Tunisian businesspeople who attended the recent U.S.-Maghreb Entrepreneurship Conference in Algiers know how pivotal small business is to a developing economy.
Just ask Selima Abbou, chief executive officer and founder of TYPIK. She said entrepreneurship might be the best way to create job growth in her country.
"I think that the economy and unemployment can be solved by entrepreneurs," Abbou said. "The entrepreneur is the person who is able to develop a company, to generate employment, to think differently and act."
Abbou was among 22 Tunisian entrepreneurs who attended the conference, held December 1 to 2. Moroccan, Algerian and American business pioneers joined the Tunisians at the conference, which was organized by the U.S. State Department in partnership with the U.S.-Algeria Business Council. Inspired by last April's Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship in Washington, the conference featured panels and networking opportunities for up-and-coming North African business leaders.
With a wide range of panels on diverse topics, the conference offered Abbou new perspectives on entrepreneurship.
"I think that I have another view about new tools that might change things, new [ideas] about social entrepreneurship, corporate responsibility," Abbou said. "These were some words that didn't mean anything before in Tunisia, and it made me know that there is something that might be done in these areas. It made us think out of the box."
TYPIK came to life in 2004 when Abbou realized her friends wanted to search for and buy traditional Tunisian products online. TYPIK represents what Abbou calls "typical" Tunisian products like olive oil, textiles and cosmetics. With only 10 employees at her company, Abbou is looking to send her goods beyond Tunisian borders.
"I mainly focused on Tunisia for the past three years and now I am moving outside," Abbou said. "I have worked with Spain and Japan and I would like to try and work mainly with the United States."
M'barek Boukhari, president and general director of Global Payment Gateway, said the conference may have provided his company a chance to grow through networking.
"I made some contacts with Algerians, because I am interested in work in the Algerian market," Boukhari said. "I need some companies to help me understand the Algerian market."
Boukhari started Global Payment Gateway in 2009 to offer customers secure mobile and online payment solutions. Currently staffed by eight employees, Global Payment will add another 15 workers in January 2011 to meet growing business needs.
Boukhari said the conference provided an opportunity to learn how American entrepreneurs create business opportunities.
"I think the idea of giving information about how entrepreneurs succeed in the U.S. and the kinds of entrepreneurship they have is some of the good information we received," Boukhari said.
Ali Belakhoua, founder and manager of Starz Electronics, said the conference will improve trade ties between North Africa and America.
"As an American and a Tunisian who was born in the U.S., there is nothing better for me to see than the two sides getting a little bit closer and see the possibilities of how new companies and old companies in Tunisia can work more closely with American firms and establish, slowly, American ways of doing business in North Africa," Belakhoua said.
An electrical engineer by training, Belakhoua established Starz Electronics in 2002 with five employees. An electronic and cable assembly firm, Starz now has 20 full-time staff members and hires temporary workers as needed. Belakhoua said he is looking forward to future regional entrepreneurship conferences.
"It would be a good opportunity for North Africans to discover the American way of doing business, get to meet some American businessmen," Belakhoua said. "I think it really would be good for both sides."
For more on these entrepreneurs' efforts, see the websites for TYPIK and Starz Electronics. The U.S.-Algeria Business Council has more on U.S.-Algeria trade and the entrepreneurship conference.