ecosystem must cultivate entrepreneurship, or we risk the hard work of youth succumbing to either luck or beneficial social capital. In both cases we can and should do better. Both as a community preparing youth to grow up to be contributing citizens and residents of the MENA region; and as incubators of great minds developing and delivering sustainable solutions.
The all-encompassing promise of entrepreneurship is often touted as the next solution to the MENA region’s unemployment crisis. But what does that look like in practice and what steps are we taking to forge strategic partnerships?
History tells us that we will need a set of solutions working in harmony to deal with the growing crisis that poses a security threat to peace and prosperity. No organization or sector can address all of the contextual issues in a region with such a disproportionate number of displaced people, health and economic crises, ongoing conflicts, natural disasters and a myriad of other multiplying variables. But we do have evidence that the future of work has entrepreneurship as a key solution to the bigger picture – especially now that entrepreneurial ecosystems are growing significantly in the MENA region.
Collaboration and partnership are key
Comprehensive entrepreneurship education requires working with industry partners to develop the professional and growth skills necessary for success. This method requires a shift in thinking away from traditional teaching approaches and requires the collaborative effort of professors, industry experts and other professionals to allow students to transpire their ideas and prepare for the entrepreneurial journey.
As more innovation and incubator units emerge alongside science and technology parks in the region, the need for structure has become an integral part of their continued success. Students should demand and expect a systematised, high-quality entrepreneurship education as part of the university experience. In reality, if we get this right, it will be an asset to all post-secondary learning programs – because the best ideas come from anywhere and everywhere.
From theory to practice
The skills learned through traditional higher education are just one way Arab youth can prepare for successful entrepreneurial careers. Practical experience is necessary to develop the transferrable skills and abilities needed to take students from university into employment or business ownership. Given the need for experiential learning journeys, universities cannot be expected to be the only institution providing learning opportunities. Private sector initiatives can and should play a key role in contributing responsibly to practical learning programs that generate broader benefits for entrepreneurial development in the region.
When done right, these strategic partnerships offer the best chance of an education that effectively enables youth to learn highly transferrable skills that are sought after by employers, regardless of their background. This includes organisational, managerial, critical thinking and interpersonal skills which will serve them well as they join the workforce. These are the skills that the World Economic Forum has identified as tomorrow’s job skills.
Corporate University Bridge
Allied companies should be part of the solution. Science is coming to terms with the reality that companies, frustrated by the skills of new graduates, are now creating their own learning programs. Everyone benefits from a joint approach – students, universities and companies. When universities work with industry partners with a genuine belief that every student has expertise to offer, together they can bridge the gap. This bridge provides avenues for students to develop these commendable entrepreneurial skills. Additionally, these students will find the skills to develop early-stage ideas about business opportunities for themselves and their communities. If companies use them wisely, they will support these good ideas and perhaps diversify their own business investments.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve witnessed universities scramble to provide responsive service to their students. In order to continue to serve students, university leadership needs to create partnership opportunities with the private sector to enhance entrepreneurship education as a key element of any degree.
dr Sonia Ben Jaafar is the CEO of the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education