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The Rise of Middle East's Unicorn Start-ups. What is next?

How the Middle East became the center of thriving Unicorn Start-ups and how talent is crucial for success.

2020 was a challenging year for many businesses across the globe. The pandemic resulted in decreased funding worldwide—even lower than the financial crisis in 2008. But how predictable it seemed to be; the Middle East turned that trend around with VCs (venture capitalists) investing a record amount of 1.2 billion USD in MENA-based later-stage start-ups. This changed the strategy from investing in many early-stage start-ups to investing in later-stage start-ups, mostly in the tech industry. It opened a path for true innovation, and it freed the way for the rise of the Middle East’s unicorn start-ups.

Unicorn start-ups in the Middle East

Start-ups have always been interesting to investors. However, start-ups that were about to scale up never had priority, as usually the investment needed for them is higher than for their counterparts. This resulted in stagnant innovation when later-stage start-ups reach the ceiling of possibilities because of stagnating investment.

But that is no longer the case. If any, COVID-19 has taught us how important technology is in our day-to-day lives. Because of this, we did not have any choice but to digitalize rapidly to stay ahead of the game. And this was recognized by VCs. For example; Swvl—a Dubai-based provider of mass transit and shared mobility solutions—has become the very first MENA region start-up that lists on the US Nasdaq! This result was only made possible by this shift in mindset, believing that there is a growth opportunity in mass transit systems, and supporting a later-stage start-up.

Talent is crucial for a sustained growth

So how does having the right talent contribute to this success? It must be a no-brainer that apart from investment, the right skills are needed to stay ahead of the competition and succeed in becoming a unicorn in the first place. Change is constant—and adapting to change, keeping up with trends, and developing skills are needed to continue to thrive as a person and as a business.

It is critical to understand your workforce. What is the talent you have today and what is the talent that you need for the future? How can we bridge that gap and develop our people to get there and utilize their full potential? Because—let’s face it—only when employees live up to their full potential, they might consider staying on and continuing to thrive for you.

Change is constant—and adapting to change, keeping up with trends, and developing skills are needed to continue to thrive as a person and as a business.

How to keep talent engaged and committed when going from a start-up to a unicorn?

The biggest talent challenge that start-ups face in becoming a unicorn is retaining the talent they have thoroughly sourced and who helped them grow.

The change in company structure results in a changing of roles, how a business is organized, and how talent moves along the employee lifecycle. It requires organizations to identify gaps in skills needed for now and for the future. Employees start asking questions like: how will my career evolve here? or how can I increase my skills?

Having a learning path and succession planning strategy rolled out for employees to understand what to expect and how to develop helps manage expectations and helps people own their career path. Growing up as a business also means becoming mature in how you organize yourselves and identifying the need for an HR department that nurtures a talent management strategy.

The pandemic has accelerated development in the start-up scenes in the MENA region. This leads to the rise of the Middle East’s unicorn start-ups. And when start-ups are in the process of evolving into unicorns, retaining the existing talent, and investing in them is crucial. Empower them with the skills that are needed to stay ahead of the game and believe in their potential. They will give it back to you—and who knows – maybe you can be the next unicorn start-up?


Get in touch with us so we can help you develop the talent of the future!

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Mohamed Farid

Mohamed is a seasoned Business Leader with more than 24 years in the Technology and Services industries, out of which 14 years in Human Capital Management. Mohamed initiated SHL operations in the Middle East from onset in 2008 and since then has been responsible for the performance, strategy, and expansion of the organization in MENA Region. With a long history of building strong customer relationships, coupled with the market know-how to specify, strategize, and define opportunities to support SHL clients, he is an active public speaker and an advisor to various Middle East government initiatives in Human Capital and AI. Mohamed has a master’s degree from Middlesex University in Business Information Technology and is an Associate Alumni of MIT Sloan School of Management.

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