Final-year university students in the UAE all seem to share the same sentiment: right now is probably the worst time to be graduating. Observing the wreckage of the ongoing global financial crisis, many graduates prefer to study for another degree than deal with the disappointment of job hunting.
But for those students who want to get started sooner rather than later, Dubai company Al Tamimi Investments has launched The Big Start, a competition aimed at aspiring entrepreneurs. The premise is simple: wow the team at Al Tamimi and get the chance to kick-start your career as CEO of your own business, straight out of university.
In reality, it’s not quite as simple as it sounds. The competition is likely to be fierce and it’s about more than just wowing the judges – the winning idea not only needs to be strong, but it needs to go the distance. Rachael Wunsch, general manager of Al Tamimi, says, ‘We don’t believe that there’s ever a bad time to have a good idea, or a good initiative. And that’s what we’re in the business of doing – setting up sustainable businesses.’
The competition will run in three stages and all final-year undergraduate students enrolled at a UAE university are eligible for the prize. In the first stage, students log on to thebigstart.ae and fill out an online questionnaire with detailed answers about their idea. Wunsch and her team will then choose the best of the bunch to move on to round two. During this time, students will attend business plan workshops to help them translate their ideas and concepts into a formal plan, and the strongest among the group will proceed to the third stage.
For this last round of the competition, students will have to put the finishing touches to their plans and fine-tune their ideas to impress the big guys during their final presentation at Al Tamimi.
The strongest students will finally meet with chairman Essam Al Tamimi, who will pick the winner of the competition. For fans of reality TV, think The Apprentice meets Dragon’s Den.
This isn’t a ‘quick-fix’ competition, either. Combined, the three rounds will take just over six months to complete, but it’s a commitment that Al Tamimi is willing to make. ‘What sets our scheme apart from other initiatives is that rather than just saying, “That’s a great idea, you’ve won,” we actually say, “You have a job with us,”’ explains Wunsch. ‘They’ll come in and they’ll work with the marketing team, the finance team, and the development team. Students will be mentored the entire way through the process. What we’re looking for is to grow a business. We’re hoping that by engaging them now, five or 10 years down the track [we’ll have] many long-term sustainable businesses.’
It may all sound a bit ambitious, but it certainly has the students excited. Nicola Monteath, a student at Middlesex University and an aspiring fashion magazine editor, says, ‘I would never be able to set up and run my own business without first working in the industry for 10 to 15 years to gather all the money and experience. And even if I don’t make it all the way through the competition, it will still look good on my CV, and the workshops and business plan would only help me more. The recognition wouldn’t hurt, either.’
Understandably, the state of the economy plays heavily on the minds of participants. Syed Mohammed Shirazi, an electrical engineering student at Al Ghurair University, says he’s had lots of work experience and has also entered several competitions (some of which he’s won), but adds, ‘While that may look good on my CV, it hasn’t translated into any investment in my plans. If I win the competition, I can finally get started on my own business and it gives me the confidence that someone is willing to invest in my idea during such a rough economy.’ He seems pretty optimistic about his chances in the competition, and is confident that the business initiative he has planned will benefit the UAE as well.
This, says Wunsch, is exactly what the company hopes to find. ‘We’re looking for creativity, something that’s got a niche, and somebody who is really passionate and driven behind that idea.’
The deadline for submissions for the first round is December 17. For more details about the competition or to take part, see www.thebigstart.ae