Two Minutes with a VC is a series of quick interviews with VCs from the Middle East & North Africa.
Issa Aghabi is Investment Officer with World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation, leading IFC’s direct and indirect (accelerators and fund of funds) investment activities for the Middle East, North Africa & Pakistan.
He has executed over 50 direct and indirect deals ranging from $100,000 to $25 million (per transaction) and managed over $150 million in venture funds.
Prior to joining IFC, Issa was with Abu Dhabi-based Twofour54, serving them as Head of Investments & Strategic Partnerships. In 2015, he led two of Twofour54’s largest investments and in 2017 on he led the exit of IFC’s largest direct deal in MENA: Souq.com.
How’d you get into venture capital?
I actually started my career in investment banking and then learned about venture capital through a number of interactions with Dr. Fawaz Al Zu’bi when he was launching Accelerator Technology Holdings, one of the first Venture Capital funds in the region (now branded as Silicon Badia).
Fawaz took a leap of faith by hiring me and I have been in the VC ecosystem since then, working in different capacities including investments, fund of fund investments, policy design, and managing private different funds. I have also had the chance to run some startups and companies.
What’s a day in your life as a VC like?
In my current role, it is split across portfolio management; deal sourcing and ecosystem development.
On the portfolio management side, I focus on adding value to the various companies and funds we have invested in. This is quite vast and includes strategy, networking, business development, and fundraising support. Basically, just anything that we can do to help them with their growth.
On the sourcing side, it basically means you run the process A to Z which includes finding the opportunities, due diligence, and negotiation mainly.
On a personal level, I spend considerable time with entrepreneurs at the beginning of their lifecycle through mentorship and support as needed. I also spend considerable time working on ecosystem development with the wider World Bank Group.
What is it that you love about being a VC?
I am extremely passionate about working with smart amazing people and continuously learning new things along this journey. I am always amazed by the talent we have here in MENA and feel that we have so much to offer that can greatly impact not only our growing economies but also people’s lives in general. I’m deeply committed to the opportunity and role I can play in helping to drive this impact.
What is it that you look for in startups/founders when making an investment?
Before anything else, we look for a strong founding team. I am looking for passionate, smart, dynamic and driven entrepreneurs. Individuals and teams that are are willing to go above and beyond to get things done, who are open to feedback and criticism and are not afraid of adapting as they go. It is by far the most important criteria of all.
This is then followed by some other key elements including business model, market and competitive advantage, traction to date and where we can add value from our end.
What do you like (or enjoy) more? Investing in funds or startups? Why?
Two different propositions. Funds are very easy to implement and analyze and are catalytical in getting ecosystems up and running. Personally speaking, I enjoy investing in startups as it allows me to roll up my sleeves and get involved and truly influence the future of that business and entrepreneurs.
What’s the biggest turn off for you in a startup pitch?
A number of them but the two that get me are:
1) “No one else is doing this” – although it may be true, no one ever has been able to convince me of that.
2) Not knowing your business drivers – i.e. KPIs, unit economics and other relevant information.
A piece of advice for first-time founders?
Do your homework, know your business and proposition inside out. Be ready to let go and make changes. Have a strong team and support network.
If you could go back in time and invest in one MENA-based startup that’s not in your portfolio, who would that be?
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