Interview: Najla Al Midfa, CEO, Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre (Sheraa)

How would you assess the environment of innovation and creativity for entrepreneurs?

NAJLA AL MIDFA: Our approach goes beyond funding, and encourages an entrepreneurial spirit and mindset. This is achieved in part through inspiring would-be entrepreneurs through events like the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival. At the same time, hands-on efforts to equip start-up founders with mentorship and the necessary skills to thrive is a key aspect of developing a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Another crucial element in fostering this culture is the involvement of local corporates. These businesses are essential for supporting entrepreneurship and creativity, as they are often the first to take a risk on new, innovative solutions from start-ups. A prime example is the collaboration with businesses facing specific challenges. They approach us seeking innovative solutions from start-ups and we offer them a chance to implement their ideas as a proof of concept.

Looking forwards, Sharjah is expanding its focus. While we have concentrated on nurturing local talent, we are also attracting international start-ups, especially those aligned with our key industries. We aim to create a balanced ecosystem that supports local entrepreneurship while integrating global innovations.

What role do incubators and accelerators play in the entrepreneurship ecosystem?

AL MIDFA: Incubators and accelerators are crucial, particularly for first-time or young founders. Experienced entrepreneurs might already have the necessary resources and networks, but newcomers often lack both expertise in business building and connections to investors and customers. This is where Sheraa’s role as a government entity becomes crucial. We provide mentorship and leverage our network, including prominent advisors and CEOs from leading firms, to open doors for these emerging entrepreneurs, as well as offer feedback to ensure start-ups are investment-ready.

While there has been significant growth in venture capital availability since 2016, it is essential to recognise that venture capital is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Traditional banks often require an extensive track record, which many start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) do not have. Venture capitalists typically seek high-growth companies with the potential for quick scaling and a clear exit strategy. However, this leaves a substantial gap for SMEs that contribute significantly to the economy but do not fit the venture capital model. These companies require alternative financing options, where there is still room for improvement. Identifying and providing these alternative funding mechanisms is essential for supporting a broader range of businesses in our economy.

In what ways does Sharjah enable a supportive environment for women to thrive in the business sector?

AL MIDFA: Supporting female entrepreneurs has been a central aspect of Sharjah’s strategy. Approximately 52% of the start-ups incubated to date are led by women. This achievement reflects our commitment to diversity and inclusiveness. Notably, Sheraa’s chairperson and CEO are women, further underscoring our focus on gender equality. We have implemented this commitment in practical ways. For instance, we ensure that the judging panel is not exclusively male in our pitch competitions. This approach also extends to the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival, where we aim for a balanced representation of male and female speakers.

Recognising women’s challenges in scaling their businesses, we plan to launch a new initiative focused on helping existing female entrepreneurs expand and gain greater access to capital. This is particularly important considering the global statistic that only 2% of venture capital funding is awarded to women-led ventures. Our goal is to address this disparity, acknowledging that traditional venture capital and banking models often do not align with the needs of female-led businesses.