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UAE Universities Foster a Climate of Entrepreneurship

Deans of Zayed university and Dubai's London Business School talk about cultivating entrepreneurship among students.

By Inc.Arabia Staff
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As international universities establish a presence in the UAE, academic institutions are increasingly tailoring their programs to nurture entrepreneurship among students and alumni communities. Notable institutions like the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), which is slated to open in 2024, and renowned names like the London Business School (LBS), which opened in 2007 in Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC), are increasingly competing for talents with local establishments like the American University of Sharjah and Zayed University. Beyond facilitating access to high-quality education, academic institutions are assuming a pivotal role in nurturing an entrepreneurial spirit in their student and alumni communities.

Nurturing an Entrepreneurial Mindset

In an emailed interview, Professor Paul Hopkinson, the Dean of the College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Zayed University, tells Inc. Arabia that "Universities in the MENA region play a vital role in fostering the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders. At ZU, our educational offerings are designed to promote innovation and entrepreneurship, not only through the academic content of our programs, but also through clubs, societies, and extracurricular activities."

While international higher education institutions have long emphasized entrepreneurship, the latest trends revolve around combining practice with theory. LBS, for instance, currently combines traditional classroom education with co-curricular activities to provide students with a holistic entrepreneurial experience.

A 2019 report published by the American University of Sharjah and Family Business in the Arab World Observatory (FBAO) compared UAE students with a sample of students from other Arab countries and a sample of students from the rest of the world. The report noted that, with more than 50% of the UAE’s population between 25 and 54 years old, and more than 12% between the ages of 15 and 24, creating an entrepreneurial mindset in youth is key to developing a knowledge-based economy. The study found that entrepreneurial appetites among UAE students were high compared to students from the rest of the world, with entrepreneurial intentions rising in the five years post-graduation. 

Although university systems were found to play a key role in developing entrepreneurial attitudes, at the time that the report was published, the university system in the UAE had not developed pathways to support and develop entrepreneurship. The study concluded that a focused emphasis on entrepreneurship during a student's academic journey could significantly enhance their entrepreneurial acumen and open avenues for post-graduation entrepreneurial endeavors. It recommended transforming universities into knowledge-based entrepreneurial models to reshape the entire culture of educational institutions and nurture an entrepreneurial mindset.

Ramping up the Entrepreneurial Ecosystem at Universities

Comparing MENA’s entrepreneurial ecosystem to more mature ecosystems in the UK, the US, and India, Dean François Ortalo-Magné of Dubai’s LBS notes that the MENA region is quickly catching up. He tells us that, for entrepreneurs, "this journey spans from idea inception to participating in competitions, securing investments, and scaling their startups." He adds that the established ecosystem of business schools like LBS gives students a global perspective and exposure, ensuring they are prepared for the entrepreneurial landscape, telling us that LBS leverages its network of alumni, faculty, and mentors worldwide to provide students with access to a global pool of advisors and supporters.

LBS, like other universities, hosts startup competitions and challenges, offering cash prizes and additional benefits - including opportunities for crowdsourcing on a tokenized digital platform funded by LBS alumni. These platforms serve as launchpads for entrepreneurs. Ramzi Qannati, Co-President of the LBS Entrepreneurship Club and CEO of femtech startup Maternally tells us that LBS’s commitment is reflected in its appointment of an executive dean for its Dubai Campus, which he sees as a reflection of the growing significance of entrepreneurship in the region.

Professor Hopkinson explains how Zayed University, which has branches in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, offers students opportunities to cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset through initiatives like the Innovative Partner Challenge Program – a program that encourages students from diverse fields to collaborate on solving real-world problems creatively by employing skills and knowledge from various disciplines. Zayed University is a signatory to the UAE’s University Entrepreneurship Program (UEP), a Dubai Future Foundation initiative designed to enable students to graduate with both formal degree qualifications and a concrete business idea.

Zayed University has integrated the essential skill sets for nurturing entrepreneurial mindsets into its Business Transformation major and concentration in entrepreneurship and innovation. The university provides students with opportunities to apply these skills through live projects and challenges. Facilities like the university’s Innovation Centre, the NextGen Centre, the Smart Lab, and the newly-developed science lab for AI, VR, robotics, and drones, act as test and development labs for projects.

Many UAE universities and startups have already plugged into the global ecosystem through collaborations with international organizations. Zayed University, for instance, has worked with global corporations and startup organizations on events like the UAE Tourism Hackathon, the AI and Sustainability Hackathon, and the UN Data Science Hackathon. These events, in conjunction with international partnerships and connections, are facilitating further collaboration and innovation.

With educational institutions actively supporting entrepreneurship through competitions and initiatives, Qannati believes that the region will continue to grow. He encourages individuals to be curious and to identify problems that resonate with them personally or within their communities, noting that entrepreneurship is about addressing everyday challenges, not just creating the next tech giant.

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