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Entrepreneurship Knows No Nationality, Gender, Religion or Border

Nermin Sa’d founded the second of two startups after earning international recognition at a State Department sponsored innovation contest three years ago, an award that established her as an entrepreneur, and has made her an inspiration for other women in the Middle East and North African region.

The accomplishments did not come easy for the Jordanian engineer, particularly since she was seeking to make her mark in a largely male-dominated field: engineering. In 2012, Sa’d, who lives in Saudi Arabia, established, a company that offers mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and other engineering services. Her firm exclusively employs female engineers, and conducts its business online.

Nermin Sa'd presenting awards at 2016 GIST competition


Sa'd presenting the Tech-I awards at the 2016 GIST Tech-I Competition | Global Entrepreneurship Summit

A year after establishing the company, Sa’d was selected to join 29 other finalists to compete in the State Department’s Global Innovation Through Science and Technology (GIST) Tech-I Competition, held that year in Malaysia. The competition, which AAAS has administered since 2014, trains entrepreneurs from developing nations, and helps jumpstart their businesses through mentorship, coaching, networking opportunities, and seed capital awards.

Sa’d took home the GIST Outstanding Female Entrepreneur award – a recognition that changed her life, and injected valuable interest in her business at a critical time. Sa’d said participation in, and recognition from, the contest conveyed credibility to her enterprise just as it was getting off the ground.  “I was shocked by the number of interviews and contracts that came to my company,” said Sa’d. Two years later, her initial staff of five female engineers had grown to a network of as many as 50 engineers on call to handle specific projects. 

It is an experience that many GIST Tech-I participants share. The competition seeks to empower young inventors to create products or build businesses that can improve living conditions in their hometowns. Separate GIST programs provide on-the-ground mentorship opportunities, promote in-country entrepreneurship networks, establish community-led groups of young science and technology entrepreneurs, and offer a global online network that connects participants with leading U.S. experts

GIST Tech-I Mentor Nermin Sa'd with 2016 competitors


Having competed in 2013, Sa'd returned to GIST in 2016 as a mentor for the Tech-I Competitors. | AAAS

Since its launch in 2011, the GIST initiative has engaged over 2.8 million innovators around the world; provided training to the founders of over 5,000 startups that have generated more than $110 million in revenue, according to the State Department. A total of 18O finalists have participated in the six Tech-I Competitions since they launched. This year, over 1,000 applicants from 104 emerging economies vied to be tapped as finalists.  

Similar initiatives seek to spark innovation by young engineers and innovators. The Hult Prize Foundation, for example, holds a global, annual student competition for teams of entrepreneurs drawn from universities worldwide. The African Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Program, based in Nigeria, offers a nine-month program to train and mentor African entrepreneurs.

Sara Klucking, the State Department’s global science engagement official, applauds complimentary private and public sector initiatives that, like the GIST Tech-I Competition, foster science and technology entrepreneurship and innovation in emerging economies.

"The participants hailed from as far away as Serbia and Ukraine, to Egypt and Peru. Four finalists were from Ecuador, Armenia, Bhutan, and Paraguay, four nations whose residents were invited to participate for the first time this year."

Juan David Romero / AAAS News
Click here to read more about the 2016 GIST Tech-I winners

“Whatever country they’re from, whether it’s the U.S. or anywhere else, everybody could use help and that is what GIST is designed to do,” said Jonathan Margolis, the State Department’s acting deputy assistant secretary for science, space and health. The program is intended to motivate and inspire those with a knack for entrepreneurship, he added. 

Charles Dunlap, program director for the AAAS Research Competitiveness Program, which leads the GIST Tech-I competition, said participants – even those who take no award home – still win. “They’re still going on and starting businesses, and they’re influencing and building networks in their countries.”

Mawano Kambeu of Zambia, founder of Dot Com Zambia, a technology company specializing in e-commerce platforms in the Zambian and South African markets, exemplifies a GIST Tech-I competitor who successfully assembled an influential network after returning home.

In 2014, Kambeu competed in GIST Tech-I and was awarded second-place in the start-up category. After returning to Zambia, his company attracted some $500,000 in business, and recently he sealed a $30,000 deal with a telecom company to use innovative approaches to expand the customer base.

GIST 2014 Competitor Mawano Kambeu


Mawano Kambeu of Zambia at the 2014 GIST Tech-I Competition in Marrakech, Morocco. | AAAS

The competition opened other doors, too. Its workshops and mentorships convey information on how to manage and grow a new company, knowledge that boosted Kambeu’s confidence. His company also attracted media attention upon his return home, and the company continues to be cited in the media each year the competition is held.

Alvin Chai of Malaysia, who was a competitor along with Sa’d in 2013, provided another example of GIST Tech-I giving contestants an opportunity to build professional networks and forge lasting friendships. Chai and Sa’d each ended up attending this year’s GIST Tech-I competition in California. Chai, founder of Netizen Testing, a technology company that helps organizations analyze the online behavior and user experience of customers and now operates in six countries, was a panelist. Sa’d served as a mentor. Both agreed that catching up with fellow contestants and exchanging ideas about their businesses prove invaluable.

Sa’d and Karen Gordon, a former GIST Tech-I mentor whom Sa’d first met at the 2013 competition, have taken networking to another level. They are now business partners working together to create a bra that can detect early breast cancer through smart technology.

“I wish everyone worldwide knew that entrepreneurship has no nationality. It has no gender. It has no religion. It has no borders. It has nothing to do with any of these aspects. Entrepreneurship is the creativity of finding solutions for a problem. That’s it,” said Sa’d.