It’s only natural to wonder at the long-term effects of the hope and possibilities spurred by the demonstrations beamed into our homes and onto our mobile phones during what became known as the Arab Spring. Though now separated from the beginning of the Arab Spring by over two years, one can find evidence of systemic change in the actions of entrepreneurs in the region. One such agent of change is embodied in Samer Azar, of the Lebanese AltCity collective.
Samer Azar represents the financial side of a business group he champions as “born out of the belief that people can achieve their potential if given access to the tools and resources that enable them to create, innovate and produce”. AltCity acts as a sort of hub of inspiration for aspiring entrepreneurs in Lebanon and the region, creating a welcoming space for new ideas in the fields of design, business, and technology. Samer adds that AltCity “is based on the idea that collaboration is the hotbed of innovation, and that technology has a critical role to play in connecting people and building ‘communities of support’ and ‘communities of interest’”.
"Building innovative, disruptive businesses is the only way forward"
Samer and the team of Lebanese idealists who make up the collective hope to create the framework for vibrant homegrown creations that will revitalize the local economy and inspire future leaders of creativity. The collective achieves their goals by hosting events for other techies, intellectuals, and all around creative-minded people to gather, share ideas, and support each other in the act of inspiring and maintaining startups in design, business, and technology. AltCity hopes to see no man or woman left behind in advancing the region through innovative ideas.
AltCity definitely projects a youthful, energetic vibe—demonstrated in part by their kooky Google-style interior space, and by their truly bold mission. But Samer points out that “building innovative, disruptive businesses is the only way forward”, explaining that the old ways of fostering idea creation are either antiquated, or have proven to be non-existent. What’s needed, in the eyes of the AltCity group, are brave, emboldened visionaries who dare to scratch out a place of their own among stale and outdated strategies. This is a revolution in thought as much as it is one of action.
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Hamra Street’s experimental atmosphere has given life to emboldened producers at all levels within society. In Samer’s opinion, “a new identity is emerging, one that is being recreated from the bottom up. I think these are the most exciting times to work here, due to the rapidly shifting paradigms and hence the large opportunities”. Within this paradigmatic shift lies a host of opportunities to inspire continued innovation in fields outside the realm of traditional business, and even the possibility to spread similar aspirations to the region as a whole. All it takes to create the desire for change, in the view of groups like AltCity, is for similarly minded individuals to congregate and share their experiences. One such conference aimed at providing just this is the AMENDS program.
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Having participated in Stanford’s AMENDS initiative, a networking conference for young entrepreneurs from the MENA region, Samer has nothing but praise for the program. On the subject of his fellow participants, Samer believes that ”the passion of the participants for their causes, whether social, humanitarian, economic all embodies the new spirit of hope blowing in the region. They are the Arab spring.”
Truly, it will be through the machinations of this new generation of thinkers and problem-solvers that tangible solutions will arise from the Arab moment. But while the market might be ripe for fresh business, Samer hopes that the aspirations of MENA entrepreneurs are more robust than just simply a drive for profit, saying: ”I would like to see more young people get into business with the focus on creating value rather than just making money. This nuance makes the difference between unemployment-as-usual and breakthrough, disruptive ideas, capable of propelling our fledgling economies. The youth of the MENA region have the duty and the responsibility to innovate on ways of creating value and building global businesses, our future all depends on it.”
However, altruistic endeavors alone won’t bring about the results needed to see the tangible change. Adaptability must accompany new models of doing business if full growth is to be achieved. Samer and the folks at AltCity relish the chaos and instability of their surroundings, truly believing in the parable of the lowly reed and the mighty oak. While the brittle oak might snap in the storm, the reed’s flexibility and adaptive nature lead it to outlast its competitor. In this way, so too must new business thrive on change––they must learn to see obstacles as opportunities. In Samer’s own words, “the (businesses) that are capable of embracing these factors are the most likely to succeed in the brave new Arab world”. With these challenges in mind, it could be easy for one to be a bit overwhelmed.
And yet, pessimism is nowhere to be found for the entrepreneurs involved in AltCity. Acknowledging the unconventional nature of AltCity’s business model, Samer hopes to harness the unprecedented environment surrounding the energy of bustling Hamra Street to achieve something worthwhile. All of which is done with a smile, a belief in others, and an unshaken confidence in their mission, “we are incurably optimistic and believe that within the deep structural, political, and economic problems lay exceptional economic opportunities for the youth”.
A seed is planted and, in the right hands, all that is left is to wait for it to bloom.
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