High-Impact Entrepreneurship

eMBA Field Report: #Tahrir

By Andrew Smeall

Andrew is an MBA student at NYU’s Stern School of Business and is spending his summer as an eMBA at Hindawi in Cairo, Egypt. Enjoy his insights on life in an area that has received much attention of late…

I was certainly a bit nervous to assume my post in Cairo this summer, with articles like this quoting residents about the sense of danger in the city.

Upon arriving, however, I found the city quiet and friendly. Other than the looming, burned-out husks of the NDP headquarters and the Arkadia shopping center (which some bloggers have suggested preserving as memorials to the revolution), few visible traces remained of the January 25 demonstrations. Cairo appeared to be its normal, bustling, crowded self.

But apparently my visit has been anything but typical for this country, usually so dependent on tourism. On my first weekend here I wandered around an empty Egyptian Museum, and found myself almost alone in the room with King Tut’s treasures (normally it looks more like this I am told). The next week, I explored a sedate Khan el-Khalili market. Instead of the shoulder-to-shoulder squirming I was told to expect, I was able to ignore the hawking of the few active shopkeepers from within a large peaceful bubble of personal space. The economic situation here is precarious; the New York Times reports tourism is down 40%, which translates to a 2.5% decrease in GDP.

Cairo seemed to see the arrival of a visitor, any visitor, as a welcome sign that that recovery was on the horizon. I have been showered with friendliness and optimism. To my extremely untrained eye, however, I got the sense that the nation was holding its breath–no one seemed sure who was taking charge, no one seemed to think the country was ready for free elections in September, and a post-revolutionary sense of nationalism and divisiveness seemed to be growing. The system was clearly under intense stress.

The first cracks appeared yesterday, as Tahrir Square erupted in violence for the first time since February. The KFC I had eaten at on Tuesday while getting my work visa processed was looted and burned. About 1,000 people were injured in clashes with the police–who eventually ceded crowd control to the army–and sit-ins continue today.

Through all this, work at Hindawi goes on. We are located in the southeast of the city, and my commute to work passes over and around Tahrir on the giant flyover 26th of July Bridge. Although you can see smoke rising in the distance, the roads are clear and traffic is flowing (or what passes for flowing in Cairo) smoothly. Endeavor Entrepreneur Ahmed Hindawi and the staff here have been extremely welcoming, and I have been invited to join the strange Hindawi ritual of daily strategy lunches at the local Chili’s, of which I am now the Foursquare mayor.

Apart from our lunchtime brainstorm sessions, my work has focused on developing uFollow.com, a content aggregation platform. The site is not only one of the best ways to search for written content online, it also offers one of the only ways to follow specific authors across different platforms. While the project is a fairly straightforward marketing challenge, it comes with some interesting wrinkles.

With Egyptian wage levels, Hindawi can afford to do something that a start-up in the US never could: employ a team of highly-educated, talented researchers to comb the web looking for excellent content, build custom XSLT files to crawl thousands of sources and find bios and photos for nearly 40,000 authors. The same staff, however, struggles where a US start-up would thrive. Almost no one at Hindawi actually uses uFollow, and at times there seems to be a disconnect between the staff and the product or its audience.

So my challenge for the next six weeks: build a strong and engaged user base for uFollow, try and get a tech evangelist or two to back the product, avoid getting blown out of the water by Google+, and develop a long-term HR solution so that Hindawi can manage and build the community going forward.

I hope all of my fellow eMBAs are well, wherever you are in the world, and sorry for being so long-winded!

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