Saudi Arabian, Iranian Students Come Together for New Entrepreneurship Course

As an engineering student in Iran, Hoda Noorian founded a startup that tapped data to make truck deliveries more efficient. While she quickly found investors, she says she couldn’t seem to get the company off the ground.

“It’s hard to be a woman entrepreneur in Iran who hasn’t studied business,” said Noorian. “You see the lack of confidence in yourself during negotiations. I needed a way to improve my skills and gain confidence to get the trust and support I needed within Iran.”

Noorian (pictured) was one of four Iranians selected for a new, two-week tech entrepreneurship course at Berkeley-Haas this month focused on business people from Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa—known as the AMENA region. A total of 25 students— a third of them women—participated in the inaugural course July 5-15. They included a mix of aspiring and current entrepreneurs, students, lawyers, government officials, and businesspeople from Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Russia, Qatar, among other countries.

Building a new knowledge base

The course was designed to promote the entrepreneurial mindset in the region’s Muslim-majority countries by helping students build their own entrepreneurial ecosystems—individually, organizationally, and nationally. It was organized by the Berkeley iTechpreneurship-AMENA Center for Building Innovation Economies (BIT-AMENA), which aims to help create thousands of startups within the next 10 years within the region, said center director Dariush Zahedi. The center is part of the Institute for Business Innovation at Berkeley-Haas.

Lecturer Greg La Blanc taught data strategy and business innovation to the visiting students. “The goal is for the students to build a new base of knowledge and a network of connections here at Berkeley-Haas and in the Bay Area investment community that they can immediately tap as they’re building companies and supporting entrepreneurship at home,” he said.

Sessions throughout the first week ranged from exploring the startup journey—with blocks devoted to how to structure and finance a company taught by UC Berkeley lecturer Naeem Zafar—to lectures on conceiving and launching a venture with Haas Senior Entrepreneurship Lecturer Mark Coopersmith. A day was also devoted to design-thinking with Berkeley-Haas Senior Lecturer Sarah Beckman and Elizabeth Kovats, director of the Berkeley Roundtable on Applied Innovation and Design. Students spent the second week visiting venture capital firms and startup accelerators, and got to know the Bay Area entrepreneurship ecosystem.

Creating a culture shift

Essam Hashim, 28, of Saudi Arabia, who works as a sales manager for China-based networking and telecommunications company Huawei, said UC Berkeley’s reputation and his desire to promote entrepreneurship in Saudi Arabia brought him to the program. Saudi Arabia, he noted, is making plans to shift its economy from oil dependence to new enterprises—and he plans to be a part of that shift.

“It’s a new trend in our culture,” he said. “The local people have had some resistance to the idea of entrepreneurship, but the country is changing.  I needed to go to Silicon Valley and this visit has given me the motivation to be involved with entrepreneurship, and to be a part of the new vision for Saudi Arabia.”

Oxana Koreneva, (pictured) a native of Moscow who now works in commodities trading in London, said she was so excited to apply what she’d learned the first day of the course that she skipped dinner and returned to her hotel to do market research. Koreneva, who begins an executive MBA program in the fall at Oxford University, plans to start a company and completely change her career.

“I don’t want to waste any seconds here,” she said.

A second BIT-AMENA cohort is expected to arrive at Berkeley-Haas in December.

Photos of Greg La Blanc with students (top), Hoda Noorian (center), and Oxana Koreneva by Jim Block