The ArabNet Beirut conference, a 3-day event held at the Hilton Habtoor Hotel, has been going for five years now. As it states on all the banners, it is the “largest regional event for the digital creative sectors.” The three days are split into one day for design & coding and two days for panels & talks (forum days). ArabNet as a whole is done in collaboration with the Banque du Liban (BDL).
This conference is organized so that digital professionals and entrepreneurs can connect and learn from each other. It also creates opportunities for new start-ups to showcase their work, young creatives to compete for funding, and throw a whole bunch of geeks into a hall so they can bond. Although I missed out on the first day, the bits and pieces I got to see were awesome and I was amused that they used a bell to signal when a break was over. We were cattle and we loved it.
I have to say that ArabNet doesn’t seem to cater to the average Lebanese employee. Sure, there are many people flying in from abroad to attend but the citizens of the hosting country cannot afford to pay for a ticket given typical salaries here. I would be worried that I wouldn’t get my money’s worth when ticket prices are that hefty. It is also scheduled in the middle of the work week meaning that, if you chose to fork over the fees, you would have to take days off to attend. Having three full days smack dab in the middle of the week is not ideal for young professionals in the workforce – many of whom would like to attend and may not have a company who will sponsor it. Seeing that this conference is made for empowering entrepreneurs and strengthening the Arab knowledge economy, I feel it could be more wallet-friendly in the future.
HOW I GOT THERE
After reading my blog, the folks at ArabNet invited me as an official blogger. BAMBI FTW.
TOP 3 ACTIVITIES
Entrepreneurship and Investing in MENA (Panel)
This panel, moderated by Mike Butcher of TechCrunch, revolved around what was needed to create a better ecosystem for entrepreneurial efforts in the region. A main concern was that entrepreneurs need room to test ideas, but to have that, they need access to information, funds, and support. Other issues raised included the lack of visibility entrepreneurs have, the lack of mentors or investors to fuel the ambition in the region, and the call for the government to break down the barriers faced when setting up a company. Starting-up is challenging and moving between countries is not a simple endeavor. For example, in Lebanon, you cannot loan a company money unless you own 20% or more of said company and many entrepreneurs are afraid of dilution even though it may be best for the company in the long run and thus, more beneficial to the entrepreneur.
People can learn from those with experience and can then scale products that can penetrate the region and the world. There is an immense need for collaboration versus regional competition; we need to put our own money into the ecosystem in order to strengthen it and we need to invest in our own country’s capital. BDL seems to be on the right track: they’re to match 75% of other banks’ investments in start-ups and has pledged 400 million USD to the start-up efforts of entrepreneurs.
Based on the concept of speed-dating, speed networking is an hour and a half of 3-minute-blocks to network with a room full of people. I think this is an effective method. My experience with big conferences is that most people, when released into a crowd during coffee breaks, end up gravitating towards someone they know; networking doesn’t happen when you’re always talking to people you’ve already met. This forced-networking changes that. Hassan Kanj talked to me about MENAVERSITY, a website that offers university courses for free like coursera.com except they’re in Arabic. Lara Noujaim told me about Game Cooks, a group of game developers who created Escape from Paradise, a game app that was inspired by Lebanon. Nima Adelkhani, CEO of PITME (Progress in the Middle East), came all the way from San Francisco/Silicon Valley. When I asked him if it was his first time in Beirut, he said, “eighth.” I then asked why he keeps coming back and his reply was, “because it’s the best city in the world.” Check out his webseries titled “Technology in a Tent.” It would be a good idea to do more than one speed-networking session or schedule it on the first day so that you’ve already made some new friends from the start. You’ll be more likely to talk to them throughout the conference if you’ve exchanged names without peeking at their badge or stalking them on Twitter. I only did it once.
Three teams were given a common brief they needed to create a campaign for. The panel of judges included 4 members of society: Ziad Abichaker of Cedar Environmental, Lara Tarakjian of Silkor, Ziad Nassif of Exotica, and Vera Hassan of Patchi. They’re not realms from GOT, these are companies in the Levant. The brief was to create an awareness campaign about the importance of trash separation. A lot of debate broke out regarding the language used to communicate the campaign. Should it be in English because the online population of Lebanon communicates mostly in English or should it be in Arabic because the Lebanese population communicates generally in Arabic (and makes it more culturally relevant)? After all, the campaign’s target audience was supposed to be the Lebanese population, not the people in the Emirates Hall of the Hilton. After each team presented, the judges evaluated them and questioned their thought process. I enjoyed this but maybe it’s because I work in advertising. It was interesting to just be a spectator.
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE CONFERENCE
This is what happened after I tweeted that my iPhone was not made for live-tweeting implying that my battery was on the verge of death using the hashtag #batterylife.
Taste of Beirut
At the end of day two, the Beirut Digital District hosted the attendees of the conference in a white tent filled with free food & booze from 16 F&B establishments. From Couqley steak frites to Bittersweet Cocktail Bar’s passion fruit cocktails along with 961 Beer, Brgr Co. fresh-off-the-grill miniburgers, and samosas from Alhindi – let’s just say it ended with a happily self-induced food coma.
Reading the Twitter Fall while all the talks, panels, and interviews happened was as entertaining as the action on stage. Because the TF was on the screen above their heads, they were unaware of what the audience was tweeting about the discussion. Some people can be so mean from behind a screen.
In the opening ceremony, Omar Christidis, CEO of ArabNet, said that they were “committed to being and staying in Lebanon.” That’s good to hear. As Adelkhani says, “People who are busy working and building cool companies are less likely to start revolutions and fight wars.” And remember folks, good things come to those who tweet!