Dina Sherif, the new Executive Director of the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship reflects on the mindset that guided her decision to join the organisation.
I am the daughter of Egyptian immigrants who came to the United States in the early 1970s in search of a better future. At the time, many believed the future of ‘developing’ countries, like Egypt, was grim. My parents were not alone in their exodus. Many well-educated Egyptians left to find better opportunities and to build a better life for their families in the West, or what we often refer to as the 'developed' world. Leaving your country of origin is never an easy thing. My parents had a deep love for Egypt, often referred to as Um El Donia or Mother of the World. Being Egyptian was at the very center of our lives in America. Forgetting our roots was never an option. It was this focus on the Egyptian part of my identity that somehow made moving back ‘home’ in my teens, less difficult than it should have been.
For those who know me, my love for Egypt, the Middle East and Africa has no boundaries. It is a love that runs deep. Grim as that part of the world may seem to others, I am who I am today because of that part of the world. It is where I flourished, not just as a professional, but as a human being. It is there that I embraced my sense of personal responsibility, and commitment to work for positive change and sustainable development. It is also where I learned that obstacles can become opportunities for growth and evolution. Although the economic story of the twenty first century is still in its youth, it is difficult to deny that the very markets that seemed void of opportunity for the generation of my parents are now seen as places with enormous potential.
For over a decade, GDP growth has been noticeably faster in 'emerging' markets than in 'developed' markets. Sustaining that growth, however, can only be achieved if we unlock the enormous potential of our youth. The Arab region, where I come from, is famous for its young population. It's also famous for its extremely high youth unemployment rates. Africa as a whole is not any different. Same for many parts of Asia and Latin America. What this tells us, is that even though these economies are growing, they aren't growing fast enough to meet the growing demand for jobs by their youth. This demand is further compounded by global problems in healthcare, education, climate change, gender equality, and so forth. But, what if we stopped considering youth as a burden, but instead saw them as the very engine that could drive inclusive and sustainable growth and development? What would be needed to achieve this transformation?
When I co-founded Cairo based Ahead of the Curve (ATC) back in 2012, we were driven by: 1) my belief in the power of the private sector to solve some of our most pressing global challenges, and 2) my faith in the power of youth to design the new business models required to transform the broken systems that they inherited and to create the jobs that they needed. My team and I were preoccupied with finding a way to give the youth of our region the tools that they needed to solve their own problems at scale. Our work in promoting impact driven entrepreneurship in the Arab region has been locally, regionally and globally recognized. I could not be more proud of what Ahead of the Curve has achieved to date, but I did not start ATC to become a famous CEO. I started it because I believed in its purpose, and I still do.
My decision to join MIT's Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship as its new Executive Director is not a decision I made lightly. In fact, it is a decision that cost me many sleepless nights. Don't get me wrong, the innovation and intellectualism imbedded in the very fiber of MIT makes me as star struck as the next person, but the Middle East is home and home is where your heart is at peace.
While change is never easy, deep down I knew that it was time for me to play a more global role. The Legatum Center will allow me to do just that. The world is changing rapidly and if we are to harness the enormous potential that entrepreneurship and innovation has to continue to propel 'emerging' markets forward, we need the full backing of institutions like MIT and the Legatum Center. My intention is to work alongside an amazing team to transform the Legatum Center into the go to place for students and core players around the world to gain a deeper understanding of entrepreneurship in frontier markets and the opportunities that exist there. As we enter into a new decade, my prediction is that some of the most critical technologies and innovations required to solve the world’s challenges will be born within these markets. The goal is for the Legatum Center to be at the very forefront of that movement.
I never imagined that I would somehow find myself moving back to the United States, the country that my parents immigrated to almost 50 years ago in search of opportunity, but here I am. I may have come full circle, but I am here for different reasons. I did not leave Egypt because I believe the future is grim. I left because I believe in the future of Egypt and many countries like Egypt. I came to MIT in the hope that I can continue to find ways to make that future better and to somehow remind the world, that while the youth in countries like mine are cause for concern, they are more than ever, a bigger cause for hope.