ABU DHABI, UAE – Few successes—whether in business, government, education or anywhere else—ever come without failure first, noted the thought leaders and professionals who spoke Wednesday at a daylong innovation summit presented by The Atlantic in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
“The best entrepreneurs have generally failed two or three times,” said Boeing chairman and CEO Jim McNerney in his opening remarks. It was a theme echoed throughout the day.
Fadi Ghandour, noted entrepreneur and founder of the Aramex logistics and transportation firm, returned time and again to the importance of failure in remarks about entrepreneurship in a complex age.
“I’m a product of many failures,” he said. “If I told you I did everything perfect, I’d be lying.”
Ghandour, whose company became the first Arab-based international company to trade its shares on the NASDAQ stock exchange, talked about the importance of the entrepreneurial mind and fostering that sort of thinking from both a cultural and educational perspective.
“We need to fall, we need to burn our fingers and we need our mothers and fathers, the state, not to over-smother us,” he said. If he were hiring, Ghandour said, he would prioritize any candidate who had tried and failed at a business venture over one who had only a prestigious education to show for himself or herself.
In speaking about the power of ideas to transform a population, McNerney talked broadly about innovation in the UAE and surrounding region and the ways these populations are particularly primed to support some of the next big developments in the global economy.
“The physical infrastructure is incredibly impressive,” McNerney said of the region. “Fifteen percent of the P&L is related to commercial air travel, it’s a huge number, but the people focus is the longest lasting and the most important.”
“What’s Next? Navigation Global Challenges with the Innovation Generation,” which explored the nature of ideas, the power of innovation and the trajectory of progress, was underwritten by The Boeing Company. McNerney spoke of his own organization’s approach to generating ideas and the complexity of nurturing the good ones while not being afraid to pass over the bad.
“You have to hold on to a culture where more ideas are coming up from the bottom of the organization than you can possibly manage,” he said. “You want the flow of ideas not to slow down but increase.”
The result of this, he said, is that leaders find themselves saying no more often. That can pose a challenge, he said, but not an insurmountable one.
“You have to make no a good thing,” McNerney said.
That idea, somewhat paradoxical on its surface, came up in different ways throughout the morning session. Featured speakers from the fields of education, media, technology, commerce, nonprofit and others tended to agree that trying something new, throwing away old models and moving toward the unknown is a key ingredient no matter the sector.
Fred Moavenzadeh, President of the Masdar Institute, spoke to the prospect of building institutes of higher learning in the region that subscribe to the same standards of excellence that legacy organizations such as MIT and Cal Tech in the United States. Part of doing that, he noted, involves looking at the paradigm of education in a new light.
Moavenzadeh laid out a vision of the Internet in regard to education as tool that can transform the way students learn in the future. He made the comparison to the music industry where in people today pick and choose the songs they want to play. Perhaps in the future students will be able to do the same with their coursework—or anything else.
“The potential of the Internet for education goes well beyond transferring lectures over the lines,” Moavenzadeh said.
In the vein of progress through technology, Dave McClure of 500 Startups, a group of startup founders, mentors and investors, discussed the trends in startups in the region.
Growth is happening more quickly in regions outside the developed world, he said. During his remarks, McClure keyed into an idea touched on earlier in the day: the power of experience and on-the-ground knowledge in success. He said his firm seeks out entrepreneurs who have tried a few things.
“The entrepreneur we want to put money into is someone who knows their market and has been a round the block a few times.”
The economic benefits of these innovations was noted throughout the day. Noura Al Kaabi, Chief Executive Officer of twofour54, the Abu Dhabi media authority, spoke to the power of nurturing the Arab media landscape as a way not only to create jobs in the region but also allow a community to see itself reflected in the media it consumes.
“What kind of content is for our culture is a question we’ll always keep asking,” she said.
Looking toward the path of innovation in education, two panelists who have worked to expand the reach of Internet access and education access— Nafez Dakkak, Director of the open source Edraak network and Suneet Singh Tuli, CEO of affordable tablet manufacturer Datawind—noted the importance of stumbling along the pathway to success.
“If you’ve never failed at something,” Dakkak said, “you’ve never tried anything that’s worth trying.”