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10 Years of RiseUp: Looking Back on the History of MENA’s Largest Entrepreneurial Summit

Written by Sami Awa.

It’s hard to believe that the RiseUp Summit just wrapped up its 10th edition. This year, the region’s largest startup and entrepreneurship event was held at the intersection of the past and the future—The Grand Egyptian Museum—located right by the Pyramids of Giza.

In what was possibly its most impactful edition yet, the summit’s theme #StayReal urged the ecosystem to stay grounded in the face of prosperity as well as turbulence. While no two paths to growth are the same for startups, the experiences and lessons shared by established entrepreneurs and stakeholders across MENA and beyond at RiseUp’s stages were invaluable. These insights revolved around solving real problems, finding real solutions, utilizing real resources, and building real markets.

Countless idea seeds pitched and planted at the Riseup Summit grew to become the unicorns of the region, and today we’re telling the decade-long RiseUp story. From Egypt’s first ecosystem gathering back in 2013 to the region’s largest entrepreneurial event, let’s look at the beginnings of the summit of the decade. 

2013: The Spark That Built a Startup Platform

The attendees of the first ever RiseUp Summit probably didn’t envision what the future would hold for the event, and the impact it would have on MENA’s rising community of startups and entrepreneurs.

RiseUp Summit 2013 was held in November on the birthday of Egypt’s first modern serial entrepreneur and the founder of Banque Misr, Talaat Harb, at the GrEEK Campus. The GrEEK, which would continue to host the summit for five more years, is a downtown startup and tech hub that’s now home to some of the region’s top startup HQs. In 2013, it had just completed its tenure as part of the American University in Cairo’s downtown network of campuses and was starting its next journey as an iconic tech and innovation park of Cairo. It was actually at the ‘13 summit that Ahmed el Alfy, founder of the GrEEK Campus, announced that the space was opening its doors to startups and entrepreneurs who wanted to set up shop and rent offices with affordable rates.

An inspiring 2,000 attendees made it to the first summit to watch entrepreneurial pioneers such as the founder of Wild Guanabana, Omar Samra, and current MIT board member Heba Fadel become two of the first speakers to set foot onto the RiseUp stage, carving a path for countless thought leaders to follow.

The first lineup of sponsors and partners—key stakeholders that continue to empower the ecosystem—included Microsoft, Intel, Flat6Labs, Pepsico, Souq.com, Cairo Angels, MIT Enterprise Forum, among others.

2014: Proof of Concept

The 2013 Summit proved that the local startup ecosystem was developing and that there was a need for a platform to connect startups to resources like investment opportunities, exposure, talent, tech tools, and more.

In its sophomore year, RiseUp extended an invitation to MENA and the rest of the world to participate in its summit. A total of 17 countries were represented that year, including the United States, India, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK, as well as countries from the MENA region like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE, and Tunisia. 500 Startups, one of the world’s largest early-stage investors and accelerators, sent their founder Dave McClure to give a keynote speech. 

RiseUp’s first pitch competition was also held at the 2014 summit. Egyptian and regional founders got to pitch their startups to investors from the UK, Turkey, and Denmark for some constructive feedback on their ideas with the potential for investment.

2015: Emerging MENA Meets the Global Startup Scene

It was in 2015 that the RiseUp Summit really stepped onto the world stage and shined a light on MENA’s rapidly developing startup ecosystem. A number of key international innovators and veterans of the entrepreneurial world came to Egypt to attend and speak at the 2015 summit, the theme of which was Quantum Leap.

Household names such as TechCrunch’s Editor-At-Large Mike Butcher, Y Combinator’s Partner Jared Friedman, and Careem’s Co-Founder Mudassir Sheikha were introduced to the emerging talents of MENA and gave inspiring addresses on the main stage.

A total of 140 talks and workshops were given by 240 regional and international experts on a host of different topics including renewable energy, fintech, shared economies, social enterprise, and investment attraction. A whopping 4,000 people flocked to the GrEEK to attend the RiseUp Summit 2015, as well as other venues around Cairo for pop-up satellite events.

Stroll through memory lane with photos from RiseUp 2015.

2016: Expansion

Two critical changes were made to the setup of 2016’s summit: an extra day was added to the summit, and the venue expanded to include the neighboring AUC Tahrir Campus. Local and international interest in the summit was growing exponentially. The lineup of exciting speakers, the lengthening list of startups interested in exhibiting, and an expected turnout of 5,000 people meant that two days at the GrEEK weren’t going to cut it anymore.

Attendees got to enjoy exploring the Startup Station, which was an exhibition of emerging startups, and listen to talks given by leaders at Ali Baba, Sony, Facebook, Twitter, IBM, and Uber.

RiseUp also launched two new ventures in its 2016 edition that marked a milestone in their journey to build and connect a startup ecosystem in MENA. The first was RiseUp Connect, a digital platform that connects entrepreneurs to resources such as expert talent, mentorship, marketplaces, and funding. The second was the RiseUp Explore program, which curates unique networking and exposure experiences for founders of leading startups. In its first edition, RiseUp Explore invited the founders of startups including Orcas, Elves, Fustany, Axeer, and ElMenus to Tech Open Air, a leading startup conference in Berlin.

Take a look at RiseUp ‘16 in pictures.

2017: MENA Star Startups Shine in the Spotlight

The 2017 summit wanted to answer a single question: How can we improve human experience? 

Talks and workshops were split into three main tracks: Capital, covering everything that has to do with finance, investment, budgets, and fintech innovation; Tech, focusing on technological advances, emerging technologies, and using tech to streamline the human user experience; and Creative, which focused on the emerging creative economy and the successes and challenges facing prosperity in that space.

Notable speakers at the ‘17 summit included Brian Wong, founder of Kiip; Brian Collins, founder of COLLINS design bureau; Vish Makhijani, the CEO of Udacity; legendary designer Chris Do; and Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris.

RiseUp also introduced the HiPo (High Performance) Startup program that year. HiPo startups were ventures beyond the seed stage with inspiring journeys that deserved special exposure. The HiPo startups area at the Riseup Summit included the likes of MENA’s leading music streaming app Anghami, Saudi payments gateway PayTabs, Egyptian events management platform Eventtus, and UAE-based online baby and mother shop Mumzworld.

Recapping RiseUp ‘17.

2018: Aim High, Stay Grounded

 

The 6th edition of the RiseUp Summit was assigned the theme Grounded Experiences. Momentum had been charging over the previous period for entrepreneurs to not only dream big, but remain grounded and grasp what’s within their reach, leading to their motto: Aim High, Stay Grounded.

Some crowd-drawing names were on the speaker lineup in 2018, including then Egyptian Minister of Tourism Rania Al-Mashat and then Egyptian Minister of Social Solidarity Ghady Waly. AliBaba Group Chief of Staff Jason Pau also delivered an inspiring talk. Uber’s Chief Business Officer Brook Entwistle and Facebook’s Head of Luxury Bart Van Der Vel also made milestone appearances on the Summit’s main stage.

Leading talent and employment platform Wuzzuf hosted the Wuzzuf talent matchmaking event at the summit, aiming to efficiently connect startups of the region with quality vetted talent.

Check out RiseUp Summit 2018’s wrap up video.

2019: Journeys of Innovation

After six years at the GrEEK Campus, the RiseUp Summit ventured for the first time beyond the borders of Downtown Cairo to AUC’s sprawling New Cairo campus. With over 8,000 attendees, the summit spread its wings at the new venue.

Journey to Growth was the theme at the 2019 Summit, and it revolved around stories, experiences, learnings, and values garnered from startups and ventures that are leading the change in their respective markets.

The summit had seven tracks, instead of its usual three, on four separate stages that year. The tracks were Growth Hacks, Smart Capital, Creative Culture, Creative Economies, Tech 4 Humans, Fintech, and Emerging Tech.

Top brass from Uber, Microsoft, Facebook, 9GAG, MBC, and Spotify graced the summit’s stages. Talks by Samih Sawiris; 9GAG’s Head of Social Karen Cheng; and MEA Managing Director of Spotify Claudius Boller pulled in massive crowds. However, the summit’s breakaway star speaker was MENA’s TV queen, Raya Abirached.

Special announcements were made through RiseUp’s launchpad program, with the biggest being leading Egyptian payment solutions provider Fawry announcing their IPO.

Another major event at RiseUp 2019 was Pitch by the Pyramids, a regional multi-stage pitch competition that started in startup hubs in capitals across MENA and converged in a final round of pitching at the Giza Pyramids. 

 Here’s a full list of Pitch by the Pyramids winners from around MENA.

2020: Resilience

As the world hunkered down throughout the 2020 lockdown, RiseUp made sure not to let December pass by without bringing the entrepreneurial world to people’s homes. They announced RiseUp Reset, their first virtual summit, in partnership with Eventtus. 

The usual summit was entirely virtual; there were virtual exhibition spaces for startups and partners, topic circles that attendees could attend and participate in, and of course tons of talks and sessions by industry leaders and professionals.

2021: Back and Better Than Ever

RiseUp Summit 2021 was a breath of fresh air for the region as 10,000 entrepreneurs, investors, talent, aspiring innovators, and more gathered in person once again under the familiar yellow and blue ambiance of the RiseUp Summit logo.

After the previous year’s virtual summit, RiseUp knew they had to impress with their venue. Their eighth edition was hosted at the magnificent Pyramids of Giza under the fitting theme of Timeless Innovation.

Naguib Sawiris, now a strong supporter of the regional startup ecosystem, joined the speaker lineup once again. He was joined by Pixar Animation Studios’ Art Director Deanna Marsiglies, Tiktok Global Community Manager Laura-Andreea Savu, and more than 250 other inspirational thought leaders.

A number of key globally-trending topics were covered on the summit’s stages, including blockchain technology and crypto, logistics and supply chain in the world of pandemics, and alternative mobility.

The most talked about news of the weekend was (at-the-time) mass transit startup SWVL making its IPO announcement and officially declaring itself a unicorn.

A glimpse and quick recap of RiseUp ‘21.

2023: A GEM of a Summit

We all knew RiseUp had something special in store for its tenth edition. After a few months’ delay to adequately prepare the space, the highly-anticipated Grand Egyptian Museum was home to the summit of the decade.

The GEM, which is yet to officially open its doors to the public, hosted a few small private events and exhibitions prior to the summit, but nothing of RiseUp’s scale. 

A proud nod to the development of the startup ecosystem in MENA were Halan and Talabat. The two were previously participating startups at the summit, but came back as Gold and Content Partners respectively this year, making the leap from startups to supporters.

Other key startup ecosystem empowerers that joined the ranks of partners this year were the Platinum Partner Marakez, Gold Partner Pepsico, Technology Partner Vodafone Business, Design Partner M-Fares and Associates, and Education Partner Agora School of Business.

RiseUp ‘23 packed a punch with its speaker lineup. Some highlights included Amazon’s Vice President for the Middle East and Africa Ronaldo Mochawar; Manager of Content at LinkedIn “Socially Nina” Thomas;  the Immersive Director at Walt Disney Studios Jeff Gibson; and Google’s Head of Business Acceleration Shinez Chalabi.

The days, weeks, and months following every summit are riddled with announcements of partnerships, investments, expansions, and launches that were sparked at RiseUp, and we can’t wait to check out what’s transpiring in the MENA startup ecosystem.

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