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Interview with Roberto Croci, MD of Microsoft for Start-ups in the MEA Region
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Insight Middle East and Africa is delighted to speak to Roberto Croci, Managing Director of Microsoft for Startups in the Middle East and Africa Region

1. Roberto, please tell us about yourself and your role at Microsoft. What inspired you to pursue a career in the tech industry? Which aspects of it do you enjoy the most?

My father has been an entrepreneur and I grew up admiring him for his energy, empathy, and being able to find a way and make things happen despite going through many challenges. I always made my mission to help founders become successful and grow their businesses.

I started my career as a consultant, and I had the opportunity to leave the stressful consulting life for an even more stressful experience joining the founding team of an e-commerce startup. It has been pure energy – learning everything from building the vision and strategy to hiring the initial team, to building the operating model, launching the retail stores and the e-commerce, setting up partnerships, and expanding internationally.

I joined Google in early 2009 as part of a company recently acquired, Doubleclick, feeling like driving a revolution from a startup within the growing Google operations. The job was like driving a revolution to have advertisers, publishers, and agencies find new business models, monetizing data, shifting the paradigm to focus on audiences and data, transforming the way media buying has been traditionally working. I had much fun and learned firsthand how technology can scale and impact the lives of millions of people globally.

I joined Microsoft to build a new division from scratch in the Middle East and Africa focusing on Startups and building a new generation of future customers for Microsoft. I am driven by the impact we can have across the Middle East and Africa in supporting entrepreneurs and founders in building products that address real societal problems, and enable them access to technology and markets to build successful and sustainable businesses. I am inspired by the culture of a company whose mission is to empower every single person and organization in the world to achieve more.

I enjoy the diversity of activities we do across the startup ecosystem, from bridging the gap between corporate and startups to supporting founders around important topics like mental health, diversity, and inclusion, while skilling and empowering youth on transformational leadership, entrepreneurship, and technology. I believe we have a big responsibility in building the next generation of founders across the region and a great opportunity to leave a mark across a young diverse and emerging region like the Middle East and Africa.

2. In your view, how has the Covid-19 pandemic transformed the startup landscape in the MENA region? How can startups successfully navigate this transformation?

Almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re seeing that overall, startups have become more important than they were pre-pandemic. And in fact, they will continue to become even more important after.

The pandemic accelerated the realization that there are big, real problems that we’re facing as a global economy, and only innovative minds can respond to these challenges. Alongside this need for innovation comes investment – without the two working together, there is no solution.

To this end, we’ve seen increased importance placed on startups and corporations to partner with one another to achieve more. Large enterprises have the economies, positioning, and scale to meet real-world challenges and others, but they lack the conceptual spark found in entrepreneurs and their newly formed businesses. Startups, meanwhile, offer innovative solutions, but the impact they can make will be greatly amplified by strategic partnerships with bigger businesses.

To make this impact long-lasting, founders need to think beyond the pandemic and adapt to find new solutions that can address the pain points of our society at large and help larger corporations to extend their capabilities. They need to attract and partner with larger businesses that have been around long enough to have gained a greater understanding of issues such as market strategy, best practices, and compliance.

And that’s exactly what Microsoft for Startups is designed to do. We aspire to bridge the gap between corporates and startups – bringing both ecosystems together and making a profound impact in the world.

3. What was the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the early-stage investment?

The COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly affected every industry and business on the planet in some shape or form. In a global survey, 40% of venture capital firms and 35% of angel investors said that the COVID-19 health crisis would have a direct impact on their early-stage investment activity – and 32% of those investors said that the impact on early-stage investment would be negative.

This impact is equally felt in our region. In a study conducted recently by Microsoft in collaboration with Wamda, EMPWR, and H.A.D Consultants, we found that 55% of entrepreneurs in MENA said that raising investment for their business had caused the most stress, while the pandemic itself was the second-most cited reason for entrepreneurial stress at 33.7% of responses from founders.

What we’re seeing is more Venture Capitalists in the region are investing in series A startups, but we have gaps when it comes to early-stage, as well as for startups that go beyond the series A, to Series B, and so on. We need to connect more VCs and global capital and assets in order to have more smart investments deployed. This will be critical to truly sustaining the growth of startups and igniting the launch of more successful startups in the future.

4. To date, two Dubai startups – Careem and Souq.com, have emerged as unicorns on their investors’ exit. How do you view the potential for more “desert unicorns” to come out of the UAE?

The UAE is one of the best places in the region to do business that nurtures a safe and enabling environment for startups and empowers them for growth.

As recently as 2019, the UAE Ministry of Economy revealed that 95% of the country’s private sector were SMEs or startups. With an estimated economic contribution of around 40% of GDP, these smaller enterprises employ some 42% of the workforce and routinely bring the exact kind of innovations needed for a sustainable future.

To tap into potential such as this, Microsoft has launched a number of initiatives aimed at empowering startups to achieve more. One of these is the Highway to 100 Unicorns initiative, which empowers startup ecosystems across the Middle East, Turkey, and Pakistan to connect, learn and grow with guidance from the best in their industry.

Of course, startups need continued mentoring across everything they do, and that’s exactly why we’ve ensured that entrepreneurs involved in the Highway to 100 Unicorns initiative, got to hear from industry thought leaders on emerging trends, insights, best practices, as well as success stories from regional entrepreneurs. This will empower them to better craft their growth journeys and potentially become the next unicorn in their industries.

5. According to a recent study, a majority of Gen Z aspires to be entrepreneurs. How can young people develop an entrepreneurial mindset?

For young people to understand the power of entrepreneurship, they need to see tangible evidence of it working for their peers. What this means is that partnerships will be key to unlocking the creativity that lies within the minds of our youth.

The responsibility is two-fold. We need larger businesses, corporations, and government agencies to buy into the innovative ideas of young people in order for them and their peers to feel validated in pursuing a career in entrepreneurship, and feel that it could actually yield greater success someday. At the same time, we need to tell the success stories of young people in the region who have ventured out against all odds to make a success of their initiatives.

Entrepreneurs, regardless of age, can play a big role if they have the right mindset – which is falling in love with the problems to find their solutions. There is great potential and higher ambition in our region to solve challenges and even export the technology solutions to other parts of the world to address global issues. But to realize this potential, we need our entrepreneurs to move beyond their first ideas and explore the root of them.

6. What is the winning formula that is key to success for early-stage tech startups? What advice would you give to the startup founders in the MENA region?

One of the challenges that entrepreneurs in our region face is the stigma when it comes to failure. And yet, this is exactly where entrepreneurs should be living – in an environment that allows them to fail, learn, create, and then scale.

We also need a deeper understanding of technology. There is a gap in terms of education and skilling. Within the startup space, we need to see more technical talent – more engineers who can develop solutions that leverage technology; more skilled minds who are able to challenge the status quo and conceptualize innovative, solid solutions; and so on.

And Microsoft for Startups has a role to play here and address some of these challenges and maximize the impact for the founders and startups of the region. Together, with our corporate partners, we take B2B startups onboard and nurture them to become more enterprise-ready and market-ready. To do this, we teach them how to go to market, how to sell to enterprises, how to do proper marketing, etc., which is key to launching a successful business.

We also connect tech start-ups with some of the biggest corporations in the region through programs like our GrowthX Accelerator. In fact, we just announced its first cohort that will consist of more than 15 startups who will meet with corporates to understand their challenges and develop solutions. In this cohort, our partners include Etihad Airways, Unilever, Flow, Akbank, KPMG, and IKEA.

About ROBERTO CROCI

With over 20 years of experience working for the likes of Microsoft and Google, Roberto Croci’s passion lies in innovation, startups, and PEOPLE. Relationship-driven, he has bridged the gap between corporates and startups across more than 20 countries, helping them develop real solutions that solve real-world problems.

A leading innovator in developing ecosystems where startups thrive, Roberto’s expertise and candid approach have kept him in demand with major tech companies throughout his career. In his current role as the Managing Director of Microsoft for Startups, Roberto is building Microsoft’s news division from scratch, including spearheading its expansion and innovation strategy, with the vision to foster a collaborative startup ecosystem to create a better, brighter future for people around the world. Connecting the dots between startups, government agencies, and private sector organizations, Roberto helps organizations adopt the innovation mindset and leverage the technology and nimbleness that startups provide. With an ability to cut through the noise, he works directly with startup founders and encourages them to “think differently” and to “be more curious.”

Roberto is passionate about mentoring young people, helping them develop an entrepreneurial mindset to search for solutions to problems they see in their community, country, or across the globe. He regularly speaks at prominent universities, including Abu Dhabi University and Zayed University, as well as within local school systems, such as the GEMS schools. His vision is to inspire 1 million students and entrepreneurs to build homegrown tech startups that evolve to become global Unicorns.

An in-demand international speaker, Roberto speaks about authentic and creative leadership, employee engagement, mental health, innovation and digital transformation, funding, and startups.

In his personal world, Roberto enjoys reading hardcover books, hiking, running, and spending time with his family. He has summited K2, the second-highest mountain in the world. He enjoys building relationships with passionate, driven people from all sectors, cultures, and walks of life.

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Insight World Editor