Can Entrepreneurship Save the Middle East?

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Teaching entrepreneurship in the 'eye of the storm' during 'Arab Spring'

"...Many of these students come to class excited about school for the first time in their lives."
Jason White, Project Director

It may be surprising that on May 2, 2011, the day the world woke up to find out Osama Bin Laden had been killed, American entrepreneurship professors in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia delivered a mid-term exam to almost 1,200 students without incident, or even a mention of the event.

Turn on any major news network and the scene is of Arabs in and around the Middle East protesting in the streets. Meanwhile, students in the Kent State/King Saud University Entrepreneurship Program are brainstorming unique business ideas, and planning to start them. This is a new concept in Saudi education. These students are learning how to build a future beyond oil production – bringing new services that Saudi Arabia does not have, such as road side assistance and home PC repair. They are also coming up with new and exciting inventions, such as plasma screen hub caps that flash digital images while driving. While some countries in the Arab world seem to be teetering on the brink of chaos, these students are quietly learning how to build businesses to support themselves and expand the economy.

“I have seen some incredible personal transformations in many students over the course of a semester. Many of these students come to class excited about school for the first time in their lives”. Said Project Director, Jason White.

The Kent State/King Saud University Entrepreneurship Program in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is a three year, $3.4 million dollar partnership program between the two universities.

Kent State University, based in Kent, Ohio, has developed many international partnership programs all over the world. King Saud University is ranked number one in the Middle East by the QS World University Rankings, and number 221 in the world.

The program develops students along three axes: introducing business concepts, research and planning and to improve their English skills. The program achieves these three goals by training students to conceive of a business idea, perform a feasibility assessment, and write a business plan. The program teaches roughly 2,400 male students each year over two semesters. The average age of a student is 19.

The curriculum is taught by a diverse team of educators from all over the world. The professors are led by Jason White, the on-site Project Director for Kent State University. Mr. White has substantial entrepreneurship experience. He has helped build and sell a multi-million dollar company, and has helped to sell other businesses for owners with Citigroup’s Capital Strategies division. Jason has managed start-up and growth stage companies in the U.S and south East Asia for over 10 years.

The program staff includes 10 professors with diverse entrepreneurial backgrounds. These backgrounds range from seasoned academics with business experience, to successful entrepreneurs with a desire to teach. Dr. Michael Camarata, an American professor has taught business in U.S. Universities for four decades. Professor Michael Conroy, an Australian citizen, teaches while still running his own company with offices in Ireland, India and the Philippines.

These professors build close relationships with their students, and live in normal apartments in average Saudi neighborhoods. Saudi students are curious about life outside of Saudi Arabia, and are exposed to satellite T.V, the Internet, cell phones, and most are eager to talk to professors about their lives.

“I have decided I will focus on business in my studies because of this class,” said Abdulghfoor Rashed, one of Jason’s students, currently preparing to pitch his business idea to an angel investor.

While the professors took a decidedly prudent strategy to not discuss the events of the day in class, many students have approached teachers to congratulate them, or give them a quiet “hi-five”. While these students speak quietly, because not everyone shares their views, they are excited to connect with Americans and eager to share their disapproval regarding extremism.

Based on several dialogues over the last few days, it appears that a third of the University population is happy Bin Laden is dead, a third feels unhappy, and a third has mixed feelings. The interesting thing is that when teachers are approached by a group of students about this issue, a disagreement often breaks out among the group of students themselves -- divided along those lines. The important thing to note is that a genuine dialogue occurs – these students are interested in talking about it and sharing their views, but the conversation does not escalate into threats or violence.

While the professors of the Kent State/King Saud University program remain vigilant regarding security threats in Riyadh, most feel as if nothing has changed since the killing of Osama Bin Laden, or even since the beginning of the ‘Arab Spring’ which started in Tunisia. None of the group has experienced any angry sentiment or rudeness in the University, or in the greater city.

What professors do see is tremendous construction. Everywhere one goes in Riyadh, one can see cranes and dust clouds of thousands of men constructing office buildings and the infrastructure to support them in the middle of the Arabian Desert. While the headlines may make one think that there are mass killings on the every street in the region, Riyadh and most other cities in Saudi Arabia are quietly expanding.

While the headlines show terror, the reality for the vast majority of Arabs is business as usual, and the hope of peacefully moving towards a world of personal empowerment and away from tyranny. While most people in the U.S. watch the horrors unfolding in the Middle East and are taking bearish positions on Wall Street, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia continues to quietly grow into the future.

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Jason White

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