In the lush gardens of the Ramallah Movenpick – one of Palestine’s five star hotels –the leafy greenery contrasts the desert climate outside beyond the high walls. Samir Hulileh, who serves as Chairman of the Board of the hotel, joins me in the evening warmth. He is the CEO of the Palestine Development and Investment Company Ltd (PADICO HOLDING), a limited public shareholding company traded on the Palestine Exchange (PEX). It has a paid-in capital of $250 million (Dh918 million) which constitutes 9 per cent of the market capitalisation.
“The whole purpose of PADICO HOLDING was to develop and strengthen the Palestinian economy by investing in vital economic sectors,” says Hulileh in his calm, resilient demeanour. “That was the vision of Palestinian and Arab entrepreneurs — the founders of PADICO HOLDING. And I think they have established it successfully; making profit in spite of the challenging circumstances in Palestine.”
Aside from its investments, PADICO HOLDING believes it has an obligation to invest in Palestine’s youth and create more innovative, entrepreneurial young leaders to help not only reduce unemployment but empower the economy with new ideas. They see this as part of the company’s social responsibility strategy in addressing education and the employability skill gap among Palestine’s youth.
“As a company, we understand the importance of contributing to the development of the upcoming generations. We have to support and inspire our youth for their future and the future of Palestine”, he says.
As one of Palestine’s most successful businessmen, Hulileh is quick to point out that his road to success was a bumpy one: “When my first startup failed I cried for days. I didn’t know where to go or who to turn to. But after some time, I picked myself up, dusted myself down and tried again.
This experience is one of the reasons why Hulileh provides mentorship and guidance through PADICO HOLDING’s interventions in initiatives like the Oasis500 bootcamp that they support and invited to Palestine.
“The Oasis500 bootcamp can positively affect the competitiveness of Palestinian entrepreneurs. It channels their innovative energy towards successful entrepreneurial ventures.”
Oasis500 is an ambitious company that seeks to shape the future of the Middle East’s economic landscape. Through intensive workshops and the provision of seed funding for startups, Oasis500 invests in the Arab youth and their business ideas. It provides young entrepreneurs with necessary business skills such as pitching to investors; creating budgets; writing income sheets and other vital tools. The objective is to transform information & communication technology ideas into healthy businesses with real potential to succeed.
For the previous six days, Palestine’s new generation of entrepreneurs had been trying to do just that — working on turning their business dreams into a tangible reality.
The initiative, usually based in Jordan, has seen twelve waves of students benefit from its network of mentors and funding. Launched in 2011, the forum hopes to invest in 500 companies in the next four years. Oasis500 has invested in 52 startups so far in 19 months. Now, it is breathing new life into the Palestinian economy by nurturing Palestine’s future business leaders.
Once the students successfully pass the six-day boot camp and selection process, the best ideas receive seed funding. The entrepreneurs are then given office space in the forum’s business ‘incubators’ where they receive examination and intensive guidance. There is also a chance to get angel funding from the network of investors that are sprouting up across the Middle East. When the startup goes on to secure capital, Oasis500 shares in their success as a business partner.
One of the students at the Ramallah forum is Rateb Rabi, a 34-year-old from occupied East Jerusalem. He was very eager to participate in Palestine’s first initiative. “For the last two years, it has taken place in Jordan. When it was announced on Facebook it would be coming to Ramallah, I was the first applicant, the minute they announced it.”
The challenge of taking the Oasis500 from Amman to Ramallah was significant, with initial funding problems and the omnipresence of Israel’s occupation. According to Rateb, “we had numerous speakers and people from Amman who weren’t able to make it. But they managed to Skype in and present their ideas.”
A major coup for the Oasis500 forum was that out of the 60 Palestinians who took part, 28 had come from Gaza. Most of these students had never been to the West Bank. This was the first time they were granted conditional travel visas. Speaking of his fellow students, Rateb says, “I was extremely glad the students from Gaza joined us. It is very important and a great opportunity for exchange.”
Having secured his place, Rateb committed to making the most of the opportunity. He can’t give specifics about his start up but assures it will lead to economic empowerment across the region by connecting Arab businesses through the internet.
“I hope my project will be up and running in three months. The nice thing is that we weren’t working on fictional projects — hypothetical, imaginary projects — we were working on our own project. It’s developed a lot since the first day of the forum.”
The forum comes to Palestine at a time when there is a dire need for investment in youth and new initiatives. In the first quarter of 2012, the West Bank and Gaza combined had a 23.9 per cent unemployment rate. According to a World Bank report published in March, the “Palestinian Authority continues to experience a severe fiscal crisis, which threatens to become protracted given recent and projected declines in donor assistance”. Investment in young visionaries is exactly what Palestine needs to enable them to reach their full potential.
Rasha Hussain, a 24-year-old from Ramallah, is another Oasis500 student. Her business idea is an online event management system. Rasha believes the forum could be a way to help focus aid into channels that would benefit Palestinian youth. She asserts investing in education is key for future development. “Young entrepreneurs really lack guidance and mentorship. There is a lot of donor money here in Palestine but we need training and guidance to help us plan what we’re going to do with it,” she says.
Rasha was touched by Hulileh’s personal story of his rise to success. “Like Samir, my first start-up also failed miserably. We made a lot of mistakes. At the Oasis500 bootcamp training, we had this session called: Nineteen Reasons Why Startups Fail. We did fifteen of them! When Samir failed, he was sad. But he tried another idea, and another — he never gave up. He inspires us to be more determined and keep trying,” Rasha reflects. “Now, he looks at us and says he loves our energy and our drive.”
This attitude is representative of a changing mood throughout Palestine — a commitment to live through, rather than under, the occupation. There is a desire to build a new kind of Palestine — one that has moved on from the old adage of ‘to resist is to live’. People are no longer happy to abide by former President Yasser Arafat’s belief that excelling in any way would undermines the Palestinian struggle and resistance movement. Palestinians are now desperate to prosper; desperate to work; desperate to succeed.
Oasis500 students personify this changing national psyche. “Compared with entrepreneurs around the world, we are unequal,” Rasha explains, “but I also think this situation is helping us to create – to think outside the box. It exhausts us and it can depress us. But then, you look at the successful people from Palestine and you say, ‘people did it, why shouldn’t I’? You just have to push yourself harder and push for change”.
According to Hulileh, “the way to create hope is not just by ending the occupation - which is of course our aim - but it has lasted for so long – we must create an oasis for this youth — a place where they can feel they could be entrepreneurs who can be equal to other entrepreneurs of the world”. Samir believes the Arab Spring has also had a marked impact on the Palestinian appetite for success. “The Palestinian youth are unfortunate because the occupation is still here but they are fortunate because they have seen the Arab Spring. This has moved something in their hearts and minds without necessarily translating it into a revolution. It has taught them to be more persistent, to search for knowledge, to look for opportunities in spite of the difficulties. They have an internal power — a motor that is making them seek knowledge, seek education and seek opportunities.”
The writer is a freelance journalist from London.