Oman Tech Fund’s Maha Al Balushi: ‘Words and ideas can change the world’

4 Jul 2018

Maha Al Balushi on stage at Inspirefest 2018. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

The managing director of Oman Technology Fund, Maha Al Balushi, told Inspirefest how her nation has a 25-year vision to be in the top ranks of innovation globally.

“The moment I handled this project, many people tried to exclude me and kept telling me how unqualified and incapable I am. But I learned not to listen to them and stay focused on my goals and just work hard and give what it takes.”

These are the words of Maha Al Balushi, the managing director of Oman Technology Fund (OTF) who spoke recently at Inspirefest 2018. Her mantra should hearten anyone faced with adversity while trying to achieve their goals.

‘Please don’t wait for inspiration. Be the inspiration. Because the world only changes from within’

Al Balushi is running the OTF’s first pre-seed accelerator, Techween, in collaboration with Ireland’s National Digital Research Centre (NDRC) as part of an overall strategy to spark innovation and entrepreneurship in her country.

Oman, which she describes as “a country of courage, wisdom and a rich culture”, is a nation of 4.6m people on the south-eastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, with the youth making up 29pc of its population.

Al Balushi is helping to spearhead Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said’s vision to develop the country’s economy, particularly through science and technology.

“He said that the national economy of a country is in fact based on small and medium industries. ‘These are the fundamentals and the foundation of all national economies.’ Since then, the entrepreneurial scene in Oman started to revive. I say revive because Omanis are known to have been entrepreneurs since forever.”

Empowering entrepreneurship

Al Balushi studied in Oman and Singapore, picking up two diplomas in IT, a degree in internet applications and a master’s in IT project management before returning to Oman as part of a national drive to generate a technology start-up ecosystem in the region.

She worked on a number of similar projects in Muscat before moving to OTF and kicking off the Techween programme, which recently concluded its first cycle and involved the entire cohort heading to Dublin for a two-week stint at NDRC.

Sas is an Arabic concept that refers to any solid foundation. Al Balushi helped to evolve the Sas Centre for Entrepreneurship, the first incubation centre in Oman and a key part of the drive to support its SME ecosystem.

“I like working with start-ups. It is so demanding, but it is fun and enjoyable and certainly not easy.”

As Al Balushi already said, she had to ignore naysayers and attempts at exclusion to get on with her job.

“The lesson I would share from this experience is, please don’t underestimate your ability to make a difference, no matter what people tell you. Words and ideas can change the world.”

Oman was ranked last year in the Global Entrepreneurship Index as third out of Arab countries for innovation and 33 out of 137 countries. It has achieved notable successes but the road ahead is long.

Al Balushi added that last year, Oman ranked 77 in the Global Innovation Index, down from 69 two years earlier, and it was recognised that the country was falling behind on innovation.

In 2015, craving a new challenge, Al Balushi joined the country’s research council.

“So, we developed our own national innovation development strategy that brought together 70 experts from government to private business and academia.

“If the sultanate can maintain a two-point increase annually, Oman will be among the leading countries in the next 25 years.”

Ambition and hard work

Middle Eastern promise: NDRC to help run accelerator in Oman

Image: Maha Al Balushi, managing director of Techween at OTF, with Gary Leyden, commercial director at NDRC. Image: Shane O’Neill/SON Photographic

However, as she told Inspirefest, she had to convince the country’s finance ministry to approve a $1m budget and was greeted with scepticism.

“I went back to my office and changed the whole model. I utilised my network, which was the key thing, and utilised by engagement with the entrepreneurial infrastructure in Oman and started to forge relationships with some organisations that are still supporting the programme to now.

“One of the lessons I learned from that experience is that networking works. Effective networking is not the result of being lucky, it requires hard work, persistence and genuine intentions, and you would be surprised with the results you would achieve.”

Al Balushi was then headhunted by OTF to help spark a start-up renaissance in Oman. Very quickly, she found herself thrown in at the deep end. “I was laughing because I was wondering how on Earth we would achieve the deadlines we had set, but we did it.”

A key aspect was her relationship with the NDRC in Dublin, which has proven invaluable.

“About 50pc of my first cohort was female, which was amazing. In two-and-a-half months, we selected 10 start-ups, began our boot camp and within two weeks started our first cohort.”

The key, Al Balushi said, was keeping a finger on the pulse of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region’s start-up scene. Entrepreneurship and funding is evolving in the MENA region.

“2017 was an excellent year of funding, with $650m spent on 270 deals. With the activation of Techween, we managed to achieve a significant jump in the number of investments being done compared to 2016. It was a huge honour to be part of enhancing the ranking of the country by four points.

“My lesson learned from what we did in two-and-a-half months is not so much about titles, it is about impact and inspiration, because impact involves getting results and influence is about spreading the passion. Do your work and by doing it, you will inspire your surroundings.”

Al Balushi said her journey has been tough but made bearable by her start-up colleagues and family.

“The journey was not easy. On one hand, I learned a lot of lessons but others required exceptional strength and things to go through.

“The most difficult was when I lost my mum just a few weeks before the integration with the Sas Centre and she died suddenly. The timing was very critical and the grief was so huge, but I did it for her because she was my inspiration. She taught me all I know even though she was illiterate.

“That’s my story in a nutshell,” Al Balushi concluded. “My last message is, please don’t wait for inspiration. Be the inspiration. Because the world only changes from within.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2019 are available now.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years