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A nation once known for pearl-diving now shares the risk with entrepreneurs

Esam Hammad (right) at GEC
Esam Hammad, right, at the Global Entrepreneurship Congress in Bahrain. | photo by Matt Pozel

Every year, millions of the world’s innovators and job creators who launch startups that bring ideas to life, drive economic growth, and expand human welfare come together in cities and towns across the world to mark Global Entrepreneurship Week. GEW began in the Kauffman Foundation’s hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, launched by the Foundation, alongside Jonathan Ortmans, president of GEW, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, Gordon Brown, and representatives from 37 countries. Today, it has expanded to more than 170 nations since its launch in 2008 with 20,000 partner organizations.

It’s a special kind of energy created as entrepreneurial ecosystems each come together to connect. That energy, spread across the world during GEW, is concentrated each year when the world’s entrepreneurial ecosystem builders meet for Global Entrepreneurship Congress. This April, it was in Manama, Bahrain, where the country of more than 30 islands in the Arabian Gulf was able to celebrate its own entrepreneurial journey along with countries and communities across the world.

Welcoming the World

It was Esam Hammad’s job to be ready when the world of entrepreneurship came to his home country. Hammad, who will tell you he is a music enthusiast with an ear for guitar virtuosity and indie-leaning electronic music production, helped orchestrate the 2019 Global Entrepreneurship Congress (GEC) in Bahrain.

For Hammad, welcoming the world to Bahrain seemed only natural given the history of the region, which can be traced to the trading outposts of the ancient Dilmun civilization. The spirit of enterprise that controlled Persian Gulf trade routes, today motivates the small island Kingdom to support a growing and diverse economy.

Striking it rich

Bahrain is a rich nation by any standard. It was the first country in the region to discover oil, but before that happened, the country and its early entrepreneurs learned a hard, economic lesson. “Before the discovery of oil, we had a thriving pearling industry,” Hammad explained. “We were known as one of the biggest exporters of pearl. Our ancestors took risks, going out in the sea–weeks, months at a time–looking for pearls and selling them to the rest of the world. Eventually, that industry was disrupted when the Japanese started to manufacture pearls in factories. The demand for pearls from this region dropped.”

The country’s economy rebounded with a vengeance as newfound wealth flowed to Bahrain with the discovery of oil in 1929. “We became a wealthier nation, but there was in growing dependency on the public sector to provide a welfare system,” Hammad said. “We wanted to remind Bahrainis that we come from a culture of risk taking. We wanted to continue that legacy.”

Tamkeen, a public authority that works to support businesses and entrepreneurs, was established in 2006 as the result of the nation’s labor market reform effort. It promotes Bahrain’s guiding economic principles of sustainability, competitiveness, and innovation. Hammad serves as the organization’s director of partnerships and customer engagement.

“We’ve been trying to help people find the fire inside that drives them to pursue entrepreneurship,” Hammad said. “We want to create a shift so people become employers rather than seek employment”

Sharing the risk

One key way Bahrain supports its risk takers is by taking on some of the risk. “We created a mechanism to pull out funds from the public sector and support businesses in the private sector,” Hammad said. The government has taken steps to ease access to capital by forming partnerships with financial institutions and providing grants to support businesses that are starting and moving to scale. The program has benefited more than 120,000 individuals and over 50,000 companies, which represents more than half of all of the companies registered in Bahrain.

By offering grants that are not repaid, the government absorbs a share of the risk inherent in pursuing a new enterprise. “We’re very honest with ourselves that potentially some of these, or maybe many of these businesses, will fail,” Hammad confided. “Becoming an entrepreneur is a very risky move for a person to take. What we’re saying here is the government is now a partner. We’re providing a safety net, so in the event that an entrepreneur does fail, it’s easier for them to also pick themselves up, start over, learn from their mistakes, and succeed in their second or third attempt.”

Going global

This week, Tamkeen is taking the lead to connect the people of Bahrain to a wide range of Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW) activities. Hammad will add the colorful GEW label pin next to the sweeping colors of the Tamkeen logo as he serves as managing director of the Bahrain chapter of the Global Entrepreneurship Network.

It’s another big job. “Growing up I learned to punch above my weight,” said Hammad, who left home at 16 to attend school in Austin, Texas. He lived and worked in Dubai, London, and Barcelona, and studied in The Netherlands before returning to his home country.

As he prepared for GEW’s worldwide celebration of entrepreneurship, Hammad recalled the time we welcomed a world of entrepreneurs, investors, researchers, policymakers, and entrepreneurship champions to his country. He remembers standing in the midst of the GEC gathering that drew nearly 2,000 attendees from 170 nations. He remembers feeling a bit overwhelmed.

“Our country was built on the relationships we developed with our neighbors,” he said. “People from all parts of the world pass by here and many of us have represented Bahrain internationally at global entrepreneurship gatherings. But the impact of hosting such an event and seeing it in Bahrain was a very surreal feeling.”