Diaries of a Disgruntled Development Worker: Disruption and Innovation at Flat6Labs

Credit: Farah Osman
Credit: Farah Osman
Credit: Farah Osman

Anyone who works in the field of development knows about “buzz words” – a new hot trend that we all scram to incorporate into our grant proposals and projects in order to get the big bucks. Yes, it’s true, we’re not all guardian angels searching for the best way to heal the world. The grim reality of it is, much like anything else, there is an agenda. And if you want to do the work you’re doing (i.e. get funding), you have to keep up and play the game. For the past couple of years, the buzz word du jour has been “entrepreneurship”.

As a result, I’ve become pretty disillusioned with the word. Everyone and their mother seems to have the new “it” entrepreneurship model, the key to making everyone the next Steve Jobs. Supposedly, they will solve unemployment by making everyone – indiscriminately – a gaggilionaire. Despite my cynicism, a recent encounter transformed the way I thought about entrepreneurship.

On September 25th, I attended Flat6Labs’ sixth Demo Day. For those unfamiliar with Flat6Labs, it is a start-up accelerator based in Cairo and recently expanded to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Flat6Labs selects high-potential start-ups and provides them with an intensive three-month accelerator program including business training, legal support, mentorship, networking opportunities, and seed funding.

The start-ups are housed at the Flat6Labs offices for the duration of their “cycle” – during which they have free reign of the premises and can utilize the office space 24/7. At the end of their cycle, the teams present their business models at Demo Day, where they pitch to an audience of potential investors (and the occasional disgruntled development worker like myself). Following their tenure with Flat6Labs, the companies graduate with a solid business plan and seed funding of 70-100,000 EGP – in exchange for a 10% to 15% stake of equity.

Flat6labs is not a non-profit organization – and thankfully so. Since it is not limited by the confines of civil society, it is able to make the tough decisions necessary to produce solid high-potential entrepreneurs. Applicants go through an extensive screening process, where the Flat6Labs team selects the most suitable candidates – dedicated, qualified and offering a solid business model that is innovative and “disruptive”.

Basically, they are looking for trailblazers that have what it takes to shake things up by offering something different. While this may not appeal to donor agencies, as it will be considered “creaming off” the top by selecting the “best” candidates, this could not be further from the truth. What Flat6Labs is actually doing is investing in the right people – those capable of building successful enterprises. In doing so, they are doing much more to tackle the issue of unemployment than many development practitioners working in the field of entrepreneurship.

Not everyone has what it takes to be an entrepreneur, and “entrepreneurship training” is not a miracle cure. There must be a foundation in place – a combination of the right people and the right idea. Flat6Labs finds that elusive combination and builds on it, increasing the likelihood of successful enterprises. While they may not avail this opportunity to everyone, their startups are helping to create jobs that will then offer employment to countless others. Not everyone can be an entrepreneur, but any successful enterprise needs capable employees.

As I’m writing this, I just received an e-mail from Flat6Labs thanking me for attending the demo day. The reality is this post is my way of thanking them. For taming the cynic in me. For schooling us development folk on what it takes to create a successful model of entrepreneurship. For being another example why collaboration between civil society and the private sector is essential in tackling social issues, particularly youth unemployment. And finally, for giving young entrepreneurs the opportunity, and more importantly the tools, to carve out their own space.