Ethics, Innovation among Tunisia’s Entrepreneurial Ambitions

For months, the world has followed the unrest and protest in North Africa stemming from unemployment throughout Tunisia and Egypt. asked several Tunisian entrepreneurs to share their stories of business development amid the strife in their region.

Mr. Nazeh Ben Ammar is President of the Tunisian American Chamber of Commerce and multimedia company, Excellencia. He recently spoke on entrepreneurial challenges in the Arab world with Jonathan Ortmans, President of the Public Forum Institute and senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation. Read about their conversation on the Policy Forum Blog.

A man kissing the Tunisian flag

A man kisses the Tunisian flag during a demonstration in Tunis against high prices and unemployment.

Two major events took place in my mother country, Tunisia, while I was in the US. The first was in 1987, when I was completing my bachelor degree at Purdue University. The second was less than a month ago, and I was in California spending four days heading a delegation of major Tunisian entrepreneurs in the IT sector who were taking inspiration from the Silicon Valley spirit to help Tunisians back home.

I am quite accustomed to this environment as I spent nearly two years at Stanford University. My trip back to Silicon Valley was like a pilgrimage for me, 20 years after graduation. Having written my masters thesis on innovation and entrepreneurship, I felt I had returned to my roots. I have applied my studies during my career by focusing on bringing technology, innovative approaches and the entrepreneurship culture back to Tunisia.

For more than a year and a half now I have presided over the Tunisian American Chamber of Commerce (TACC). The chamber has a major role to play in today’s world in developing the entrepreneurial spirit, increasing investment from within Tunisia and the United States, and increasing trade between the two nations.

As a leader of an NGO, a trade company in electronics, an air conditioning company and a real estate company, I felt a lot of institutional pressure coming from a bureaucratic, police-like administration with the stick on our head coming either from customs or the Tunisian IRS. Our doctrine has been to remain ethical and environmentally friendly, which creates quite a challenge when surrounded by unethical practices.

I am proud to be part of the first revolution of the 21st century. The most challenging part is yet to come, and we Tunisians need to bring back our Phoenician, Carthaginian and Mediterranean character and strength of mind. The world is watching us.

The Tunisian American Chamber of Commerce will delegate in Washington, DC March 6-10, 2011.

Tunisia’s Viral Spread of Compassion, Rebellion

For months, the world has followed the unrest and protest in North Africa stemming from unemployment throughout Tunisia and Egypt. asked Bilel Bouraoui and several Tunisian entrepreneurs to share their stories of business development amid the strife in their region.

Portrait of Bilel Bouraoui with arms crossed

Bilel Bouraoui

My co-founders and I left the San Francisco Bay area for Tunisia two years ago to meet Tunisian venture capital funds managers and start an online social media business. We had no idea that we were going to witness one of the first social-media fueled revolutions.

We were aware of the Internet’s potential to change the region and the country where we were born, but we were far from grasping the extent to which the country’s tech-savvy, highly-educated youth would embrace it and integrate it into their lifestyle. It was obvious that a new generation of incredibly talented and creative young people had emerged. Yet, we had no clues to the plethora of skills they collectively showed.

It all started with Mohamed Bouazizi, a jobless young man from a remote town ending his own life after suffering an overwhelming injustice. As his story resounded so heavily in the hearts and minds of his region’s youth, they all stepped in to denounce a regime that seemingly no longer cares for its citizens.

That was the beginning of a month-long spiral during which the regime repressed its people, news and shocking videos spread over the Internet, and more people joined the revolution. Compassion and rebellion spread virally through social media networks. For weeks, young people across the country spent their days chanting in the streets and their nights exchanging information on the web until the whole nation was on the same wavelength. Pressure has mounted, people have died, and as more of them died, more became united and determined until the regime could no longer stand the pressure and collapsed.

Determination, compassion and creativity are the skills that helped the young people of my country achieve what once was considered impossible.

For an Internet entrepreneur, living the “Revolution 2.0” from the inside was a humbling experience. It is a promise for a better future, not only for Tunisia but for all nations with a young and well-connected population.

Turning Setbacks into Success and Sustainability

For months, the world has followed the unrest and protest in North Africa stemming from unemployment throughout Tunisia and Egypt. asked several Tunisian entrepreneurs to share their stories of business development amid the strife in their region.

Headshot of Ziad Oueslati

Ziad Oueslati

Mr. Ziad Oueslati has studied at MINES ParisTech in France and at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in America. He is a Founding Partner and CEO of TunInvest-AfricInvest Group.

Upon completing engineering studies in France and the US, I decided to return to Tunisia to contribute to its development and that of Africa. After a few years with an international bank, I created with two partners the first private equity boutique in North Africa. We shared the same drive to help indigenous entrepreneurs and small and medium enterprises to emerge, grow and excel. In time, we managed to expand our activities to a wide number of countries across the African continent, offering financing, coaching and strategic guidance to nearly 100 entrepreneurs and SMEs.

We learned during that period that the main ingredients for building successful and sustainable businesses in Africa – particularly in Tunisia – are transparency, ethics, interest alignment, market viability and strategic vision. We endeavored to reinforce management with the right people, properly incentivize them, seek larger markets through export strategies, promote social and environmental responsibility, and enhance corporate governance at all levels. This also meant avoiding partnering with politically exposed persons, no matter how enticing the opportunity or intense the pressure. That was particularly difficult in Tunisia over the last 10 years, given the rampant corruption of the family of the ex-Tunisian dictator.

This course has spared us from major setbacks after the regime change. Although we foresee difficulties in the short term, we are confident that the cleaner economic environment will restore investors’ confidence and boost private investment and entrepreneurship.

Tunisian entrepreneurs should invest in people and training and seek smart foreign partnerships that bring true added value and technology transfer. To be sustainable over the long term, they should also dare to go outside their borders to neighboring markets and beyond.

Competition, Expansion in Tunisia’s Future

For months, the world has followed the unrest and protest in North Africa stemming from unemployment throughout Tunisia and Egypt. asked several Tunisian entrepreneurs to share their stories of business development amid the chaos in their region.


Ali Belakhoua stands among tech equipment

Ali Belakhoua

Ali Belakhoua is the Managing Director of STARZ Electronics. He is a Tunisian-American Electrical Engineer with a degree from the University of MO Rolla and was born in St. Louis, Missouri. For more information about Ali’s company, visit

The future is in Tunisia. When my family returned to Tunisia in 2002, we realized that it was the perfect place for starting a small company. We founded STARZ Electronics, an electronic and cable assembly manufacturer, in Bizerte with only six employees. Now we count more than 80 permanent and temporary workers, and we are continuously re-investing in equipment to expand our capabilities.

Tunisia has an abundant supply of educated youth with a high work ethic. We have used this asset to grow our business and be very competitive. I would encourage young graduates to attain a well-rounded education with technical training and a focus on language skills. The government also provides a great deal of help for youth recruitment and training.

Our proximity to Europe makes Tunisia ideal for serving the entire European market and North America. Surface transportation is rapid and inexpensive between Tunisia and Europe, so we provide our customers a perfect alternative to subcontracting work in Eastern Europe. Our labor costs are almost as competitive as those in China. English and French language skills are also keys to our success.

The challenge is to continue to expand. We need to spread the word about Tunisia’s potential and highlight the countless success stories of businesses that have found the perfect operating environment here.  For companies moving operations from Europe or the U.S., Tunisia is an ideal alternative to China. 

I Work, Therefore I Exist

For months, the world has followed the unrest and protest in North Africa stemming from unemployment throughout Tunisia and Egypt. asked several Tunisian entrepreneurs to share their stories of business development amid the chaos in their region. 

Headshot of Chema Gargouri

Chema Gargouri

Chema Gargouri is the manager and major shareholder of the Centre for Applied Training, a private company focused on business development. Six years ago, Gargouri founded the Tunisian American Association for Management Studies, a community development and micro lending NGO located in a very poor area of Tunisia’s capital.

For individuals facing exclusion and unequal chances, entrepreneurship is not only an economic answer for unemployment, it builds self-esteem and human dignity. The failure of our society to make men and women feel like full citizens can only lead to frustration, humiliation and despair.  Mohamed Bouazizi’s act of desperation is a tragic example of what can happen when opportunities for young men and women seem non-existent.

Youth are entrepreneurial by nature, but efforts to encourage and support these tendencies were stymied in the past. Today, we must do more to enhance that entrepreneurial spirit and attitude. This is not a choice, but a duty. As a Tunisian woman and an entrepreneur, I recognize that the only difference between me and a micro entrepreneur in a poor community is opportunity. I am no more intelligent or competent than a Mohamed Bouazizi. I am just luckier.

The old regime did not support an independent civil society, including development NGOs.  But in 2006, our NGO, the Tunisian American Association for Management Studies (TAAMS), started working in Borj Louzir, a poor and sensitive area of Tunis. With the support of a handful of international organizations that believed in our mission, TAAMS succeeded in reaching more than 400 families, 1000 individuals and 350 micro entrepreneurs.   

TAAMS’s relationship with our entrepreneurs is built on micro lending coupled with a package of services to their families. Our micro-credit programs offer households the chance to secure an ongoing income, while our youth programs help the children of these entrepreneurs improve their results at school. Thus, the story that I can share is best summed up by the testimony of one 9-year-old boy: “Thank you, TAAMS, for saving me and my family.” I will never forget his face and what a gift he gave me personally.

Reinvention Pays Off for Michigan Brothers

Karin Rives writes on climate change and energy topics for

A Luma Resources plant in Michigan

Robert and Gary Allen, two brothers whose Michigan roofing company fell on hard times when the economic recession hit in 2008, have reason to smile today.

In 2010, they secured a $500,000 federal loan through an economic stimulus act to retool their struggling roofing plant. Their new solar shingle business, Luma Resources, took off as the market for alternative energy grew. Five new employees have come on board so far, and the company expects to eventually have a staff of at least 20.

“In Robert’s words, ‘We reinvented ourselves,’” President Obama said, recognizing the brothers in his January 25 State of the Union Address. “That’s what Americans have done for over 200 years: We reinvented ourselves. And to spur on more success stories like the Allen Brothers, we’ve begun to reinvent our energy policy.” The Allen brothers listened to the president sitting in a coveted spot next to First Lady Michelle Obama.

On Wednesday morning, the day after the speech, phones were ringing steadily at Luma Resources.
“We’re getting a lot of inquiries about our products,” said Gayle Talmadge, the company’s business manager.

Is Corruption Good for Business?

Believe it or not, corruption can help entrepreneurs in some situations. Some research points out that bribes can grease the cogs of bureaucracy in highly regulated economies and make it possible for entrepreneurs to achieve their goal of starting a business. But make no mistake: in general, corruption is a deterrent to potential entrepreneurs, and countries should strive for less regulation rather than more corruption.
In sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and other regions with widespread corruption and difficult business climates, the entrepreneurial spirit is often stifled, and when it is not, entrepreneurial energy is channeled into informal sectors outside formal legal and financial systems. Unregistered firms may thrive: in some countries the informal sector makes up around 40 percent or more of economies. But such businesses don’t contribute much to the public welfare as they don’t pay taxes and sometimes pose a danger to the public. Informal businesses themselves rarely if ever are capable of reaching their growth potential because of impediments of an informal economy: “higher capital and transportation costs, more storage problems, greater difficulty hiring quality staff and less ability to enforce contracts”.

Countries that want to tap entrepreneurial energy start with relaxing their regulatory regimes. This reduces the potential for corruption. For example, according to the World Bank’s Doing Business 2011 report, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Hungary have made significant progress in deregulating their economies, thereby improving conditions for starting a business. This promotes much stronger economic growth than the opposite strategy – increasing regulation and counting on entrepreneurs to make the system work by greasing the wheel.

Dutch Students Reduce Smog, Increase Profits

Ruben Antvelink and Frank Schouten are two of the millions of students around the world participating in Global Entrepreneurship Week Nov. 15-21. Ruben and Frank are co-founders of Eco Tuk B.V. in the Netherlands. Eco Tuk offers environmentally-friendly solutions for auto rickshaws. The company won the 2010 Wozzie Award, created by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak to stimulate creative scientific talent.

Ruben Antvelink and Frank Schouten

In 2005, the two of us started our bachelor of automotive engineering program at the HAN University of Applied Sciences (Hogeschool van Arnhem en Nijmegen) in Arnhem, Netherlands. After a couple of regular student jobs and participating in a minor business venture, we were convinced that entrepreneurship was the direction to go to and started the successful company, Your Car Import.

HAN University decided to enter in the Hybrid TukTuk Battle in May 2008. This battle was focused on creating a simple add-on solution for the highly polluting and gas guzzling Indian auto rickshaws, better known as TukTuks. HAN University asked us to lead the business team. We had to create a feasible business model and a plan to market the solution.

During the final event in Chennai, India, the jury experts proudly announced that the Eco Tuk team won the Hybrid TukTuk Battle due to its solution, which reduced the TukTuk’s operating costs and pollution:

  • Reduction of 54 percent fuel costs
  • Reduction of 40 percent CO2
  • Reduction of 99 percent small particle emissions (main cause of smog)

With the grand prize in our pockets and Indian companies interested, we investigated the opportunities to market the solution all over India and eventually started the company Eco Tuk B.V.

Eco Tuk’s development team is busy with lowering costs and prototyping their solution called “LPG-LDI,” while the two of us are busy finding the right partners to produce, assemble and sell the kit all over India.  (LPG is a fuel, and LDI stands for Liquefied Direct Injection.)

The LPG-LDI solution is designed to serve one of the world’s poorest societies in which most individuals don’t earn enough money to buy an Eco Tuk conversion kit. To serve these communities, Eco Tuk has introduced a business model similar to your mobile phone contract.

The Eco Tuk conversion kit makes the world’s poorest societies allies in the environmental and climate issues, while the two of us make profit.

To keep up with developments from Frank and Ruben, follow them on twitter @EcoTuk.

An Italian Silicon Valley?

Marcello Orizi is one of the millions of students around the world participating in Global Entrepreneurship Week Nov. 15-21. He is co-founder and software strategist for Prossima Isola, an innovative information and communication technologies company in Sardinia, Italy. He also leads two startups, WhereIsNow and Abbuydda.

Marcello Orizi

Three years ago, I resigned from a very good job in Switzerland and returned to my birthplace, Sardinia, an island in Italy, to create my professional dream named Prossima Isola (“Next Island”). Prossima Isola is an Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) company that aims to be a leading company in innovation.

During the last three years, we created a great team of 10 people and have made different projects for our customers. We also launched two startups, Abbuydda and WhereIsNow.

Abbuydda is the first social network for aggregated purchases, a way to repeatedly buy products together with other people belonging to the same group. The goal is to offer producers a new way to sell a guaranteed volume of goods at a better price.

WhereIsNow introduces the concept of self-updating documents, removing the problem of knowing where the latest version of a given document is now. It best fits with Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, where a lot of important documents are shared among people who usually use different systems to manage documents.

Recently we joined a co-working network (Cowo) in order to host many individuals inside our offices and create a place where people can share ideas and talents.

I like to consider myself a romantic entrepreneur, and I enjoy creating networks with other entrepreneurs who share this vision. Daniele Idini, my friend and co-founder at Prossima Isola, is surely this kind of entrepreneur.

Last year, Daniele and I were selected to participate in a road show in Silicon Valley, California, and New York City as finalists of the Italian “Mind the Bridge” business plan competition. These places, especially Silicon Valley, gave us the inspiration to try to create a similar environment in Sardinia, Italy … a dream.

Learn more about Marcello and his projects at his blog.

Serbian Biz Owner Gives Advice to Other ‘Geeks’

Sinisa Rudan is one of the millions of students around the world participating in Global Entrepreneurship Week Nov. 15-21. He is founder and owner of Magic Wand Solutions Studio, an IT consultancy and outsourcing company. Sinisa is also the multimedia editor of InfoM, a Journal of Information technology and multimedia systems. To learn more about Sinisa’s work, visit his website.

Sinisa Rudan

Magic Wand Solutions (MWS) offers clients innovative IT solutions — information systems, Web/CD presentations, Internet marketing campaigns — driven by everyday research, enriched with a multimedia approach.  I would like to share with others some principles that have helped MWS become the successful company it is today.

Entrepreneurs should find the balance between their personal mission and the mission of their business.  I choose clients and partners that offer challenging interdisciplinary projects that cry out for creativity. At MWS, we have several well-known organizations and celebrities as clients or partners in Serbia and around the world.

Most IT “geeks” have not finished studies that would give us management skills, and that is a problem. Even if you are the best in your field, you still need to make your team the best. I suggest attending a variety of business management seminars among others.  After receiving certification in internet business planning and marketing, we built several business plans for our projects and offered more complete solutions to clients, from development to marketing. Now we focus more on complex international projects.

Often beginners make the mistake of focusing only on production. Never devote less than 10 percent of your resources to research and improvement of your processes. Only this way can you provide cutting-edge solutions.

Although it is nice to be an IT consultancy and outsourcing company, it is even nicer to enjoy building our own products. At MWS, we are finding new ways to make our own ideas appeal to investors and customers.

I put myself 100 percent into a project, but I often see people who — after putting themselves 75 percent into it – say, “I have put enough of myself into this” or “I don’t want to lose more time!” The truth is, if the project doesn’t achieve success, then all of the invested time is lost.

We are taught to take business rationally, to focus on profit. However, I suggest that if you feel a particular project is good for you — even a non-commercial one — take it, because it will advance your skills or expand your network, possibly bringing you other, more-profitable projects. Choose projects you love. Do your business from the heart, and business comes to you!