Venture Finance in the MENA Region: Challenges and Opportunities Ahead

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I recently had the pleasure and honor of participating in the Digital Mashraq Forum (DMF) under the patronage of HRH Crown Prince Al Hussein Bin Abdullah II, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Entrepreneurship in Jordan and the World Bank Group.
The high-level affair to discuss the future of digitalization in the region attracted upwards of 500 attendees from public and private organizations across 25 countries. The DMF hosted a VIP pre-reception and an immersive two-day program with 26 panels, 69 speakers, 40 startups and 22 investors on board. A commendable success to orchestrate such a powerful platform.

The caliber of men and women was unexpected, to say the least. It was most certainly a remarkable experience to be surrounded by so many educated, talented, sophisticated, pleasant, informed, ambitious, engaged and relentless humans for three days.

Although a regional event, it was without a doubt global. Entrepreneurs, companies, VCs and public officials from MENA, Europe, Asia, Africa and throughout the US all doing great things.

Back in Business: Ripe, Rich and Ready

It is no secret – The Kingdom of Jordan is on the brink of breaking through bureaucracy to bring in billions of dollars and it’s only a day away. The events taking place are defying the antiquated sentiments that postulate a lack of resources as an uncontended culprit preventing a rapid evolution to modern economic and social systems. The fact is there is abundant capital and it’s high-time this wealth is unlocked and effectively allocated to achieve its full impact-potential.

Public-Private Partnerships

Once again, it is as much about the caliber of people and companies and the ambitious agenda the DMF sets to advance as what it symbolizes. The conference concluded with the release of “Amman Communique,” announcing Jordan’s plan to launch a regulatory reform process and digital transformation strategy by the end of 2019 to improve the Kingdom’s business environment. The communique also addressed the government’s commitment to open the National Broadband Network (7,000 kilometers of fiber) for public-private partnerships (PPP).

For Jordan, the meeting was one of many recent government-backed initiatives that emphasize its commitment to back and empower entrepreneurs, create a conducive business environment, and advance robust public-private cooperation.

The Role of the Central Bank

My partners at Blackhawk and I strongly believe the Central Bank of Jordan can serve a fundamental role in leading a PPP that will open up the flood gates of capital.

Consider Lebanon, a neighboring country in the Levant, that instituted an impactful PPP model. In 2014, The Banque du Liban (Central Bank of Lebanon) introduced Circular 331 to bolster the Lebanese ‘Knowledge Economy.’ It is proving effective despite the Central Bank’s massive debt and the country’s stormy geopolitical climate.

In fact, Circular 331 which encourages commercial banks to invest in startups is clearly one of the boldest and smartest initiatives undertaken so far by the Lebanese government. For the uninformed, the Central Bank now guarantees up to 75 percent of the value of a commercial bank’s investments into a startup. That move opened up a potential of $400 million that could be invested into venture capital funds or directly into startups. Circular 331 has clearly taken it up a notch by encouraging venture financing.

This model can be similarly emulated in Jordan to open up the flood gates of capital second to none; especially given the fact that Jordan has half the Debt/GDP ratio of Lebanon.

The Flood Gates of Capital

Purposing a public-private partnership of this magnitude to create professionally managed pools of capital in Jordan will create an octopus of opportunities:

  1. More Capital: The capital injection will increase the number and variety of VCs which would in turn fund and empower more entrepreneurs.
  2. Take Jordanian Companies Global: Such program would establish new VCs of the highest caliber with qualified experience that not only meet local-standards but have the aptitude to fair-well globally was well. More globally competitive VC’s mean more globally competitive companies.
  3. Larger Pools of Capital: It will serve to develop and expand the current VC system exponentially. Most VCs in Jordan today are basically restricted, for the large part, to seed-stage. This opportunity would allocate capital to equip new VCs to mature and develop seed to later-stage companies. Larger VC pools of capital will serve to accelerate the growth and scalability of the companies they fund, positioning them compete in global markets.
  4. Empowered Entrepreneurs: With new VCs and larger funds, a whole new spectrum of entrepreneurs will have access to capital. Consider the shift in dynamics that would follow – Consider companies or entrepreneurs that don’t conform to their capital providers but are forced to comply to secure their financial survival. This desperation leads to discouragement which in turn stifles individual potential and the evolution of their enterprise. A robust VC model will pierce this paralysis and protect innovation capital, a source of national wealth.
  5. Green Light for Foreign Investment: This government-backed initiative gives outsiders the greenlight – Jordan is open for business. The blessing and support of the Kingdom boosts investor confidence, garners respect from national leaders and will certainly serve in reaching their FDI targets, probably overnight.

Looking Ahead

Make no mistake about it. At the end of the day, it all boils down to access to professionally managed pools of capital that can make a real dent in the marketplace. You can have the smartest and most educated entrepreneurs on the planet but without “smart” capital backing them, their projects are nothing but a pie in the sky. Silicon Valley is a prime example in this regard. Without Sand Hill Road backing the entrepreneurial spirit and companies of the Valley back in the early 80s and 90s, the tech giants of today would have never existed.

Just as it has in the United States, the worldwide democratization of capital will democratize industrial assets and produce an explosion of job creation the world over. The MENA region needs this more than any region in the world. And the capital revolution, which so changed America in the last third of the 20th century, is only the prelude to the other two major revolutions of the 21st century — the worldwide democratization of venture financing and of knowledge. These three revolutions, each aided by emerging technology, provide hope that the 21st century will be able to avoid the terrible Middle East conflicts of the past hundred years and become a new Age of Enlightenment. Our children won’t have opportunities unless there are opportunities for everyone.

*Zana Nesheiwat is a Partner and wealth-curator at Blackhawk Partners, Inc. charged with building valuable brand assets, originating and optimizing strong partnerships, and advancing investment opportunities that benefit all stakeholders.

Blackhawk Partners Inc. is a New York based private “family office” that is in the business of originating, structuring and acting as equity investor in management-led buyouts, strategic minority equity investments, equity private placements, consolidations and buildups, and growth capital financings for both US and emerging market companies at all stages.

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The U.S Must Win the 5G Race by Any Means Necessary

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WHAT IS 5G?

5G stands for fifth generation cellular wireless. 5G will introduce three new revolutionary features in our world: exponentially greater wireless Internet speed (up to 100x faster than the current 4G), lower latency (will be more responsive), and the ability to connect lots of devices at once (for sensors and smart devices). To give an example, with 4G it would take 6 minutes to download a 2-hour movie. With 5G, it will take all of 3.6 seconds.

The race to 5G is a race that will dictate the world leaders of the next decade. For example, when US won the race to 4G in 2010, US experienced tremendous economic and job growth. 4G technology allowed the US wireless industry to increase related jobs by 84% from 2011 to 2014, which added $125 billion in revenue to American companies, with $40 billion coming from app stores. The first 4G phones in the US appeared in 2010, which enabled 4G applications that changed our world, such as Snapchat, Uber, AirBnB, video calls, etc. If the US would’ve lost this race, these industries, advances in technologies and revenues would have gone to other countries.

As the world’s long-time leader, the US wireless technology industry employs almost five million professionals and contributes $475 billion per year to the American economy. Winning the 5G race could cause those numbers to explode in the near future. Studies show that 5G has is likely to create almost three million new jobs— and add $500 billion to US economic growth. It is a big deal.

5G IMPORTANCE ON ECONOMY/WORLD/COMPETITION

As our world turns digital, wireless technology becomes the most important competitive advantage between nations. The race to 5G is the most important thus far because our essential infrastructure in this country will be built using wireless technology. Our civic, commercial and military life depends on it.

100x faster wireless speed than 4G and reduced latency, will allow us to exponentially improve our connection with all devices. This will create new opportunities in manufacturing, transportation, health care, education, agriculture, and more. 5G will enable new services that will drive economic growth and job creation for years to come.

Historically, Europe won the 2G era, Japan won the 3G era, and of course, the US won the 4G era. But now, China poses a severe threat to winning the 5G era, which will have countless negative implications for the U.S. At a hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in 2018, Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker stated that “failing to win the race to 5G would not only materially delay the benefits of 5G for the American people, it would forever reduce the economic and societal gains that come from leading the world in technology.”

5G-CURRENT AFFAIRS-CHINA-TRUMP-HUAWEI:

Although US has a great reputation for its mobile technologies, Asia is dominantly leading the way regarding 5G. Four of the world’s five most 5G advanced nations are China, South Korea, Japan, and India.

However, no one can tell with certainty who will win the 5G race. A 2018 Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) report claimed that US was in third place in the 5G race, behind China and South Korea, while a 2019 CTIA report claimed that U.S. now shares the number one spot with China. Other reports put China as the clear winner, with functional 5G technology by 2020, while they claim that the U.S. is 5 years behind. AT&T Chief Executive Officer Randall Stephenson declared in March 2019 that China isn’t beating the United States on 5G – but then again, AT&T deceptively branded their new 5G E network pretending it uses 5G technology, when it used the regular 4G technology.

While these reports do not provide any clarity, these investments will. Starting in 2015, China has doubled down on investments in 5G technology, and has outspent the US by $24 billion to construct 350,000 new, 5G-compatible cell towers. During the same time, the US has built only 30,000 towers.

The reason China has prioritized development of 5G is because they understand that the race for 5G is a race for world-wide control. Michael Wessel, a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, explained that China’s goal is to become the global innovation leader, and will do everything in its power to achieve this goal, legally or illegally.

One of the most important weapons for China to win the 5G race is the Chinese company Huawei. Currently, Huawei is spending a tremendous amount of resources on R&D (almost 40% of their workforce), most of which is dedicated to 5G. This is more than Microsoft, Intel or Apple’s R&D efforts.

In addition to superior dedicated resources, Huawei has a long negative history of operating outside the international law and order. Huawei currently faces bans in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. over fears that China’s government could use its systems to spy on their countries. The CIA, FBI and NSA publicly warned against Huawei. The Pentagon banned Huawei and its products. Huawei has long been accused of espionage, and for doing illegal business with Iran. Most recently, Canada helped the U.S. arrest Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou, and President Trump signed an executive order banning any US company from doing business with Huawei.

It is extremely important that President Trump, the U.S. and its allies stop or slow down Huawei’s influence and operational capabilities throughout the world. As stated earlier, winning the 5G race will allow the development of exponential technology and booming economic growth for those who employ this technology first.

CONCLUSION:

If Huawei and China win the 5G race, they will undoubtedly use this technology to win over allies and dominate the world for a long time to come. They will offer this technology to other countries in exchange for trade deals, military partnerships, and economic prosperity. They could also choose to offer this technology to all US enemies, except for the U.S., leaving our country unable to compete. Thus, it is of the utmost importance that the United States wins the race to 5G.

President Trump must continue to put pressure of China and Huawei, in an intelligent way. There is no easy answer to do so, especially with the US and China locked in a tariffs war. All trade talks between the two countries will definitely include Huawei as a bargaining chip.

The Trump administration, US industry and government leaders, and allies must work in concert to win this race, by any means necessary, and make sure that all (or most) other countries will receive the 5G technology from the US, rather than from China.

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The Unprecedented Wealth Creation Opportunity of the Cannabis Industry is just getting started

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Cannabis prohibition is going to end much faster than most people anticipated, and this will allow for the biggest wealth creation opportunities in many lifetimes. When Prohibition ends, the dam holding back the Cannabis industry will have broken, and Cannabis will become ubiquitous in virtually every aspect of our society, worldwide.

Cannabis is extremely close being federally legal in the United States. 36 states have already decriminalized Cannabis, 11 of which have fully legalized it for medicinal and recreational purposes. In March of 2019, the House Financial Services Committee approved the SAFE Banking Act by 45-15. Earlier this month, 38 Attorney Generals from 38 U.S. states and territories signed a letter asking our Congress to pass legislation to increase Cannabis businesses’ access to banks, through the SAFE Banking Act.

Days earlier, the Treasurers of 17 states issued a separate call in support of the same bill. US Attorney General Barr stated he would not use federal resources to prosecute Cannabis businesses in states where it is legal. US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin urged Congress to pass the SAFE Banking Act. And finally, most Congressmen on both sides of the aisle are in favor of this Act passing through.

Cannabis products will disrupt multiple billion industries in the US, with the biggest changes taking place in medicine, pharmaceuticals, veterinary products, wellness and beauty, sleeping aids, packaging, banking, agriculture, advertising, food, alcohol, non-alcoholic beverages, tobacco, law, textiles and fashion/clothing, plastics, biodiesel and energy, paper, construction, sports products, tourism, and many more.

Most giants in each of these industries will inevitably become involved with Cannabis and adopt it within their existing offerings, as well as creating new Cannabis-based products and services. Food and soft-drink conglomerates like Nestle and Coca-Cola will create Cannabis-infused food, deserts and soft-drinks. Alcoholic beverage companies like Anheuser-Busch and Heineken will create Cannabis-infused alcoholic beverages. Textile companies like Admiral Sportswear, Nike, and Cone Mills Corporation will create hemp-derived shoes and clothing, and on and on. Thus, the companies that are currently establishing their footprint/territory and the technology of this industry will be prime acquisition targets for these giant corporations.

In addition to disrupting these existing industries, Cannabis will also create many new industries through new health and wellness products that combine CBD and THC substances. Cannabis and CBD are more commonly being used together in the creation a new worldwide health and wellness industry with a wide variety of plant-based consumer products.

Cannabis and hemp will become ubiquitous in our world. Almost everything in our lives as we know it will have a much improved, more durable, healthier version that is created with Hemp, Cannabis and its derivatives. There will be new infrastructure, new products, new healthcare (physical and psychological) treatment, new recreational activities, new foods, new productivity, new employment, new taxes and most important of all, a new life and culture.

Needless to say, the end of Cannabis prohibition will bring forth a political, economical, social and healthcare revolution in our world. We are entering an exciting new era, where Cannabis and hemp-based CBD are rapidly becoming an important part of an active healthier lifestyle. Patients will use medical Cannabis and receive much needed relief without the fear of going to prison for it. Adults can choose Cannabis for adult relaxation for a fraction of the cost and fewer of the negative effects of alcohol. Millions of people will sleep better and have less pain, children will be able to control their seizures and veterans will manage their PTSD.

This will create a new global health & wellness industry where hundreds of thousands are employed in an environmentally responsible new industry that produces a natural product, which is truly making the world a better and healthier place. New Frontier Data estimates that the legal Cannabis market in the United States will generate nearly 283,422 jobs by 2020. This will be more than the expected jobs created in all of manufacturing, utilities and government industries.

Such an unprecedented revolution to our world, will also bring unprecedented wealth creation opportunities. Just as most people underestimate the impact hemp and Cannabis will have on our real world, most investors underestimate the enormous investment opportunities this industry currently presents.

The most misunderstood element of this industry is the sheer scale of what the global Cannabis/CBD industry will be. What was projected to be a $25 billion global market is rapidly becoming $100 billion and could well go up to $1 Trillion over the next decade.

Grand View Research has published a study that shows Cannabis could become a $146 billion market (US and globally) by 2025. Based on a 20% profit margin and a 20x earnings valuation, the market cap of the global industry will be over $584 billion. In additional, there are approximately 180 Cannabis public companies in the US and Canada. If 100 of them become $1 billion dollar companies within the next decade, that could bring the total global Cannabis market cap to $1 trillion. From an investment prospective few new industries in history have offered the investment potential Cannabis offers in 2019.

Conclusion:

The Cannabis/CBD industry is entering a rapidly expansion cycle and the current market estimates are much too conservative. Cannabis prohibition will undoubtedly end, sooner rather than later. The myriad of recent positive developments in public policy suggests this will happen very shortly. Our politicians and Congressmen have the chance to create history, by bringing a long overdue end of Cannabis and hemp prohibition. They must vote to pass the SAFE Banking Act.

Investors realize the unprecedented opportunities for wealth creation in this industry, which is just getting started. This is an exceptional time to invest in the Cannabis market, as it seems to poised for a decade of remarkable domestic and international growth. Post prohibition, the Cannabis and hemp industry will go from today’s size of $10B, to the point where it will be absolutely ubiquitous throughout our society, products and markets – this exceptionally rapid development will create exceptionally large opportunities for Cannabis entrepreneurs and investors.

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How to Take Out the Trash: Weeding Out Bad Data & Keeping It Out

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A good way to prevent data contamination is to set up a categorical, tiered system to aid in tracking data through the complete process and to an eventual end goal, with constant and consistent monitoring to make sure the data stays on track and setting outcomes to be measured in intervals.

These interval periods are further divided into three groupings: macro, micro, and sub-micro levels. If diagrammed, the appearance of this system resembles that of a tree: the macro level makes up the “trunk,” acting as the main portion to which all the “branches” (micro levels) are connected, with even smaller twigs (sub-micro levels) extending out from the branches. Also, much like a tree, the system may not only grow but also flourish and become beautiful, similar in look to a Mandelbrot set– if one can wax poetic about it.

Tracking data at the “trunk” macro level requires keeping the level tight and focused on a single subject. Adding too much information and too many outcomes at the macro level will make the micro and sub-micro levels virtually useless for analysis and could spread the information too thin, with infinitely complicated periphery that bares increasingly and more detailed ouroborian aspects. An example of an all-embracing macro level “trunk” is a social media campaign. Keeping the macro level tapered will allow for an easy gateway to interpret important baseline information to see if anything is amiss.

Beyond the macro level lays the “branches” micro level, which consists of segmented data from the macro level. Continuing with the example of a social media campaign macro level, it may be divided into micro levels based on the website or app used: Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, YouTube, Snapchat, etc. The micro levels of a macro level may be whatever you wish them to be, provided they can effectively organize the more specific data and lend themselves to ease of access from the macro level to investigate anomalies (or allow in-depth investigation of anomalies on the macro level).

Beneath the micro levels lie the “twig” sub-micro levels, which are additionally specific; the sub-micro levels of the micro level of a social media platform could be distinctive, identifiable individual campaigns or pieces of media. Dividing the data even further allows for even easier access and more streamlined approaches, enabling those on the marketing and sales team to have an equal footing with those on the data analytics side and allowing both sides to combat any enigmas in the data. Using this type of a data integrity system to easily access the data sets allows the user to prevent or combat “garbage” from leaking in, and thereby mitigates it spilling out, where it can cause damage, saving users many headaches down the line.

Analyzing the Audience

Another helpful dissection may be the segmentation of the audience to better analyze response data from the client side. For example, an age range macro level could be divided into micro levels based on specific numerical ranges or psychographic segmentations such as shared personality traits, consumer beliefs, lifestyles or young adult (18-24 males or 25-34 females, etc.) and so on. Such data will be valuable to establish separate reports on distinct target audiences, allowing the user to dive into them to brainstorm or to work on a problem, solution or opportunity while knowing where all the information is and where to look to find it, much like the tiered levels of the corporate-side system.

Note that while this system in both instances should be able to allow more efficient data access and detection of anomalies, the system is still not perfect and may still require combing through a varying amount of information if incongruities or unpredictable events appear in the harvested data. Again, the most foolproof way to keep bad data from seeping into results is maintaining the initial commitment to data integrity and entry. Honesty and scrupulousness are still the best policy after all – and so is focus and being careful.

One last thing: Be wary of accidentally overanalyzing the data in the process (“paralysis by analysis”) Even if you think you may be able to get to the root of the problem if you look long enough, you may get overwhelmed and lose yourself in trying to process all the information at once. If you feel like you’re becoming swamped with facts and figures, remember to take a step back, breathe and relax.

You’ve now got a manageable system to work with at your fingertips.

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Garbage In, Garbage Out: Why Bad Data is Worse Than No Data

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Since the 80s or 90s, computers have grown in importance not just in a personal sense but in a business one as well. While technology has made life easier, it’s still powered by man (for now!) and therefore is not entirely infallible. You simply can’t trust your insights when you can’t trust the inputs.

How does this concept relate to the education industry? Mainly, through hardware, sales software and analytical marketing tools: while the leap from sales binders to Excel spreadsheets may have made enrollment and sales data more streamlined and convenient, the results ultimately depend on the data inputted rather than the vehicle.

With human error occurring more than we want to admit, false or faulty data can still leak into a document or calculation and contaminate outcomes, resulting in misaligned marketing strategies, increased costs, and business instability. The problem becomes amplified when large and varied sets of big data need to be analyzed to help an organization make informed business decisions. This is the often a complex process of examining large and varied data sets to uncover information including mystifying arrays, undiscovered parallels, market developmental cycles and buyer biases that help administrations gain valuable insights, enhance decisions, and create new products. The relationship between bad input leading to bad output can be summarized by this phrase: garbage in, garbage out.

The evolution from Rolodex to a spreadsheet or even smartphone app has certainly streamlined collecting information, but it hasn’t entirely eliminated user error. Innovations in hardware and software have made it uncomplicated and cost effective to amass, stockpile, and evaluate copious amounts of sales and marketing data. If good information is input, then good data will be spat back out and vice versa, which may significantly affect planning, buying and selling decisions. In education marketing, user error makes it more difficult to know the client. In essence, bad data is as good as no data and perhaps even worse.

So, what can we do? While adherence to data integrity and entry along with correct set-up ensures the best and most accurate results, human error will always be a constant. Bad data input will always occur, but controlling for bad data, and engineering procedures to supervise data integrity successfully will help eliminate issues in decision making and avoid increased cost and organizational miscues. The best solution is to detect the ‘bad’ early and locate the problem before it gets worse. Fortunately, we can do something about data quality. No one wants to find out a pipe is clogged by the time their basement is flooded. Admitting that you have a data quality problem is the key to the solution.

Tune in to my next article to find out how segmenting data based on audience, system of controls, implementing a tiered tracking system and management oversight can help keep data on track. I’ll also provide an important warning about overanalyzing data that can save you great turmoil and stress.

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