Aytunc Guler, who is a political science and economics student, had a very UAE-centric concept to pitch at a recent Dragons’ Den-style event at New York University Abu Dhabi.
Hala, a “truly Khaleeji urban apparel brand” was the idea dreamt up by Mr Guler, 22, from Turkey, who felt his “made in the desert” fashion label, featuring snapback caps with a local flavour, has the potential to reach 190,000 people, with an estimated potential market value of Dh28.5 million.
“The idea came to me one day very clearly in the parking lot of Yas Mall,” explains Mr Guler. “I thought ‘for the last four years I’ve been shopping here in Abu Dhabi and buying T-shirts and caps that read ‘New York’ ‘Miami’ or ‘Vegas’. Why aren’t there fashion items that represent this part of the world? There is a very rich heritage and culture here which can be represented easily through clothing items”.
Mr Guler was one of 17 students receiving a taste of what it’s like to pitch business ideas to four of the UAE’s most successful investors, all while being watched by an audience of fellow students.
The group had enrolled on the university’s newest course in innovation and entrepreneurship and were divided into five groups and given just three weeks to come up with a workable business proposal.
They then had five minutes to dazzle four locally based investment tycoons with their ideas. These judges, who gave up their time on a voluntary basis, were Jean-Pierre Mondalek, the UAE general manager of Uber Technologies, Louis Lebbos, founding partner at AstroLabs, Tarig El Sheikh, managing director of Beneple and co-founder of Knot Standard, and Issa Aghabi, head of investments at Twofour54.
Teaching the course, held last month, was visiting NYU lecturer Owen Davis, who as the managing director of NYU Seed, a seed stage venture capital fund in New York City, is used to assessing pitches from budding entrepreneurs.
“It’s a full-term course that’s taught in a very compressed space of time,” explains Mr Davis. “These students have been living, eating and breathing entrepreneurial skills – it’s very intensive.”
Students Candice Zhou and Yoliya Lokashenko devised a Local Buddy Travel app, connecting intrepid travellers with locals willing to act as tour guides. “This is an app for anybody who wants to travel like a local, with a local,” explains Ms Zhou. But the judges did not consider the idea a moneymaker. “All the apps coming up now are eliminating the middle man, so there is less human interaction,” one judge commented after the pitch. “Yes, some people are nostalgic and miss that human interaction – but you are swimming against the human tide.”
Waha marketplace – a proposal to connect artisans from the GCC with customers around the world in an online platform – did not receive the judges’ support either; they felt there is not a strong enough market for hand-made products made in the GCC.
It was the social restaurant reviewing app, Feed Me, that was crowned the judges’ favourite.
“This is a restaurant discovery platform, tailored to your tastes”, explains winning team member Isaac Marshall, 21. “Our app enables you to choose a restaurant based on the recommendations of the people in your own friendship network.”
Mr Marshall is an American NYU Stern Business School student who flew to Abu Dhabi from New York to attend the course, so highly does he value Mr Davis’s entrepreneurial wisdom. Eighteen months ago in New York, he and fellow team member Krishan Mistry, 21, had pitched Mr Davis a business concept they were working on at the time.
“Owen tore it apart, saying it was a terrible idea. At the time, we were like ‘nah this is awesome. Forget you, man’. But the business ended up failing for pretty much the same reasons he’d mentioned. So we were pretty impressed by his insights. When Krishan mentioned that this class was happening, I was really excited to try for it with him.”
Eighteen-year-olds Cristobal Esteve from Mexico City and the Emirati Fatima Ghobash, from Abu Dhabi, were the youngest members of the winning team.
“As a freshman, I was nervous, thinking at first ‘am I capable of taking this class?’” says Ms Ghobash. “But I learnt so many things – not just to do with entrepreneurship, but life lessons about looking into the future and planning ahead.”
While Mr Guler’s Hala did not receive the judge’s backing – “You are going to have to be constantly innovating and asking yourself ‘what’s next?’ to differentiate your design,” one judge advised – it did win the audience vote.
In fact, Mr Guler already has an Emirati business partner with plans to turn his idea into a real business.
So did Mr Davis feel his students have what it takes to make it as entrepreneurs?
“Doing something for real – getting a company going, building the product, refining it and getting customers is the next step. I think that they have the framework, certainly, regardless of what they do.”
None of the judges, however, were tempted to dig into their own pockets to invest.
“We don’t invest at this stage, this is much too early for us” says Mr Davis. “That’s a whole different ball game.”
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